Ethel Cain- Exploring the Americana Aesthetic


Themes of religion are very present throughout Ethel Cain’s discography, as a huge part of her character is her relationship with her church

Lancy Shi

When asked about art in American culture, Emma Reiss (11) expressed, “A lot of times when I see art, I see a trend of the theme of the American dream.” This trend has become almost like its own aesthetic- the Americana aesthetic, which essentially romanticizes American culture. To give some background, the Americana aesthetic was founded by fans of Lana del Rey, even though she was certainly not the first person to romanticize American history and life. The aesthetic- if you could even call it that- is very loosely defined simply because there are so many things that could be associated with it. Generally speaking, people associate denim, cherry coke, fireworks, and neon restaurant signs with this aesthetic. It mostly focuses on the golden eras of American history like the 1920’s and 60’s and sometimes even the 80’s. This aesthetic is very simple on the surface, but an up and coming singer by the name of Ethel Cain takes it to a whole other level.


The name “Ethel Cain” is simply a stage name for the singer Hayden Silas Anhedonia, but for simplicity’s sake, I am going to refer to her by her stage name because it is confusing to keep switching back and forth. The character of Ethel Cain is an interesting one; throughout her discography, Cain explores themes of religion, trauma, and abuse. Growing up in the American South as a trans woman, the singer has a unique take on this aesthetic, and in my opinion, she elevates it to a whole other level. From just hearing that fact, someone who is not familiar with Ethel Cain might believe that her music is highly critical of America, but actually, it’s not entirely negative. 


Obviously, Ethel Cain is a fictional character, and some of the parts of the lyrics don’t fully reflect the artist herself, but there is no denying that this character is largely based off of the singer’s personal observations. Ethel Cain’s sound as a whole is very versatile, as she explores anything from Gregorian, gothic, country, and even folk at times. But no matter what sound she is aiming for, it always sounds like a cohesive call to Southern American culture- at least Cain’s idea of American culture. The singer expressed in a New York Times article that she “felt strangled by the strictures of her Southern Baptist upbringing,” yet she still “clung to the culture, turning the lows of Americana and fantasies of freedom into a caustic and self-aware Southern Gothic persona” (nytimes). There is no surprise the singer has faced a lot of hate due to her queer identification, but she still resonates with some of the values she was raised with, and she still has this appreciation for certain aspects of American culture.


There is an air of nostalgia to all of her songs, which is strange considering what some of those songs talk about. To me, it almost seems like she is looking back to a lot of her memories fondly, even though she recognizes the damage some of the experiences have done to her. In the song “Hard Times”, Cain talks about the trauma of being abused by her father, yet the sound of the song sounds so sweet at the same time. Cain directly admits in the song that she hoped to be like her father, and that it scared her because she had this love-hate relationship with her abuser. I think this reflects Cain’s thoughts on growing up in Florida, as she loved parts of it, but she likely faced a lot of homophobia as well. She can’t fully let go of what she is used to even if she is exposed to the harmful side of it.


The character of Ethel Cain is very unique because of her exploration of the good and bad side of America. I personally feel that there is no other artist who sounds or writes like Ethel Cain. She is truly an American treasure, and she will forever be an inspiration to many others who are striving to achieve their dreams- not necessarily the stereotypical “American dream”.

“A lot of times when I see art, I see a trend of the theme of the American dream.”

— Emma Reiss (11)