Musician Sarah Brand gifted the internet the music video for her song "Red Dress" three weeks ago, and has racked up almost half a million views already—impressive for a musician with hardly any social media footprint or fan base.
The song explores the themes of exclusivity and judgement in religion, and was filmed inside Oxford, England's North Gate Church. But it's Brand's singing itself which has left confusion among listeners.
It takes only a few seconds to realise that Brand may not have the voice of an angel, even if she is in a church, and that's exactly why she's got the internet in a head lock.
A quick scroll through the comments section shows messages of confusion, jokes at her expense, and out-right hate toward the musician.
"Never thought I'd hear a song that made Rebecca Black's 'Friday' look like high art but here we are," wrote one disapproving viewer. Black is nine years and over 150 million views ahead of Brand, but the anger-inducing hate-clicks have the potential to rival it.
But here's the catch. Brand is a sociology student, studying a Master of Science in Sociology at the prestigious Oxford University, leading viewers to ask: Is this all a social experiment? Some kind of investigation into going viral with "bad" music online?
"Are we a part of some sort of experiment?" asked one viewer on Brand's YouTube discussion. Posts on sites such as Reddit see full-blown breakdowns of the song and her music career, debating whether or not it's all a big prank on the internet.
In fact, her focus in her studies is on the intersection of religion and politics, with a mission to "bring a sociological intersection into pop music." Was Brand inspired by the plethora of religious music going viral for all the wrong reasons? Just last month country singer Matthew West went viral for his song "Modest is Hottest", which met criticism over his encouragement of purity culture.
When asked if Red Dress is a part of her studies, Brand told Newsweek: "I'd like to leave the intention in question, and focus on impact."
"One of the main goals of this project was to prompt social introspection, and the music video has done just that," she added.
As for the criticism, she said the song actually aimed to recreate the very judgement her song explores: "The project elicits much judgmental feedback, which coincides with the theme of the story."
"'Red Dress' seeks to portray discomfort and judgment-- the listeners are sitting in the pews."
Newsweek spoke to Gordon Gronbach, the hired freelance filmographer for "Red Dress", who said that there were no hints of the song being a joke on set, but added that he "was not deeply involved in planning before or since," so would be unable to shed light on it being a social experiment of any kind.
Instead, he pointed to the video and song simply being a tool for Brand to show her directing skills. "I gathered it was an exercise in becoming a video director," he said. "She did say she wanted to be a director and it was obvious she wasn't a great singer, with a few off notes, but it was okay and I guess she did it for showreel purposes, and so I respect that."
"It was funny to have the performer be the director and shout 'cut' but she's very focused and knew what she wanted, and I gave it to her I guess," he added.
Brand's LinkedIn also shows a long line of work in the directing and film industry, including a role as a video producer and manager at IntraCom Systems.
"I have more music written, and am looking for artists to work with-- I'd like to continue directing and writing. I have a feature film written that is an extension of the 'Red Dress' music video, and I am looking to get this film produced," said Brand.
Although internet sleuths have become convinced they have unravelled the inner-workings of a digital stitch-up, others have countered that it would be a whole load of planning behind it—just how dedicated would an Oxford Masters student be to her thesis?
Her second YouTube channel and social media accounts show an interest in music for the past year, including open mic nights at her previous college UC Berkeley, where she sounds exactly like she does on "Red Dress." In November, she performed on local organisation Cornerstone Arts Centre's "Friday Sessions." Newsweek contacted the center for comment.
In a November vlog, Brand takes her viewers on a day in her life at Berkeley, and talks about studying contemporary music including "everything from Pink Floyd to Bach" and "the mechanics behind sound."
Some viewers have become converted fans of Brand however, despite the negative outpour, suggesting her approach is simply a form of "outsider music" which is unconventional but so-bad-it's-good—her own style of experimental music that we're just yet to get.
Newsweek contacted "Red Dress'" music producers for comment.
Update 08/03/21, 3:45 a.m. ET: This article was updated to include comments from Sarah Brand.