Alone in my room, screaming along to Phoebe Bridgers’ “I Know the End,” I tried to push away the heat of August, folding it into the strong wind of depression that had stuck with me since March. Similar to many 20-somethings, I was feeling heavy doses of pandemic-induced struggles: touch starvation, grief for those we’d lost throughout 2020, and longing for the impossible—impulsive dates, crowded concerts, accidental eye contact with a stranger on a subway car, and, above all, for a sense of queer community. I found myself reckoning with my most severe bouts of depression and anxiety, and while some people obsessively knitted or baked as a coping mechanism, others faced their issues head-on by brain-dumping emotions into a private journal (or investing in an affirming therapist). But those of us who were practically raised by online fandoms in their formative years—finding solace in Tumblr friends and queer community—did what we know best: we ran to the internet and began fixating on our latest obsessions.
Last August, when I was more depressed than ever before, I found myself glued to my phone. Twitter felt like my second home, and TikTok quickly became my outlet for finding vicarious joy—a safe space where I could watch never-ending loops of well-dressed lesbians spinning clay on pottery wheels to sad indie songs. I consistently scrolled through queer women and nonbinary TikTokers throwing it back to “Motion Sickness” by Phoebe Bridgers. I never performed the dance myself, but being witness to a flock of queer people dancing to one of Bridgers’ saddest songs about an emotionally abusive relationship opened my world to an entire group of people who made me feel held: Pharbz, or what Phoebe Bridgers fans call themselves. An odd amalgamation of queer post-grads who struggle with depression, this corner of the internet is tied together by a love for the depressed internet queen herself, Phoebe Bridgers.
As an OG fan of Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus, I was immediately enthralled by Bridgers’ platinum blonde locks and powerhouse vocals after listening to the trio’s self-titled 2018 EP, boygenius. I was soon streaming her debut LP, Stranger in the Alps, and her collab album with Conor Oberst, Better Oblivion Community Center. As I listened to “Georgia” for the fifth time in a single hour, it became official—my sad, gay self was fully invested in all things Phoebe Bridgers. I couldn’t tell if I wanted to look like her (I bleached my hair regardless), date her, or both, but she quickly became my favorite musician who embodied the cool girl I was both terrified of and always wanted to be.
Her music and online persona unquestionably sparked a fan base of depressed sapphics when her 2020 LP, Punisher, was released in late June. She sang unreleased tracks on Instagram Live, wearing her favorite pajamas while performing from her bed, representing an entire community of quarantined Gen Zers who had just graduated and would rather lay in bed all day than apply for jobs. Around the same time, I caved and decided to hop on TikTok, immersing myself in gay TikTok in all its glory. From cottagecore lesbians to DIY queers, my favorites of them all were the Pharbz. They obsessively ranked the songs off of Punisher and danced to “Motion Sickness,” doing choreography created by TikTok user @illbetheartist, a lesbian themself. By this point, it was clear that the end of the pandemic was nowhere to be seen, and as my mental health continued to decline, I stayed around for a while, claiming this side of TikTok as my virtual home.
On the app, we cried over her songs together, lusted over her, and even turned her own song, “Graceland Too,” into a yearning anthem for her and other sapphic icons. Its repetitive lyric—“whatever she wants”—soon became a communal cry from all who were simping over the 26-year-old artist, and it was clear that if you stanned Phoebe Bridgers, you were most likely a queer woman or nonbinary person. On top of her queer appeal, many users have branded themselves as “mentally ill lesbians” and opened up their videos to comments from similar folks, creating a safe space for those that don’t have the support systems they used to pre-pandemic.
Before becoming a prominent influence on TikTok, Bridgers constantly trolled fans on her Instagram, @_fake_nudes_, and cracked jokes about how sad her songs were on Twitter. Her social accounts are also sites of queer yearning, wherein she shamelessly tweets about her queerness and makes it very easy for fans to swoon over her Playboy spread and her topless photoshoot inside CVS. The drastic increase in screen time for all of us stay-at-home queers made her a sort of collective savior, as we could always look to her to find pleasure in relatable tweets or thirst over her deep voice and “goth GF” style.
While Bridgers hasn’t used TikTok like she has Twitter (she’s only posted a few videos on her own and appeared in one with Maggie Rogers), the #PhoebeBridgers hashtag on TikTok is still widely popular, garnering more than 96.7 million views. Her influence spread like wildfire, producing a culture crafted by the hands of Phoebe Bridgers worshippers—all bound by the shared experience of queer isolation.
Case in point, her music is the perfect soundtrack for people who feel lonelier than ever. “Demi Moore” toes the scary line between feeling desired and alone, and while the singer herself has already exposed the sheer heartache of the song, TikTokers have followed suit, looking hopelessly into their iPhone cameras while singing the song. “Moon Song”—arguably Punisher’s saddest ballad—showcases the complex difficulty of loving someone who hates themself. Many of my friends have texted me “are u okay” after noticing I was listening to it on Spotify, but I’m not the only one who can’t get enough of Bridgers’ heartbreak. When TikTok user @tatiana_eliza spiraled over the line “but you’re holding me like water in your hands,” fellow Pharbz commented “I literally just got done having my weekly cry to this song” and “TW!! saddest song in the world.” Some might say that Phoebe Bridgers fans are obsessed with their own sadness, but in a time when isolation is all we know, this corner of TikTok has become our own personal safe haven.
In fact, some users even create entertainment out of her depressing songs. Users @lexaprolesbian and @29dollars dressed up as Bridgers and her ghost for Halloween and danced to a 100 gecs remix of “Kyoto.” One account—a current favorite—uses Calico Critters to act out some of her songs, like “Scott Street” and “Moon Song.” TikTok exists as a platform for creation, and Pharbz have created so many videos based on the work of a musician who only has two solo albums. And with each video, I always feel a sense of belonging. When I see users cry to “I Know the End” or mindlessly drive to “Motion Sickness,” I don’t feel so strange for having done the same thing two days ago. As I stumble upon compilations of Phoebe Bridgers screaming, I immediately feel seen, wanting to scream along with her yet again, like I did alone in my bedroom last August.
In a time when physical queer communities simply do not exist, we scramble in a dim room lit by our phone screens to find connection. Pharbz have achieved this through our communal obsession with the musician—an interest that codes us as both queer and depressed. Whether we identify as “bad bitches with depression” or “oat milk latte Prozac Phoebe Bridgers gays,” our obvious interest in sad music by queer women has become a form of flagging—but instead of signaling sexual interests, it signals that we can simultaneously be gay and cry in public.
I still feel lost most days. As I process an intense breakup, I seem to be listening to Bridgers’ songs even more than usual. But at the same time, I feel seen knowing that through the ups and downs of loss and heartbreak, strangers on the internet—who also cry to Punisher daily—will always be there for me when my emotions feel out of control. In the world of Phoebe Bridgers, there’s always space for us, whether we want to loop boygenius’s performance of “Me & My Dog,” have an existential crisis to “Chinese Satellite,” or fall in love with the several TikTok singer-songwriters who draw inspiration from Bridgers’ music. I’m often hit with the harsh reality of not being able to hug my friends when I need them the most, but instead, I head straight to TikTok—where I’ll feel the warmth of Phoebe Bridgers through my iPhone screen.
By Natalie Geisel