Why Do We Like Sad Songs?
I sometimes feel that I must be on an entirely different planet from those around me when it comes to music. When I tell people of my affinity for sad, melancholic melodies and painful, anguished lyrics I often get raised eyebrows in response. Whereas many people seem to choose to listen to happy, frivolous music to distract themselves from their sadness, I only find this kind of music irritating unless I am already in a buoyant mood. When feeling sad, I would much rather listen to something that brings me closer to the emotion and allows me to examine it in a thorough and meaningful way.
It is clear that I cannot be alone in feeling this way: if I was then Tom Waits would have spent his entire life working for the US Coastguard and a 30-year-old Leonard Cohen would have had to return to the family clothing business for lack of an audience for his songs. Plainly there are many people who share my feelings towards sad songs and the generally melancholic aspects of the human condition.
But why do we find ourselves attracted to sad things when surely, like everyone, we wish ultimately to be happy? I think it needs to be made clear that melancholy doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with depression, but that it rather has something to do with a feeling of intense authenticity. There certainly are people who go through life participating in the illusion that the world is really a very cheerful and jovial place, and for these people pensive and tragic works of art are not likely to provoke a positive response. But the reality that suffering is the basic foundation of life is not a closely guarded secret anywhere in the world. It is found everywhere in Eastern philosophy and religion, and is the basis of the first Noble Truth in Buddhism. The fallen and broken nature of man is the essence of Original Sin in Christianity. And for people who are engaged with this great metaphysical truth, melancholic reflection does not mean depression. For a person whose nature can respond to them, sad songs are far from depressing.
This is not to say that sad songs are necessarily uplifting, but rather that the serious nature of melancholic art has a kind of healing quality to it for those of us who are as easily destroyed by mindless frivolity as by oppressive depression. Seriousness is not the same as gloominess, and – to paraphrase a greater poet than I – it is an appropriate response to the condition we find ourselves in on the crust of this star.
There is indeed something very voluptuous about seriousness. There is a great relief that washes over a person when their ego and ambition are momentarily obliterated, leaving them only with pained acceptance that meaninglessness and conflict are the unshakeable roots of our experience in this world. And for one addressing this reality from a position of relative privilege and comfort, it will not do to lament casually. But through art, it is possible to express the lament within the strict confines of dignity and beauty.
Sad songs seem to somehow embrace the universe. They defeat you and force you to surrender. And in so doing, they capture the great, inevitable defeat that awaits all of us in this veil of tears. They involve not just the heart of the listener, but the hearts of all people everywhere – and for a moment they dissolve the illusion that we are alone. To once again borrow the language of the great master of sad songs, we see ourselves briefly for what we are: aching creatures in the midst of an aching cosmos; and for an ethereal moment, the ache is okay.