SZA Is Paving the Way for Black ‘Soft Girls’ in Music

Urban dictionary defines a ‘soft girl’ as someone who loves cute accessories, pastels and shimmery makeup or clothes, from tennis skirts and mom jeans to chunky trainers. A ‘soft girl’ is sensitive and carries a sweetness about them. This aesthetic is generated from the soft boy trope which is Kpop-inspired, but also affiliated with indie influences such as ‘the manic pixie dream girl’. Soft girl tropes have not yet, then, made a big impression in R&B waves with differences in cultural origins. 

SZA picks up the ‘soft girl’ representation for black girls in music, most notably in the R&B scene. She does not conform to be the ultra-sexualised, young black woman in R&B, nor does she negate this. 

One google search of the ‘soft girl’ shows a hegemonic view of fair-skinned women in plaid skirts, striped tees, trainers and butterfly accessories. For SZA, it is not all about the clothes in what she represents. Although the musician does don a lot of baggy t-shirts, jumpers and chunky kicks, she has also embraced loving her body and self in empowering bikini and crop top looks in her music videos. In this alone, SZA represents the power to choose; she shows that black women can be demure, perceived as cute and shy in this unexplored softness and simultaneously show sex appeal and empowerment. It does not need to be one or the other. R&B culture is hugely influenced by hip-hop culture which has a back-log of black women represented as the jezebel, a sexually-promiscuous, seductive woman. This dominating uber-sexual imagery of black women in music is why the existence of SZA is crucial to show that we do not exist solely as strong and controlling or as sexual objects. SZA and her music is also important for representation for shy black girls, the love-struck and ‘soft girls’.

2017’s Ctrl LP is a waxed lyrical, tell-all open diary into SZA’s world. Her heartbreak, insecurities and growth is relatable on many levels which goes towards making this album one of the best of all time in my books. 

Supermodel is a brazenly raw opening to the album. SZA lays down her insecurities about a “temporary love” and sings: “why am I so easy to forget like that?”, “no need for prettier women” and the heart-breaking “I could be your supermodel, if you see it in me, I don’t see myself”. The truth in the lyrics pining for someone to see the supermodel in you is a sensitive spot for women in society and this is excellently laced with recorded voice snippets from SZA’s grandma giving sage love and life advice. The track maintains sombre, repetitive guitar chords throughout that instantly place you in an introspective and emotional headspace which carries across to Drew Barrymore (DB). The track DB is named after the actress as she represents a much-loved and relatable woman through her rom-com film depictions and own tumultuous life. The raw vulnerability and desire to care with lyrics “is it warm enough for you?” is compelling in SZA’s empathetic tone. She insecurely apologises “sorry I’m so clingy” and questions “do you really love me or just want to love me down?”, two moods relatable to modern daters. Her softness that is played through other heartfelt tracks like Normal Girl is accompanied by stripped-back lo-fi beats. From wishing to be a normal girl and “the type of girl you take home to your momma”, SZA jumps to “running from love” in 20 Something and a poignant reflection of the self.

On the flipside, SZA embraces the lust and enticement of taboo with tracks The Weekend, which Rolling Stone labelled a ‘side chick manifesto’, and the empowering Go Gina in which the musician states she belongs to nobody and that it works for her.

The album is partly about becoming accustomed to not having control in love, to being vulnerable and showing this soft side. The story begins with the recorded dialogue: “and that’s my greatest fear – if I lost control, or did not have control, things would just be fatal”. But in the end, there is a clear map of growth as SZA moves through this fear and closes the album with her grandma continuing: “if it’s an illusion…I’m going to hang onto it because the alternative is an abyss. It’s just a hole, a darkness, a nothingness – who wants that? And that’s what I think about control.”

Perhaps the illusion could be alluded to love – either way SZA is learning to let go. Within this work, SZA sculpts a notable section for the ‘soft girl’ within R&B and for black women. Black women who are rarely given the space (through societal expectations and stereotypes) to be ‘soft girls’, to be regarded as demure and innocent in love too – SZA’s representation grants us this acknowledgment.

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