I spent Saturday morning perched on the couch in my common room, listening to my “sad music” playlist. When Spotify rolled around to Everybody Hurts by REM, my suitemates emerged from their room, concern etched on their faces, ready for the tragedy that they were certain had befallen me.
Rivers of ink that have flown from the headwater of the question — why are we so drawn to sad music? Psychologists rationalize this using the physiological effects of sad music on our neural circuits. Sadness in the context of aesthetic experiences has actually been found to inhibit “displeasure circuits.”
In many ways, our societal obsession with sad songs is the legacy of our lofty conception of romanticism. The most meaningful moments of our life are marked by extremes — unbelievable joy, crushing sadness. Listening to sad songs after a difficult day, a bad break-up, an unfair fight with a friend, is an attempt to cast ourselves as protagonists in the narrative of our lives. If we are the main characters in our own lives, the sad songs we turn to are the soundtrack for our moments of transformation, after which we may molt our sadness and ascend to exultation.
Steeping ourselves in emotion can be both cathartic — allowing ourselves to feel our sorrow more profoundly — and distracting. Listening to Eric Clapton’s song about the death of his son can be a reminder to recontextualize our own sorrow, something I certainly struggle with as a precocious, self-important adolescent. Listening to Rocket Man, on the other hand, reassures us that we are not the only people who are burning out fuses. We build community through shared sadness, or our appreciation of shared sadness, especially when that sadness is aesthetic. Friendships are built on sad songs, a gateway to conversations about musical taste and shared challenges, especially if our attraction to Flowers from the Man who Shot your Cousin stems from the same sad backstory.
The more curious phenomenon, then, is why we are so drawn to sad music even in our happy moments. For instance, I am embarrassed to admit how many times I have worked out to Adele, much to the chagrin of many friends. While “Set Fire to the Rain” certainly doesn’t get the blood pumping like “Till I Collapse” does, it has a certain emotional resonance, a je ne sais quoi.
Sad songs in happy times are the perfect reminder to appreciate our ephemeral happinesses, our transient successes, whose existence can often be so fragile. The success of an excellent midterm that you poured your heart into is oft-overshadowed by the stress of your now-impending PSET. The impeccable ~vibes~ of dance circle populated by all your closest friends, singing along to one of your favorite songs, only comes along so often. If sadness teaches us to feel more deeply, sad songs teach us to feel more comfortable with sadness itself.
The ultimate and unassailable truth, however, is that sad songs are just more captivating than happy ones. I am a big fan of upbeat music, especially during Christmastime. I love Michael Bublé and Jason Derulo as much as the next Bublé or Derulo head. However, they often pale in comparison to the heartrending belts of an artist pouring their soul into a ballad. The platitude is that times of abject dejection are the times of greatest growth, of greatest inspiration. If that is true, it explains why songs written by artists during their darkest hours are so undeniably poignant — they explain sadness in a way that is as authentic as it is universal.
Holiday music proves the same point by contradiction. Songs associated with the holiday season are pills of happiness — preaching the joys of family, community and enjoyment — in a way that everyone can relate to. But this works because these songs operate on a foundation of memory. They draw on a festival built on shared joy, tapping into the heartbeat of what community has the potential to be. Try listening to Gene Kelly’s Singing in the Rain one-off, and viewing it as anything other than saccharine schmaltz.
History has proved we cannot conceive of our own happiness. Moments of joy can be both ephemeral and complex, such that it is hard to pinpoint exactly what makes us happy. We are skilled at predicting what makes us sad. The task of conveying happiness in words and images, then, is much harder than depicting sadness. Rain pouring down the windshield of a car, as you hang your head out of the window, is a more striking image of resignation than a dandelion swaying in the gentle breeze is of joy.
I spent this Saturday morning steeping myself in the cathartic pleasures of R.E.M’s sorrow, not because of any despair of my own, but rather a need to be reminded of hope. Later that night, I sat with friends in the same common room, perched on the same couch, letting the minor, melancholic melodies of Sondheim’s Being Alive wash over us, as we pondered the tender joys and fraught hopes of being “crowded with love”, of “being forced to care” and of “being alive.”