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May 11, 2014 | by  | in Features Homepage |
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Music’s for the Sad Man

Reading playlist: ‘Everybody Hurts’ by R.E.M, ‘The Drugs Don’t Work’ by The Verve, ‘Believe’ by Cher  

More than words
Thank God music is more than words. I genuinely thought Rihanna wanted me to love her like a hot pie. Despite my lyrical confusion, I’m plugged into my iPod for 70 per cent of the day. I need music to regulate bouncing between the extremities of the pissed-off–hungry–ecstatic emotion triangle that governs my existence. Beyond the bounds of this triangle, I’m not really one for emotion. Even so, I can tell a sad song before it smacks me in the face. ‘Hallelujah’ will always be the saddest song ever. It was the only song my grandfather voluntarily listened to, so at his funeral it was played the only way our family knows: at maximum volume with all the doors and windows open. My eyes leaked a bit.

A song’s technical elements help to convey emotion – we can recognise music as ‘sad’ even without lyrics. Sad songs are typically slow, and in minor key. Our interpretation depends on a mixture of composition and psychology. That we immediately recognise a minor key as sad relies on Western cultural preconceptions. A traditional celebratory Japanese wedding song, ‘Fo Rki Ngaroul’, sounds to my Western ears like an imminent warning of tragedy (maybe it is). As songs in minor key are characteristically used in sad movie scenes, we’re accustomed to interpret that sound as ‘sad’ – the drawn-out opening chords of Céline Dion’s ‘My Heart Will Go On’ is pretty much an autocue for tears at the end of Titanic. The same rules apply when we talk. When we’re excited, our pitch raises and we talk faster like a teenage girl who hasn’t seen her bestie since, like, YESTERDAY!

It’s a sad, sad situation
Recent studies into tone, volume and key trends in pop music show that over the past 50 years, our demand for sad songs has increased. No doubt our general nostalgic romanticism of the 1960s has something to do with the tone of the music at the time. With upbeat songs like ‘We Can Work it Out’ by The Beatles, it’s hard not to imagine life in the ‘60s as existing within a happy little yellow submarine. A research project led by E. Glenn Schellenberg and Christian von Scheve into changes in music’s emotional cues since the 1960s observed that the minor key has become a major player in the Billboard Magazine Hot 100 charts. Whereas in the ‘60s only 15 per cent of pop songs were written in a minor key, Shellenberg and von Scheve’s study revealed a staggering 60 per cent of current pop songs were written in a minor key, sounding darker and more melancholic. However, the emotions communicated through music now are more complex than in the ‘60s. While tone and speed changes make a song sound darker, song lyrics complicate things and can be emotionally confusing when you really pay attention. The lyrics of Alicia Keys’ ‘No One’ are empowering and uplifting, however the slow 90 BPM makes it  a heart-wrenching listening experience.

On one interpretation, the melancholic revolution can be put down to hardship and tragedy in society. This justification requires a pessimistic view of human development where social problems have steadily increased for 50 years. Perhaps that’s true. While the ‘60s were full of optimism for a brighter future, what have we really achieved? There’s still war, terrorism, poverty and abuse. Perhaps we’re just coming to grips with the fact that humanity is pretty inhumane, and that bleak reality is reflected in our music taste.

The mixture of technical and lyrical conventions taking over the charts means our current faves are emotionally ambiguous – somehow, shouting, “A disease of the mind it can control you / I think I’m going insaaaaane,” while making alluring eye contact with the object of your desire at Edison’s, translates to: “Come grind on me”. The popularity of emotionally ambiguous music could indicate we’re on the way up. Or maybe we’re happy to celebrate the fact that the world is a bit shit sometimes.

Another possible explanation recalls Year 11 Physics: public opinion sways between two extremes over 40-year periods, like a pendulum. 1963–2003 was a ‘me’ cycle, emphasising the power of the individual. Sad pop music is an inevitable result of the navel-gazing characteristic of the ‘me’ cycle. 2003–2043 is a ‘we’ cycle; public sentiment is cooperative and humble – we make self-deprecatory jokes while working with others to make the world a better place. Cute. This explains the recent surge in up-tempo pop songs that have united audiences the world over – think dancing to ‘Gangnam Style’, and the invitation to “clap along” with Pharrell Williams’ ‘Happy’. The pendulum theory also accounts for emotionally confused pop music – it seems we are in a transition phase.

When the feeling’s gone and you can’t go on
Or maybe sad music is popular because we just like it. There is something undeniably pleasing about joining Demi Lovato on the ‘Skyscraper’ emotional rollercoaster. Aristotle describes this as catharsis – by overwhelming us with an undesirable emotion, like sadness, we are purged of it. Participants in a recent Japanese study felt better after listening to sad music as it was far more tragic than their reality. Researcher Ai Kawakami reflected that the distance between the song and the listener is comforting as there is “no direct danger or harm unlike the emotion experienced in everyday life.” Instead, musical sadness is experienced vicariously. If the need to purge ourselves of sadness is so great, and sad songs are increasing in popularity, are we then a sad population? High demand for mental-health services at Victoria University and the propensity of anti-depression campaigns in the media suggest we might be. Or maybe we’re just more aware.

Fuck this world, let’s get the fuck outta here
Our demand for moody tunes is not inconsequential. The ever-expanding 27 Club suggests catharsis comes at a cost. Does melancholy kill the radio star? It seems sex, drugs and rock’n’roll has become a synonym for tragic death. Lead singer of Nirvana, Kurt Cobain, frequently repeated that he was shocked by the popular reception of music that was so personal to him (nevermind the fact that many of his lyrics are inaudible), and fell into heroin as a form of protection (or so it’s now said). Cobain’s death in 1994 saw him join the ranks of the 27 Club, an ever-expanding compilation of musicians who have died at the age of 27, usually as a result of substance abuse, homicide or suicide. Cobain joined Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, and was later accompanied by Amy Winehouse.

Premature death of musical genius is not restricted to those aged 27. Jeff Buckley drowned in a river in Memphis while singing ‘Whole Lotta Love’ by Led Zeppelin. I’m not sure if this is bleak or beautiful, but it sure makes ‘Hallelujah’ a whole lot sadder. Tragedy extends beyond the musician themselves. Peaches Geldof, daughter of rock god Bob Geldof, and L’Wren Scott, stylist, designer, and girlfriend of Mick Jagger, took their own lives in the past two months.

Why is tragedy such a big part of being a musician? The biography of Kurt Cobain is such a common, rehashed narrative because his story so perfectly embodies the difficulty of becoming the emotional voice of millions. Is tragic suicide and drug overdose too high a price to pay to have our souls momentarily soothed by ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’? Or is it a necessary sacrifice? Surely, with such devastating repercussions, we should be looking more carefully at our listening habits.

Looking back at the development of music, it appears that tragedy and struggle are inseparable from successful music. R&B stemmed from the struggle of black slaves. Taylor Swift’s most popular hits arise out of her breakups. Rather than music being the cause of tragedy, it would seem that an element of emotional volatility is necessary for pop-culture success. In fact, Amy Winehouse seemed to endorse such culture in her hit single ‘Rehab’ – a groovy tune celebrating the refusal of rehabilitation. Our music choices reveal unconscious elements of our emotional selves; it pays to tune in.

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