I love sad music. It’s sort of a guilty pleasure. Sadness feels like an indulgence, especially considering that I’m in an ongoing battle with depression. A friend once asked me if listening to sad music makes me feel better or worse. At the time I told him it was a catharsis, that by getting myself to feel really sad, I could experience it fully, satisfy the melancholy part of myself, and then put it away. I’m no longer sure that’s true. There’s certainly that part of me that wants deep, heart-rending sadness. That loves to watch sad movies, read books that bring me to tears, and listen to songs like “Fred Jones Pt 2” by Ben Folds (or, honestly, any Ben Folds song. The dude is the master of melancholy.) But I’m not sure if it’s a beast that can be sated, or a black hole that sucks in sadness and only grows more hungry.
That said, I think sad songs (and movies, and books, and so on) are very important. There can be a sort of naked honesty to it. There is the danger of being mawkish or melodramatic, of course, but that’s true of any attempt to express an emotion. Done right, sadness (and joy, and love, and horror…) can be an insight into the human experience. It hits a note of truth that would be impossible without the bare confession of the emotion. Consider, for instance, this brilliant lecture by Nick Cave (warning: automatic audio of the lecture):
Though the love song comes in many guises – songs of exaltation and praise, of rage and of despair, erotic songs, songs of abandonment and loss – they all address God, for it is the haunted premise of longing that the true love song inhabits. It is a howl in the void for love and for comfort, and it lives on the lips of the child crying for his mother. It is the song of the lover in need of their loved one, the raving of the lunatic supplicant petitioning his God. It is the cry of one chained to the earth and craving flight, a flight into inspiration and imagination and divinity. The love song is the sound of our endeavours to become God-like, to rise up and above the earth-bound and the mediocre. I believe the love song to be a sad song. It is the noise of sorrow itself.
A love song is empty without sadness. Consider also the song I mentioned above: “Fred Jones Pt 2” by Ben Folds.
There was no party, and there were no songs
‘Cause today’s just a day like the day that he started
And no one is left here who knows his first name
And life barrels on like a runaway train
Where the passengers change, but they don’t change anything
You get off someone else can get on
And “I’m sorry, Mr. Jones, it’s time”
It’s not a love song, but a song about a man retiring and realizing that his life has made no difference. That all his leaving does is make a spot for a younger person. It is heartbreaking because it’s true, and the truth hinges on that heartbreak.
It’s possible that listening to sad songs does ultimately make my mood worse, not better. I need to monitor my intake, and balance it out with happy songs (Weird Al’s album Mandatory Fun is my current bouncy music of choice). But I won’t be giving them up, because I think it’s important to be in touch with the melancholy in all of us.