Sarah Brand is in on the secret

Sarah Brand's viral music video "Red Dress" is more than it seems

With her Masters in sociology, the filmmaker hints at something more behind her viral music video "Red Dress"
Published: February 10, 2022
Singer Sarah Brand in her video
Brand poses in her music video "Red Dress".

A cautious woman in a modest white dress walks into a church, singing. After a few horribly off-key bars, her innocence melts away to reveal a confident vixen in red dress grinding on a churchgoer. The congregation looks on, bewildered.

Viewers of Sarah Brand’s “Red Dress” music video leave confused: is this girl a naïve, horrendous singer or is she doing it on purpose? Frequenters of YouTube sound off in the comments. “The fact that she didn’t turn off comments makes her braver than all of us,” one commenter says. “Or she just has no idea she’s tone deaf,” another responds.

Syracuse University professor Theo Cateforis discovered the video on a Facebook thread this summer. 

“I was compelled by it because I have an affection for kitschy-can’t-be-awful bad music,” he said. Then, he looked at the reaction: “[It] kind of veered from a couple people in my camp who thought it was stupendously awful and in a great way.”

Cateforis, researcher of popular music, acknowledged those kinds of videos are not unique to the internet. Brand channels Rebecca Black, Allison Gold and William Hung in continuing this tradition of accidental bad performance art.

Some viewers suspected her video was intentional. They were on the right track. Brand received a B.A. in Sociology  from the University of California, Berkeley and a Master of Science in Sociology from the University of Oxford. Many viewers, including Cateforis, believe “Red Dress” was an experiment in which Brand observes behaviors and awful comments to collect data on human nature. 

Brand herself won’t confirm or deny the purpose of the video, and refuses to elaborate on the topic. 

“I never said if it was an experiment,” she said sternly in our Zoom interview. “And I like to keep that ambiguous.”

While Brand won’t use the word experiment, as a sociologist, she loves observing the judgment her video provokes.

“It provides a unique opportunity for introspection,” Brand said. “I didn’t know if the judgment would be in terms of how the vocals were reflecting the theme of the story or if it’d be more ‘oh my gosh, why is she doing this in a church? God forbid?’”

Brand also has a passion for religion and wanted to give a commentary on organized religion with this thought provoking project

“In my research at Berkeley and Oxford, I studied organized religion, and particularly its intersection with politics and group identity,” she said.

In Cateforis’ opinion, Brand would not blindly avoid the insights into people that this song provides. 

“I mean, she’s a sociologist, ” he said. “I think anytime that you put something out there you want to get data back.” 

When it comes to analyzing data, Cateforis thought Brand could look at two different elements: how different demographics would judge the religious aspect of the video, then she could also look at gender.

“I also think it matters that it’s a young woman doing this,” he said. “I wonder if women are more likely to be critiqued more harshly and severely than if it was a guy who had put out a video.”

As for her sociological analysis on judgment, Brand kept that a secret because of potential bias.

“Whenever you’re trying to prompt a certain reaction or see what a reaction would be… you never want people to fully be in the know because then you bias the reactions,” she said.

Brand grew up in Wisconsin and then moved to California, where she lives now. Her mom is a professor at UCLA as well as a sociologist.

“I very much grew up in the paradigm of understanding and wanting to add some kind of introspective depth into the way I see people and just interact with other people,” Brand said.

She recalled being in middle school and discussing the people she saw there with her mom.

“Anytime something weird would happen at school or with a social group of friends, I would always go to my mom, half as a mom and half as the sociologist, we were just dissecting all the interactions of my fellow funny middle schoolers,” she said.

In searching for colleges, Brand held on to her sociological upbringing and attended to UC Berkeley for three years. After graduating from Berkeley she went on to receive her masters in sociology.

“I remember getting into Berkeley and Oxford, I think both times I started crying… I really value education,” she said.

Sarah Brand poses in her music video
Brand in her music video "American Gap Rap."

As much as Brand valued sociology, something was missing throughout her educational journey. Growing up she enjoyed making short films with her friends. She loved editing and directing, and wanted more of that. 

“So I started writing scripts and planning music videos and reaching out to artists and as soon as I just dove into it, I fell in love with it,” Brand said.

That’s when the idea for “Red Dress” came to her, the perfect mix of sociology and filmmaking. 

Brand, in the midst of writing her master’s thesis, brought a skeleton crew with her and shot “Red Dress”. When the video was fully shot and edited, she posted it on YouTube. Within a month it exploded to 1 million views. It now has 1.9 million views.

“I posted on July 7, and then it really started getting traction around July 23. I started charting it. I actually have all the data,” Brand said.

As Cateforis said, everything she discusses — collecting data, her education, her upbringing, her observation of judgment in “Red Dress”adds up to a project with much more intention than an accidental viral video. 

In the end, “Red Dress” ultimately provided opportunities for Brand. She’s now directing advertising content for Science. She also directed her next music video, American Gap Rap, with a bigger budget and crew in Los Angeles. 

Brand plans to make more music videos and someday … wait for it — a “Red Dress” feature film. 

“It’s very much the vibe of When Harry Met Sally meets Mean Girls in a religious context,” she said. 

She’s already written the “Red Dress” feature film script and is currently looking to get it produced. With her intellect and insight behind the camera, the film will no doubt be one to talk — or sing — about.