‘Torture’, ‘agony’, or prank? Meet the Oxford student behind the most excruciating song of 2021

Sarah Brand has been dubbed the "new Rebecca Black"
Sarah Brand has been dubbed the "new Rebecca Black"

The story of Sarah Brand resists an opening line. Depending on who you ask, the 22-year-old singer-songwriter is an elaborate troll, a deluded sugar baby, or the mastermind behind one of the 21st century’s greatest sociological experiments. In less than a month, over 700,000 people have watched the music video for Brand’s Red Dress, an unprecedented pop song about judgmental parishioners directed, produced, choreographed and edited by Brand herself.

The polite headlines about Red Dress call the song “divisive”. The video opens with Brand strutting into a church while a handful of expressive extras sneer at her in disgust – shortly afterwards, we see Brand sexy dancing in the pews and hair-tossing at the altar, before later dancing with a bespectacled priest. This is all fairly orthodox, however, compared to Brand’s singing style.

In the most popular of the 4,000 comments posted underneath Brand’s video, a YouTuber writes, “It’s like the original version of this song doesn’t exist. Only the karaoke version.” The second most popular comment says: “I never thought a person could successfully miss every note of their own song!”

Speaking over the phone from Los Angeles, Brand is infinitely more positive than her comment section. “There have been moments where I felt a little overwhelmed by it,” she says of the negative attention, “but I just try to remind myself that people who are expressing that kind of sentiment have often been the victim of it themselves.”

Brand was born in the Midwest but grew up in LA before coming to Oxford to pursue her master’s degree in sociology (she is currently finishing her studies remotely). She wrote Red Dress a year ago while learning to play the guitar – she says the moment the chorus came to her, she immediately pictured the accompanying music video. “The idea was to create this cinematically holistic portrayal of judgement,” Brand says. “I’ve always been fascinated by religion and this inclusion-exclusion paradigm with the church community… In the story, there’s church insiders sitting in the pews judging the outsider who I portray.”

When Brand first wrote her song about judgement, she could hardly have imagined just how many people would end up judging her. Some have labelled her the new Rebecca Black – her church-themed song is arguably the Sunday to Black’s decade-old Friday, a poorly written auto-tuned pop hit that propelled the then-13-year-old to viral superstardom. Black was mercilessly bullied at the time and sobbed over hateful comments; the police were even forced to investigate death threats sent to the singer via email and phone. Six years later, in an essay titled “What I Learned from Being a Target of Internet Hate at Age 13”, Black wrote that, “the onslaught of negative attention I received was so sudden and so intense that I wasn’t sure I would survive.”

Brand has received her fair share of hate – the words “torture” and “agony” have appeared in her comment section. Some have noted that Red Dress is strikingly similar to Taylor Swift’s Wildest Dreams. Others – Brand says – assume she is a spoilt little girl playing around with “daddy’s money”. But many commenters are simply interested in uncovering who exactly Brand is and how exactly her music video came about. When internet sleuths uncovered her academic credentials, they began to believe that Red Dress is a grand social experiment that is somehow part of her studies. Yet sleuth-ier sleuths debunked this – resurfacing old open-mic videos of an undergraduate Brand in which her singing style is identical to that in Red Dress (these videos have now been taken down).

Brand is coy about what exactly she set out to do, but clever and clear about what it is that she has done. Speaking with Newsweek, she said: “I’d like to leave the intention in question, and focus on impact.”

“The way I sing the song is eliciting discomfort and judgement. And so it’s kind of like an immersive viewing process where I bring the real world audience into the church pews,” she tells me – whatever her intention, she’s now more than happy for the song to be an uncomfortable viewing experience. “I think the way in which I sing the song does reflect the theme.”

Perhaps it’s a convenient answer – Brand is giggly and gentle, but has a politician’s knack for skirting questions about her history with singing – but ultimately, it’s not untrue. Sarah Brand has created a video that throws a spotlight on judgement. She is most effusive when I bring up the fact that the internet repeatedly picks on young female singers – between Black and Brand, a teen named Alison Gold was mercilessly mocked for her song Chinese Food, while Girls Just Gotta Have Fun singer Sophia Grace was derided by grown men when she was just 10 years old.

“No one would say that about a young male filmmaker,” Brand says of the “daddy’s money” and “sugar daddy” speculation. Red Dress has strong Madonna-whore themes, as Brand portrays a sultry outsider in the eponymous outfit as well as a judgemental insider in a white dress. “History repeats itself because people have trouble sitting with discomfort and sitting with someone who does something differently,” Brand says.

But did those who worked with Brand on the video not voice this discomfort or express doubts about her vision? “As a director on set, I’m very focused and I have a very detailed shot list and I follow it quite efficiently, so there wasn’t necessarily an opportunity for that kind of discussion,” Brand says. Two friends worked with her as production assistants and she hired a freelance cameraman and videographer, Gordon Gronbach, who told Newsweek that he was “not deeply involved in the planning” of the video (Gronbach’s LinkedIn says he has worked for BBC and ITV and that he charges £800 plus VAT for a day’s shoot). Largely, Brand masterminded the whole thing by herself – soliciting extras on Facebook, approaching Saint Michael’s church for permission to film there, and organising Covid tests for those on the shoot.

In total, the whole shoot lasted around six hours earlier this summer. “I was nervous in the morning, very nervous. I’d been planning it for a month or two and I had invested so much into getting this to actually happen,” Brand says. And yet once the camera started rolling, “the nervousness all went away.” Brand has a history with freelance video production – creating videos for the department of sociology at the University of California and communications company Intracom Systems.

And while her voice isn’t her greatest talent, Brand is talented. Her video is an impressive accomplishment when viewed as a one-(young wo)man production. “I would like to be a director,” she says (speaking with Newsweek, Gronbach said that the Red Dress video seemed to be “an exercise in becoming a video director” for Brand). “I’m looking for artists to work with that want to create music videos and media that is very sociological, and deals with topics such as religion and inequality and feminism,” Brand says. She has also written a feature film “that is an extension of the Red Dress music video”.

Perhaps one of Brand’s most enviable talents is the way she deals with negativity – without so much as a lip wobble, she labels some of her hate comments “clever” and “witty”. Her Twitter profile is full of tweets thanking those who sincerely (and not so sincerely) praise her video. “It helps having a very supportive family unit,” she explains – she’s also able to zoom out and view the criticism more philosophically. “Often when we’ve been judged ourselves, we adopt the persona of the judger. And that’s a cycle I’d really like to break.”

Undoubtedly Brand will not be the last young woman mocked online for creating music – an entire subreddit called Crappy Music has 40,000 members dedicated to what they call “ear cancer” (at the time of writing, the latest post on the sub features a blonde woman flatly singing about an abusive ex). While The X Factor was finally axed in July after 17 years on air, it seems our desire to jeer at wannabe singers has not disappeared with it. I ask Brand what advice she’d give to the next (next) Rebecca Black.

Rebecca Black was mercilessly trolled for her hit Friday - FilmMagic
Rebecca Black was mercilessly trolled for her hit Friday - FilmMagic

“I think to trust the process that – for whatever reason – your work is getting out there,” she says, “And if you had that drive to put it out initially, just trust that.” She also adds that it’s important to “trust the value of kindness.”

When Oxford University’s Green Templeton College wrote up coverage of Brand’s first music video, Fantasy, in June they noted that she was “pursuing her musical goals while also studying”. While Brand now says that she wants to direct music videos and possibly write more songs, singing will not be her priority.

“I feel really passionately about this intersection of sociology and mainstream media. I would really like to see more sociology and introspective content out there,” she says. “So I’m hoping that my career can contribute to that.”

The story of Sarah Brand resists a closing line. If this was all a big social experiment, then Brand is surely in line for a Distinction. If she’s a singer saving face with some clever sociological spin, then we’re faced with a paradox: that, in itself, is evidence of the talent many says she lacks. But Sarah Brand seems to be more than any one comment section can contain: she is an editor, producer, singer, songwriter, director and student who – faced with the kind of attention that would see many of us crumble – has demonstrated incredible maturity. And through it all, she’s had plenty of fun. “I had a blast,” she says of her shoot, “And I learnt a lot.”