Blue is special for many reasons. Blue is a word of emotional relevance. We empathize with this color, invest ourselves in it so deeply and have created art with it that serves a similar repeated purpose for so long, that all someone has to say is “I’m feeling blue” and we all nod our heads in sympathy. In nature, there is just one creature that produces a truly blue pigment — the obrina olivewing butterfly. All the rest of the plants and animals simply reflect blue light rather than produce it themselves. What synesthetes blue makes of us all!
It makes sense, then, that musicians would gravitate toward the color; blue is not a straightforward color and is therefore not a straightforward sadness. It seems more like a medium to be lost in. When I search “blue” in my saved songs, 94 matches pop up. There are so many different works that have been made, and with such different meaning and intent, that all tie themselves back to the color blue (think: “Blue Slide Park” by Mac Miller versus “Helplessness Blues” by Fleet Foxes versus “Blue” by Joni Mitchell).
It is a color that gives questions rather than answers, something the eccentric and mysterious ’90s dream-rock/shoegaze band Mazzy Star seemed to understand with their song “Blue Light”: “There’s a blue light / In my best friend’s room / There’s a blue light / In his eye,” the song begins, followed by “There’s a ship / That sails by my window / … There’s a world under it / I think I see it / Sailing away.”
There is possibility presented, deep pools of possibility that they stare into. Meanwhile, “Pale Blue Dot” by Big Wild, an EDM track with no lyrics, recognizes this same yearning intensity in the color. With no lyrics, the song has only this driving emotion to go off of by focusing a vast feeling on one point.
“Pale Blue Eyes” by the Velvet Underground again defines its shade of blue, specifying slightly with “pale” but simultaneously making it innately personal, known only to Lou Reed as he references his beloved’s eyes. They hold temptation and mystique, as he draws out the phrase “Linger on …”. The eyes belong to a married woman; just like a blue light illuminating a window, she is out of reach some way, somehow.
“Out of the blue” is an expression of mystery, one that coalesces all blue into a shroud that one emerges from. It covers our beings until we suddenly come out of it. “The Blue,” a neo-soul/hip-hop track by Buddy and featuring Snoop Dogg, centers on Buddy’s love emerging into his life all of a sudden. This expression depicts being released from this state of blue as something positive, telling us that blue cannot be a permanent state that we are allowed to exist in. And yet, it is something that so many artists yearn toward.
In “Blue,” a Lucinda Williams track with her old country charm and a touch more melancholy than usual, she requests, “I don’t wanna talk / I just wanna go back to blue.” It is another world that she can choose to revel in, telling us, “You can count your blessings / I’ll just count on blue.” And of course, Joni named her masterpiece after it, gathering a whole album’s worth of songs into a collection made of blue.
Blue is almost impossible to define, except through a series of near misses. “Your heart’s a thousand colors but they’re all shades of blue,” Gregory Alan Isakov laments in “All Shades of Blue” about exactly how infinite the color is. A particular ‘quarantine favorite’ of mine was “Searching the Blue” by the Arcs, an indie-rock band that takes on a dreamy feel with this track. It precisely captures this lost feeling, as they hope to find something in the mysterious color. Further, “Tangled Up in Blue” by Bob Dylan similarly has just about a million things that it could represent, seemingly everything except for the actual color itself. “Tangled up in blue” is the one line he repeats throughout the song. It is the thing he can never get away from and perhaps never wants to escape.
Blue can encapsulate a place (such as in “Blue Mountains” by Peter Doran featuring Haley Heynderickx or “Blue Ridge Mountains” by Fleet Foxes). Often, it is a place to escape to or dream of. The canvas for dreams most certainly starts out blue.
Of course, out of many different options, blue is also sadness. In “Blues Run the Game” by Jackson C. Frank (though I also recommend the Simon & Garfunkel version), he admits that wherever he goes, “blues run the game.” He is always and consistently enveloped by this particular shade and meaning of blue, as are many other musicians who find an outlet for that feeling in their music.
In this sense, the color can turn suffocating, overwhelming or simply omnipresent. Do you ever think about what all this blue would do to you?
Daily Arts Writer Rosa Sofia Kaminski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.