By Jocelle Koh
Born in Saudi Arabia to Taiwanese and Malaysian parents, Singapore-based artist Sarah Lin aka Cherry Girl has had a unique upbringing by all measures. Previously exploring themes of being a third culture kid and her eclectic heritage, Lin continued to incorporate these themes while focusing on another aspect of herself – the intersection between her strength and femininity in her final-year graduation project.
Going all out, she created Cherry Girl, a vibrant, strong and colourful musical alter-ego who expresses and is all the things that Sarah aspires to be.
Inspired by her love of competitive weight-lifting and how this conflicted with her Asian family’s views on women’s body image, Lin uses female physical strength as a jumping-off point to spark a conversation on the stereotypical female, hyper sexualisation of the female body, and topics of self-worth and body image in women.
But when it all boils down, this project has transformed itself into a message for Sarah and listeners to unlock our agency in the face of self-doubt.
“So what I really wanted to convey was my love for trance music and my passion for weightlifting. I think the general idea of wanting to break out of self-imposed moulds we put on ourselves, that idea kind of transposed itself during the working of the entire process…So I think what this process taught me was to kind of break out of what I told myself I should be into what I want to be.”
Involving a four-song trance (otherwise known in Singapore as ‘Siam Diu’ music) EP also titled ‘CHERRY GIRL‘ and music video which Sarah completed mostly solo, Cherry Girl has been a weighty topic to unpack and execute (pun intended). But it’s clear that this is not just a graduation project, but something much more meaningful for Lin. Sarah shares about how Cherry Girl in fact pays homage to her departed classmate Charlotte, who she describes as “unabashedly herself”.
“She was the girl who came to school with a bra and sport tights. She just wore whatever the fuck she wanted, she didn’t care. I loved her for that. And unfortunately, she took her life. Right before she left, she gave me this plastic room that had a cherry on it. This plastic ring was from Daiso. And she would always call me cherry jiejie. And that means cherry sister.”
Through an EP filled with grinding beats, neon hooks and mysterious voiceovers, Lin channels Charlotte’s spirit and vision in a myriad of ways while staying true to herself. The song “Angel Message” which intersperses throbbing laser beats with eerie voiceovers is one example of Lin’s homage to her friend.
“There’s this very interesting TED Talk I listened to about geniuses, and how sometimes the idea comes to you, but you’ve got to keep working at it. So in the same vein, when these spontaneous tunes come to my head I would thank them and I believe that they’re angels. And since this project was dedicated to Charlotte…I also took inspiration from listening over and over to her video pieces…there was no particular tune, maybe a very strange bass line…but from there a tune would emerge and I would take that and run with it.”
Professing to have very little musical background and learning much of her production skills from an amateur high school band and Skillshare, it’s especially intriguing to see Sarah tackle the musical creative process in such a different way from ‘bona fide’ musicians. Yet her fine arts background has allowed her to use sounds and textures to make meaning in different, yet equally valuable ways.
Inspired by electronic artists such as the late transgender producer SOPHIE, Sarah initiates discussions about gender fluidity on songs such as the intimate, electrically charged “Cherry Girl”, where she uses voice pitch modulation to manipulate a male’s voice to create feelings of discomfort; dislodging the listener from a conventional gendered mindset as the song goes on.
On this particular track, findings from her theoretical research on the topic come into play too, as she sings: “I don’t want to run/don’t want to hide/I am a cherry girl”. Bringing the theme back to strength building sports and the perception of women in these sports, Lin alludes to how many female athletes initially started out by running to lose weight.
“It’s actually very funny, because for my project I interviewed full of local female athletes…And there was this general theme about running to lose weight. Seems like everybody at some point of their lives started running to lose weight. Even me…but it’s just so sad, why do you have to run to lose weight? …why can’t girls go to the pull-up bar and do pull-ups?”
Describing herself as a naturally anxious person, Lin created Cherry Girl to give herself permission to express the things she’s always wanted to say, and shares about the influence of drag on her visual concept.
“I would say watching Rupaul and looking at drag queens actually inspired me a lot. In the sense that drag queens are the persona, the character that you wear. In many ways I don’t feel comfortable being me…By choosing a persona of Cherry Girl…it gave me almost the permission to be that persona in a weird sense.”
The drag references come through particularly in Lin’s visuals for ‘Cherry Girl’, a brilliantly camp DIY video where five characters dive further into the discussions of strength and femininity. The video features characters such as the tongue-in-cheek Cheongsam girl who represents the stereotypical submissive Asian woman, a Claude Cahun character who references the French photographer’s 1927 milestone work bending gender binaries and ‘iridescent girl’ who represents an empowered, enlightened being who Sarah aspires to become.
In all its gritty, yet glitzy DIY-ness (one of the cornerstones of drag culture), the video is the cherry on top of the cake for this intriguing, conversation-invoking project. Starting with a simple unanswered question, Cherry Girl is a project that above all explores the complexities of the relationship between gender and power. How society assigns power to certain genders over others, but also how women can rebuild those structures of power; starting from something as simple as the passions we give ourselves permission to chase.
The project not only documents Sarah’s reawakening, but is an invitation to all listeners and women who feel constricted by the expectations of Asian society to reimagine it all as an illusion – and redefine empowerment for themselves.