The miserable blight of a song with infectious energy is a phenomenon in its own right.
Sad music makes people happy. Why? Perhaps that is because of its downward spiralling tempo, illuminating patterns in your spiderwebby subconscious. Perhaps because of the words, which depending on your own state of mind can be anywhere from comforting, to embarrassingly familiar, to alien enough that you again, feel safe and a little cocooned (though a little more smugly illuminated as to human suffering than you might have before). It might not be the utmost popular genre, which seems to be floor-crashing dance and banging pop, but even among the top twenty most downloaded songs on iTunes, the frostbite of sad tempo makes an appearance, as nestled in amongst the Black Eyed Peas, Katy Perry, Ke$ha, and Lady Gaga are the slightly forlorn Hey There Delilah by the Plain White T’s and the Coldplay hit Viva La Vida, which has a solemnly banal enough melody to get it played in airports, malls, and grocery stores. It contains the defining as dismal lyrics
For my head on a silver plate
Just a puppet on a lonely string
Oh, who would ever want to be king?… I know Saint Peter won’t call my name.
Dismal, or perhaps defiant: the sweeping and annoying orchestrality of the song in total attempts to be stirring in an almost uplifting way, while the lyrics, interchangeable in delivery with almost every other Coldplay song, form a spiral back down and down, suggesting the latter at each opportunity.
According to science the sad song effect is threefold: social, cognitive,— and based in memory. The most disturbing song, it stands to reason, can trigger positive emotions if strongly enough correlated with the memory of a happy event, or some other strong indicator of what and/or who makes you happy.
Socially, a process known as “downwards social comparison” reminds us that even if some bloke moaning into a piano is having a bad day, presumably we’re feeling better off — we must be. Interestingly the injection of his data into our brains makes us feel that way, even if in reality we’re in terrible dire straights, and the piano bloke did better than us simply by tumbling out of bed, hung-over, still fully dressed but shoeless in last night’s crumpled tuxedo, in the morning. As humans, we are also always looking out for the snakes and ladders board of mirrors and connections — and a sad song about not feeling able to get out of bed in the morning still feels good and collectively validating, if you listened to it while feeling similarly deactivated.
The major cognitive process of sad music, comfortably, is rooted in the pure and simple mechanics of masochism: listening to music releases dopamine already, but listening to sad music, it is hypothesized, also releases prolactin, a chemical which helps our body adjust to traumatic circumstances: in the absence of physical distress, it distils us into opiated bliss. Other research into the topic points towards the idea that a general preference for melancholy music is rooted in the perception that it must be more beautiful, and on top of this that being miserable leads to increased creativity, though perhaps this is a side effect of the study’s other finding, that miserability makes us more hard-working, lending the illusion of a burst of ingenuity.
The essentiality of sadness in music is so prevalent that it inspired a film: The Saddest Music in the World, (2004,)directed by Guy Maddin (who one Winnipegonian friend describes as “ supposedly Winnipeg’s greatest filmmaker,”). It in turn was inspired by an original screenplay written by the novelist Kazuo Ishiguro. The premise, wound in delirium around the surreality of faux 1930s imagery and audio, unabashed creepiness, expressionistic meanderings and shadowy sexuality, is that of a contest to find of course the saddest music in the world, by country, in order to promote a beer label in anticipation of the end of Prohibition. What follows is a rather gratuitous sequence of opulent and violent events, as the extravagantly abnormal characters grow more and more obsessed with the contest and by turns both more and less so with one another. If there is a moral to this most immoral story, is must be that to pursue sadness gratuitously is not just akin to courting disaster but becoming imperilled in an even more finite way, as to pursue it relentlessly is to become insensate, as the looniest main character is unable to perceive either rising flames or the culmination of his personal odyssey as he reaches his own end, the end of the winning song, and that of the film all at once.
But what about when sadness, the full glut of the dramatic and maudlin, is not merely decorative; when, too, it isn’t curative, or even beautiful: what about when it is misrepresentative? The phenomenon of the miserable blight of a song with infectious energy is a phenomenon in its own right. This can be the apposition of cheery sound and horrifying lyrics, or indeed the other way around. And even the worst offenders of the saddest songs category fall prey to this, if you look for it. Even Morrissey, that most flagrantly miserable of miserable fucks, has a few that fit well into this cheerful-sad category. Arguably he’s the king of Mancunian sad-core — I’d argue well not, and not just because he went out of his way to combine the kitchen sink realism sensibilities he was used to with the cholomachismo of his adopted LA; I’d definitely award that honour, predictably, to the anti-illuminated Ian Curtis of Joy Division.
But the dubious glory of Reddit brings up a cloistered group of individuals arguing, of course, over this very thing: what is the saddest Morrissey song? The winners are Seasick Yet Still Docked, Please Let me Get What I Want, Munich Air Disaster, and Late Night, Maudlin Street, which reminds me that tastes are extremely individual, as, though it paints various dismal scenes, I’ve always thought that was a rather joyful song, really, celebrating the singular elation and relief of successfully running away in the middle of the night from a home that hates you.
The one I’d suspected for my purposes is brought up, too, but is off to the side of the list. Who can listen to the winsome the first of the gang to die without gleefully nodding along, its tune as innocent, and admittedly almost identical, to Morrissey’s go at an upbeat love song, the somewhat charming you’re the one for me, fatty. Getting this song in your head, well either song, is easy. This is also perhaps the best example, besides the chirpy-sad in the Morrissey cannon, of his flag bearing adoption of and reportedly reciprocal romance with the cholo subculture, the story being told entirely from the pov of being within the inner circle of the gang. And he stole from the rich and the poor and the not very rich and the very poor…and he stole all hearts away, he strums along handily, the tempo and gently sardonic wording bearing the subject almost but not quite, of course, satirical: the song is eighty percent sincere, the rush of both abstract, and personal, romance in the vocal delivery as Hector stole all hearts away, including apparently, Morrissey’s, flush with a new culture to be embedded in.
Sad songs that sound happily upbeat, or energizing are a somewhat popular meme: whether they are meant to trick you into being sad, or into cheering up, isn’t clear. The internet explicates that these include songs as varied as Friday I’m in Love, by the Cure, Dead, by My Chemical Romance, I Took a Pill in Ibiza by Mike Posner and Kings of the Weekend by Blink 182 (songs like these last two, about the ennui of spending all your time getting fucked up, are more popular than average in this category, the dark party song perhaps becoming something of its own genre,)— and even the 90s hit MMMBop, by Hansen (this last deserves its own column for being a good contender for the most irritating earworm of all time award).
One of the most popular though seems to be Pumped Up Kicks, by Foster the People, which in the plainest terms is a feel good tune about planning to shoot up your high school.
Heavy metal isn’t typically the cheeriest of music, and you don’t have to look very far to find a not very cheerful song — in fact, you just have to start at the beginning, with Black Sabbath and their most famous single — Paranoid. Whether or not Sabbath “invented “ heavy metal is contested, but certainly they are associated with being one of the first if not the first heavy metal band (the other is Led Zeppelin, who are probably the winner in the sense that Sabbath maintains that they copied them a lot without being able to help it, even in the writing of Paranoid).
The 1970 album called Paranoid was meant to be called War Pigs: it was thrown together hastily after the success of Sabbath’s Black Sabbath. At the end of recording their producer informed the band that they had three minutes to spare on the record and would have to come up with a new song to fill it, sharpish. Confused, the band came up with Paranoid over the morning; later, Ozzy Osbourne went home and said he thought they’d accidentally written a single. “But you don’t write singles,” replied his then-wife. “I know,” he replied, “but this has been driving me nuts on the train all the way back.”
Paranoid is driven by its infectious guitar solo, which is the reason I have it in my head; though brief it’s one of the greatest in rock and winner or near-winner of many a nerdy top-ten list, and certainly one of my favourites too —in fact I happen to think its one of the most joyful moments in music, despite the gloomery of Paranoid itself, and certainly irreplaceable.
Without the guitar solo, sure, it’d be as nothing, but what about the song as a whole? It’s two minutes and fifty seconds or so of complete abandon. But despite its subject matter of depression, is it actually a depressing song?
With the lyrics All day long I think of things but nothing seems to satisfy
Think I’ll lose my mind if I don’t find something to pacify
Can you help me, occupy my brain?
And Happiness I cannot feel and love to me is so unreal
it’s hard to tell if Paranoid was meant to depict an extremely depressed protagonist or indeed a sociopathic state. Given how quickly it was written this probably wasn’t all that well thought out. By the end though the intention, if any, does become clear with the closing lament: And so as you hear these words
telling you now of my state
I tell you to enjoy life — I wish I could but it’s too late
Clearly, at one time, the protagonist had been able to experience human emotions, but now finds them missing, and terrifyingly so — and is now giving sadly in to a vast and unsettling depression, rather than depicting a state of true personality. It becomes clearer that the protagonist is not alone, and that the person he was begging to help him occupy my braaaaaaiiiiin is now someone he has ceased begging, giving up all hope and saying instead that the best you can do is to keep yourself somehow from becoming like me. Whether or not this presents depression as something contagious, it reveals the depressive mind’s tendency to feel this way, and to seek or fall into sequestration.
The thing about paranoid is its overwhelming energy — the complete opposite of what it depicts. It’s as if all the lively energy once held by the speaker has been sutured out and translated into the song itself, the speed, glory, the thrashing heartbeat and above all the guitar solo creating a kind of corpus or at least critical mass, which coupled with the driving force and futile plea of depression creates the Ultimate Urgency we expect to hear from rock and roll but distilled — into metal.
In 1970, the year of their double album run, they appear live on top of the pops; this is a surreal gateway drug of a performance in which the camera epileptically switches out footage of various flashing guitars, and a mob of pastel clad kids attempts, so it appears, to do some kind of haphazard version of the twist to a song which alternately confuses and energises them — -certainly more the former, as they cast about in unlikely circles, unable to formulate a mosh pit or to make contact with each other. Shots of some hapless juvenile’s head bobbing out of tune as Tony Iommi drives home the satanic majesty of paranoid are posed like questions against footage of the band, dressed as, again, their own private version of Led Zeppelin of the time, in velvety Edwardian finery, Ozzy Osbourne’s then-mousy mane flopping around earnestly at shoulder length, the effect that of a twelve year old schoolboy fronting his older brother’s garage band. That guitar solo bends and sways out of nowhere, interrupting the song, almost, scattering the kids around who don’t know whether to keep bobbing their heads or summon a priest, but ending too quickly and too technically to come to a satisfying conclusion. Overall the band seem uncomfortable, and whether it’s the nervousness of appearing on the pops or the dissonance of being so far off your scene it’s impossible to tell: either way, this purple and green velvet clad psychedelic Sabbath are not in their element, casting around for some sort of outlet that doesn’t arise. The mechanical bull that they normally ride is very restrained: the all-important lunacy and tinderbox muscularity is suctioned away by the almighty supper hour power of the pops.
Opposing this is another example of the song live in 1970; Sabbath on a dark sea of a stage lit in the face by green lights, wearing open shirts and glinting steel crucifixes over their sweaters, nothing indicative of their desire to be Zeppelin or anyone other than Sabbath.
Ozzy’s longish mousy hair is swinging around with the surety of generations of metal moshers to follow him in subsequent decades, his unholy spawn: in the main line, though, he appreciates the stage with an full-forward enthusiasm of a giddy young boy, swinging around and enthusing, “Thank yougoodeveningfromBlack Sabbath — thank you!!!” excitedly at the end of the set, as though he can’t quite believe they are even there. With the black background and flashing light points and subtle camera pan, the once-chameleonic Sabbath embrace and then catch and release Raw Power years* before it “laughed at you and me” and The Stooges, and that guitar solo is completely unleashed, allowed to span in full dexterity into the background of night, twice as long and doused in gasoline as on the pops… and anything, really, but melancholy.
- ok hardly any