“traitor” - Olivia Rodrigo music video still (dir. Olivia Bee, 2021)

i want it to be messy

These dreamlike hues aren’t how the world really looks, but they’re how it really feels.



The images glow with the soft haze of a half-dreamt memory. A girl leans in close to a mirror and applies lipstick, dark and heavy to match the shadows cast by fluorescent bathroom lights. A boy hops over a fence, his rapid action frozen in stark black and white. Sunsets cast a soft blur of pink and orange over the horizon, kisses are captured in grainy snapshots, and everyone looks a little messy and a little beautiful. These dreamlike hues aren’t how the world really looks, but they’re how it really feels—at least when you’re young, prone to romanticization and despair in equal measure. This world comes to life in the photo series The Teenage Gaze by Petra Collins and Kids in Love by Olivia Bee, both shot throughout the early 2010s.

“Lovers,” Olivia Bee (2013)

from The Teenage Gaze, Petra Collins (2010-2015)

As a teenager, photographer, and avid Instagram user throughout that decade, Petra Collins and Olivia Bee were omnipresent in my digital space. Their works felt at once aspirational and accessible. Their subjects were kids like me and my friends, with sad eyes and unbrushed hair. They inhabited settings that felt familiar—schools, bedrooms, back seats of cars, basketball courts—but made these locations look just dreamy enough that I caught myself longing for the very spaces I hoped to escape.  

As I begin my adulthood, the careers of the artists I admired have taken on new reaches. Sure, they were successful and famous when I was a teenager, but they now helm high-profile projects that extend far beyond one wistful corner of the internet. In 2021, both Petra Collins and Olivia Bee directed music videos for Gen Z's patron saint of teenage angst, Olivia Rodrigo: “good 4 u” and “traitor,” respectively.  

In the 2010s, Collins and Bee’s art brushed up against mass media’s glamorized portrayals of teenage girls by portraying a messier, lonelier—and yes, dreamier—vision. Now, with big budgets and names behind them, it is in their hands to craft the mass media portrayals of teenagers that they once rejected.

Petra Collins’s collaboration with Olivia Rodrigo didn’t feel too surprising—Collins has a million Instagram followers, designs an exclusive fashion line for luxury retailer SSENSE, and frequently collaborates with Selena Gomez. However, the release of Olivia Bee’s “traitor” music video in late October struck me with the pleasure and pain of intense recognition (you know, that feeling when the algorithm shows you a TikTok that sums up your entire inner world in a single joking sentence). Bee’s career took off at age 15 when she shot a campaign for Converse after the brand discovered her photos on Flickr. She went on to shoot for a variety of illustrious clients and publish a book with Aperture. Both photographers had great commercial success at a young age, but Bee never quite stepped into the role that Collins did as an icon of youth culture. Bee now lives on a homestead in rural Oregon (her home state) and sells cowboy-chic vintage finds via her Instagram Story. While she continues to work with high-profile brands and individuals, her persona maintains a greater sense of groundedness and intimacy, making its attachment a pop sensation all the more noteworthy. 

Rodrigo’s first two music videos—“drivers license” and “deja vu”—are also neon-lit and analog-inspired, featuring old TVs, glitch effects, and projectors. Bee and Collins emphasize these idiosyncracies in their videos to strengthen and solidify Rodrigo’s visual character. The “traitor” music video is interspersed with fragments of grainy footage from a handheld camcorder, and for her “good 4 u” music video, Collins filmed phone camera screens as they filmed Rodrigo. In addition to Bee and Collins’s trademarks of vivid lighting and hazy colors, there is an added layer of mediation—a veil between viewer and subject. This technique draws from DIY aesthetics, romanticizing the idea of someone capturing the world around them despite only possessing rudimentary resources for doing so. 

This stylistic choice recalls a Brian Eno quote I find myself returning to over and over, from his book A Year with Swollen Appendices: “Whatever you now find weird, ugly, uncomfortable and nasty about a medium will surely become its signature.” He writes that the “excitement of grainy film” is “the excitement of witnessing events too momentous for the medium assigned to record them.” The flaws of the images—the grain, the haze, the blur—are what make them resonant. They bring them out of the realm of objective documentation and into the realm of emotional perception. They make the images feel more intimate, more authentic. Long after digital cameras were introduced to everyday consumers in the 1990s, this nostalgic, analog-inspired style was cultivated and replicated by teenagers with nothing more than social media accounts, entry-level equipment, and free time. Now, one of our biggest contemporary pop stars has made it her visual signature.  

Clearly, this specific vision of teenage girlhood—insular, idyllic, emotional—has outlived my teenage years. But maybe it took root long before then, running deeper than just analog nostalgia. When I think of photographic antecedents to Bee and Collins, I think of Justine Kurland and her series Girl Pictures, shot between 1997 and 2002. The series features at once utopic and gritty vignettes of teen runaways, only the models weren’t real runaways, and the scenes were Gregory Crewdson-esque compositions, more cinematic than journalistic (Kurland studied under Crewdson at Yale). In Aperture, Kurland describes the images in Girl Pictures as “fantasies of attachment and belonging that sharply diverged from the hardships experienced by so many actual teenage runaways.” While Kurland’s style differs from both Bee’s and Collins’s, the creation of a fantasy world that is messy, melancholic, and even violent occurs throughout Kids In Love, The Teenage Gaze, and Girl Pictures.  

“Boy Torture: Two-Headed Monster,” Justine Kurland (1999)

Kurland writes, “I channeled the raw, angry energy of girl bands into my photographs of teenagers.” Rather than America’s open roads, Rodrigo inhabits the safe, closed-off space of her bedroom. Her visuals draw from cult classic films that examine the darkness of suburban idyll, like Jennifer’s Body and The Virgin Suicides. But maybe her image of girlhood isn’t so separate from Kurland’s—the “raw, angry energy of girl bands” is clear from the first seconds of her debut album SOUR, when we hear an audio snippet of Rodrigo in the studio saying, “I want it to be, like, messy.” Then, the fiery electric guitar that drives the opening track “brutal” begins right on cue. 

Much like Girl Pictures, Rodrigo’s music builds an alternate world out of heartbreak and angst. Her lyrics reflect the isolation of drowning in one’s interiority. In “good 4 u,” she sings, “You will never have to hurt the way you know that I do.” In “traitor,” a similar lyric goes, “I know that you’ll never feel sorry for the way I hurt.” SOUR approaches the same wound over and over, and it feels like freedom and doom at once—it’s a privilege to lose yourself in your emotions like that. It demands space and time. Even when her music is at its darkest, it begins and ends with romance. It eschews the heavy, complex struggles that don’t align with a dreamy vision of teenagerhood but can nonetheless define and disrupt one’s teenage years. In this way, it’s a perfect match for the artworks of Olivia Bee and Petra Collins. Every emotion is momentous, coloring and distorting the world around its subject. 

There’s a moment in Bee’s “traitor” music video when, camcorder in hand, Rodrigo films herself in the mirror. The clip is over in a flash, but it sticks in my mind. When I see it, I remember all of the times that I have pointed a camera at my reflection, watching myself watch myself. I wonder what the music video set felt like to her at that moment—was it cold, clinical, professional? Or did she feel like she could be any other teenage girl in a bathroom mirror? What was she thinking about as she saw herself, dressed up in a not-real version of her real teenage world? I wonder if those thoughts come through in the image at all, or if she’s performing a different interiority, putting on faces for the sake of the art. 

“Bad Day,” Olivia Bee (2013)

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