Music, Pop Culture

Ethel Cain’s Artistry: An Exploration of the Southern Gothic Music Genre

southern gothic music genre

This article was written by The Zillennial Zine’s fall editorial intern Celeste MacMurray. Find her on Instagram at @clsmsanchezx. If you would like to share an article with The Zillennial, send us an email at

Ever since the release of Ethel Cain’s debut album, Preacher’s Daughter, the Internet has been unable to get enough of it. The concept album is filled with memorable songs, an intriguing story and does an amazing job of storytelling with each of its tracks. The album has the power to send a shockwave through the system of every listener, especially on the first one. What is it about Preacher’s Daughter that is so compelling and distinct? Why has this album already become such a cult-classic among its listeners and Cain’s fanbase?

What makes this album so different is its status as a Southern Gothic piece of art — a long standing literary movement that started as early as the 19th century. Cain, the Florida-born native, utilizes the Southern Gothic in a way that is able to speak to people’s experiences of womanhood, religion, and even regionally for those who did grow up in the southern United States. You could live in the midwest and still have the ability to relate to the themes of Preacher’s Daughter, and that’s the magic of it. Yet, a big part of Cain’s music is its standing within the Southern Gothic movement, and in order to understand its significance, we must understand the literature movements that predate it. 

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The Romantic literary movement began in the late-18th century in response to the Enlightenment movement that had taken center stage that century. Also known as the Age of Reason, the Enlightenment movement believed in the emphasis of science and reason over all else. In response to this, Romanticism aimed to explore the unknown and the unreasonable—most importantly, the human soul and nature. Romanticism believed in the power of nature and the sublime as they believed they had the power to cure one’s ailments. This is why there is such an emphasis on nature within Romantic literature, and why you will often see authors explore the landscape of their stories extensively.

Gothic literature explores nature as well, but in a somewhat different manner than Romanticism. While the Romantics believed in the good and the wonder of nature, Gothic literature aimed to explore the horror that could exist within nature and humans; oftentimes Gothic stories featured the supernatural as well. Romanticism utilized setting to explore the splendor of nature, whereas Gothic literature used setting to investigate fear, horror and terror. Gothic literature relies on mood in order to unsettle its readers and to lean into the darkness of the unknown.

Some famous Gothic novels you may be familiar with are Dracula by Bram Stoker, or Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Another author famously known for his Gothic works you may know is none other than Edgar Allan Poe. He was well-known for his ability to explore the supernatural, his dark characters and his ability to capture fear and anxiety.

Southern Gothic literature follows similar interests, but with the added detail of the region it now takes place in. Gothic literature was written by many English authors when the genre first appeared, which is why the old, decrepit castle or manor is such a recurring motif within these tales. At the heart of it, the Southern Gothic intends to explore the gothic that exists within the southern United States. The genre and its wide expanse of authors and perspectives explore the horrors of human nature, abuse, violence and even structural oppression such as poverty and racism. Southern Gothic literature aims to acknowledge how these are all things that exist in the South and that they do, in fact, impact the lives of those that exist in these planes.

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As put so wonderfully by Bjerre, the Southern Gothic genre is best known for its inclusion of “Irrational, horrific, and transgressive thoughts, desires, and impulses; grotesque characters; dark humor, and an overall angst-ridden sense of alienation.” And, most importantly, the genre aims to dispel any previous notions of what the South is like because this “idyllic vision of the pastoral, agrarian South rests on massive repressions of the region’s historical realities: slavery, racism, and patriarchy.”

With an understanding of the Southern Gothic and its subjects, we can see why these themes are now present and explored extensively through Ethel Cain’s music.

What people seem to admire the most about Cain’s work is its discussions of intergenerational and religious trauma. Cain explores the presence of the Church and religion in the South and how that informs the culture of where one lives. As someone who has grown up in the South, religion is a big part of the culture in this region, and seeing how she portrays religion and discusses it is both familiar and comforting.

In fact, what I admire the most about Cain’s work is the influence of religion within her music. Many of her songs discuss the idea of God, questioning if in the dreary wasteland of the Southern Gothic if He could possibly exist. This lamenting can be found in songs like “Inbred” and “Sun Bleached Flies” as the lyrics deliver a punch to your gut the first time you hear them.

Much like the original Gothic movement, Cain explores elements of Christianity in her work through the use of Bible verses and religious iconography. In the background of her Preacher’s Daughter album cover, a portrait of Jesus can be seen hanging on the wall.

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When watching her music videos, I feel like I can recognize parts of where I’m from in them, and I can see pieces of home in it. A great example of this familiarity I feel would be her music videos for “American Teenager” and “Crush.” The lyrics and video for “American Teenager” explore disillusionment with the American dream and ideals, especially for the youth. The most prominent scenes of the music video are when Cain can be seen wandering a school’s football field in a cheerleader uniform as the American flag waves in the air.

In “Crush,” she wanders town with a friend as she’s barefoot with rollers in her hair. She wears shorts and a bikini top in order to beat the heat, fashion not at all uncommon when it’s always over a hundred degrees in the summer. The music video also features a frame that lingers on the photo of Jesus hanging up in her home.

While the tone of “Crush” is overall light and ponders on the crush she has, there is still a type of sadness hiding underneath. In the song she reveals how she has given up on the idea of looking for a “good man,” so she will settle on the crush she has to avoid any unnecessary heartache.

If you have ever seen a TikTok calling something “Ethel Cain-vinyl” or “Ethel Cain core,” it’s usually people posting things they believe to fit within the aesthetic of the Southern Gothic. Much like this TikTok, for example.

While a lot of these TikTok’s I do believe to be harmless fun, it must be noted that there are many complications when it comes to the South and its history. It must be remembered that the Southern Gothic aims to critique the South, its history and the structural oppressions of the region.

The nature of a majority of her songs are often dark in meaning as they explore the cycle of abuse—which can even be generational—violence and tragedy. The Preacher’s Daughter album tells the story of a young woman leaving behind her small town and religious community before meeting her tragic end. Many of the characters within her songs are trapped by their circumstances, often searching for a way out. Either the characters know how to leave and choose not to because they feel they can’t, or they don’t because they’re unable to. It creates a sense of claustrophobia, being trapped by something bigger than yourself that won’t allow you to leave or change.

However, that feeling of claustrophobia and doom is what I think to be the beauty of Preacher’s Daughter and the Inbred EP. They both find a way to make you feel the darkness of their stories and the emotions of its figures. I think using these albums as a gateway to understand Southern Gothic is a good thing. Through the character of Ethel—the main character of Preacher’s Daughter—you can see how people are tangled within the systems they cannot change. Poverty, misogyny, classism and even the racism of the South are all things the Southern Gothic hopes to expose and bring to light. These very real things influence the quality of life within the region and have for centuries, and with this one album, this one story, it is a way for people to learn what that’s like and where it comes from.

If you are a fan of Southern Gothic, what are some of your favorite aspects of the genre? What about its discussions do you enjoy the most? Do you know of any other authors or music artists that you adore?

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