Courtney Barnett reached adolescence just as AOL Instant Messenger and ICQ sucked in every teenager with a home computer and dial-up internet. It was an era where we muffled the beeping screams of dial-up modems with pillows to talk to friends way after lights-out, and it changed an entire generation, Barnett included.
“In a way, I feel like it lowered my communication skills or something,” she told Billboard in August. “It made this barrier, this distance. Now I hate phone calls and voicemails. They make me anxious.”
A college dropout, the now-30-year-old Barnett forwent a traditional education to hop in between grunge bands while working at a pub in her native Australia, texting herself song lyrics while slinging beers. She hit musical fame in 2015, after the release of her debut album Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, and it’s been full-speed ahead ever since.
Her songs are coated in a 1990s grunge influence, which Barnett doesn’t deny — she’s an open fan of Nirvana and Hole. But whereas Courtney Love bemoaned the external pressures of Hollywood and the celebrity lifestyle, Barnett’s lyrics reflect a self-absorption that is becoming more frequently associated with a millennial upbringing. “When I’m all alone on my own by myself / And there ain’t another single one around / I wanna dig into my guitar, bend a blues riff that hangs / Over everything,” she laments on “Over Everything.”
Barnett’s success may lie in part with her refusal to buy into a celebrity persona. She doesn’t wear makeup — either during interviews or on stage. Her outfits generally consist of loose T-shirts, jeans, and boots, and her brown shaggy hair often covers part of her face. And in nearly every interview she’s done, the interviewer mentions her monotonous style of speaking, her unpolished demeanor, and her frankness with her own story.
That might be central to Barnett’s success; it’s not hard to feel like you know her, and not just because her sound is reminiscent of 1990s grunge-rock and riot grrrl shows. Her songs mix profound existential crises and relationship struggles with simple lyrics and catchy choruses, and the upbeat tempo keeps your head nodding even as she rages about a long-distance crush that seems to have no resolution.
“That’s like songwriting in general: People are sharing feelings, and when you can connect with them, it makes you feel less alone,” she told Elle in May. “Then again, it’s also hard to know that people are going through those same struggles, because that’s not fun. But it’s nice to know that you’re not the only one.”
Beyond her lyrics, Barnett’s whole demeanor feels relatable to a set of peers plagued with struggle. “I don’t want no nine-to-five / Telling me that I’m alive / And ‘Man, you’re doing well!’ ” she sings on “Are You Looking After Yourself?” rejecting the Gen X “work hard” status quo. She suffers from constant anxiety before shows, a fact she has no qualms about hiding, and despite her rampant success appears to suffer from occasional bouts of self-doubt.
In all, Barnett has become perhaps an accidental mouthpiece for a generation that rejects the college-job-marriage-house-kids path, choosing art and love over stability, even while being unsure of her ability to do so.
“I don’t know what I was thinking / I should get a job / I don’t know what I was drinking. I should get a dog / Should get married, have some babies, watch the evening news,” she sings. For all of our sakes, let’s hope she doesn’t.
Courtney Barnett, Sunday, Oct. 14, 5:05-5:55 p.m., on the Town Stage.
See more from SF Weekly’s Treasure Island Music Festival issue:
A Decade of Postcoital Bliss, With Cigarettes After Sex
Years after it began, Cigarettes After Sex suddenly became a breakout YouTube sensation. Songwriter Greg Gonzalez got to the bottom of it.
Soccer Mommy Embraces ‘Chill but Kinda Sad’ Vibes
Clean follows the 21-year-old’s ‘very depressing and cool’ experience of moving to New York for college in indie heartbreak-style.
Serpentwithfeet Is No Performance Artist
Blended with soul and R&B, the traditions of the Black gospel churches that serpent grew up in flourish on his debut album, soil.
Pusha T, Perfectionist
He’s back from Wyoming with a clear perspective of his place in hip-hop.
George FitzGerald, Mr. Burns
An early-afternoon set rather suits a Londoner who finds himself at the center of the underground music scene.