Do you have to be sad to write sad songs? Or to listen to them?
Heels in hand on a lonely walk home, drunk with a cigarette in hand, eyes wet with mascara running down a face; a boozed up boy stumbling home, comforted only by his silent sufferings and that cloud of loneliness he has named “Independence;” feeling the harsh side effects of frozen time and buried memories while past mistakes physically pass you by; unrequited eyes repressing drunken decisions as he stares at some sparkling girl across a dank, crowded bar.
Buckley is “broken down and hungry for (her) love.” “I used to be carried in the arms of cheerleaders,” sings a retrospective Matt Berninger. Annie Clark has “had some good times with some bad guys.” A begging Julian Casablancas ponders, “Is this it? Is this it?” while Adam Granduciel is “wondering if you care, callin’ out your name in the darkness.” Amy knows that “all I can ever be to you is the darkness that we knew.” “In her eyes you see nothing, no sign of love behind the tears” sings Paul as he peels at the remaining frays of a lost relationship.
For decades artists have delved into their personal experiences to render explanation, meaning, closure or solace for themselves and their listeners. Every time an album or track is played, collections of mistakes, tragedies and losses are sprung into headphones and speaker systems.
Isn’t that correct, or do I have it all wrong? Musn’t a person have experienced some sort of emotional pain to encourage such touching works of lyricism? Mustn’t your life be as painful as it is wonderful for it to be written well? Doesn’t a positive correlation exist between artistic depth and depression? Do you have to be sad to write sad songs? And if that is true, do you have to be sad in order to listen to sad music? Such is the question that Dick proposes in Nick Hornby’s “High Fidelity.” Such is the one I wish to answer.
What throws these artists into their sadness is the haunting variable. Retrospectively examining the lives of artists lost, like Kurt Cobain or Jeff Buckley, offers little consolation. We can re-examine the words within their legendary musings. We can dissect the heaviness of their guitar or the frailty of their voice. But who is to say what it all really means? How do you confidently correlate the sadness of a lyric to the demons of a person’s private life?
Some artists have made it easy, if not obvious, that their music is directly connected to some level of personal sadness. Ryan Adams, for example, has publicly discussed his battle with addiction and depression over the course of his expansive career. Similarly, Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes allows his albums to work as markers of his darkest and happiest experiences. The difference in sonic and lyrical attitude between his first and most recent album is jarring.
While some are haunted by the ghosts of their own mind, others are drawn into the fog and erratic pleasures of drugs and alcohol. Musicians have buried themselves in these pernicious pastimes for as long as their craft has existed. Cole Porter threw one too many back in the same way Joe Cocker did. Uppers, downers and every drug in between have lined the walls of dressing rooms since the 1960s. Before taking the lives of these artists, among them Ms. Winehouse, Mr. Morrison and Ms. Joplin, drug use followed their greatest musical accomplishments. The exact reason for use of these drugs varies: where some artists did a line to feel something, others did it to provoke inspiration or thought from the banal or practiced.
Maybe artists feel everything more intensely than the average individual. Maybe the depression of the everyday college student isn’t comparable to the brain chemistry of the suffering Nick Drake. But maybe they should be.
Because the universal music community glorifies the work of artists like Nick Drake, Brian Wilson and Ian Curtis, we place their inner struggles on a higher terrain. We glorify their diseases as stimulators for musical excellence. How backwards that thinking is. And, concurrently, how dangerous. Depression is a belittled, universal malady. It’s a serious medical condition that puritanical America prefers to ignore. The disease helps affected individuals harbor hidden sadnesses that can end lives. And even when they don’t, the sadnesses can ruin them.
The human experience has always guaranteed a certainty of sadness and conflict. There is no good without bad, no best times of your life without the worst. But I think we prefer to only focus on the good. I think we are consistently pushing down the bad to make more room for productivity, success and the supposed “good times.” Art recognizes all the emotions that belie the masks of happiness we wear. All forms of art, and music especially, help us to feel less alone in our sadness or misunderstandings.
So why not delve into the deep end of emotion? Why not perpetually accept sadness and the likelihood of it? If we accept sadness and conflict as the constants they are, we’ll render a community less judgemental of the art we experience. We can listen to sad songs when we’re happy, purely out of an appreciation and understanding of another human’s shared experiences. Some sad songs make me happy because of the comfort they provide. How magical it is that someone you’ve never met, and probably never will, understands your struggle more than anyone else? How fantastic it is that one or two clicks on a computer can produce a person who gets it, too?
I’m still not sure if you have to be sad to write a sad song. My forced answer is, however, that I assume so. Roy Orbison’s “Only the Lonely (Know How I Feel),” a song that is definitively depressing, had to be written from a place of deep struggle and sadness. Bruce Springsteen is quoted with saying that the “Darkness on the Edge of Town” album saved him from his spiraling decline in mental health. “Fake Plastic Trees” by Radiohead holds a plot that immediately depresses me. Whether fictional or not, the storyline is derived from a position of understanding another’s sadness. Telling the tale of some broken girl paying tribute to some broken man, Mr. Yorke isn’t speaking from personal experience. He’s speaking from understanding.
I don’t believe in a required level of personal sadness in order to validate or consider sad songs. Enjoy, instead, this spectrum of emotion. Take comfort in the struggle of others. Let that self-awareness invade your life. Allow yourself to understand that pain so that you’re more gentle with another’s or your own. Contemporary cultures have placed depression on some artistic higher ground. Take it down; replace it with understanding, appreciation, and hope. Let’s be better, let’s try and get better.