The Case for “Sad” Songs

So, still continuing my musings on sadness. I just came from a party this past weekend, where I had the most fun I remember having had in a while. I acted like an idiot for a while out of my week, and it was great. It’s nice to think sometimes that nothing matters, and you can act any way you want, no matter what it looks like. I may act serious, but there are moments when the prospect of just letting go of inhibitions, having fun, and not caring about appearances or formality, is something I fantasize about.

drunk businessmen without inhibitions
Clearly, these are men to be envied.

But not caring how you act or what you look like can go both ways. Sometimes you want to be just really out-of-your-mind happy, but other times, you just want to vent all your frustrations, your sadness, and your worries. You may not be able to find the solutions within your sphere of influence (hence your frustrations), and sometimes the only way to let go of them is to just express them all away, however you can manage it.

drunk businessmen without inhibitions
Again, men to be envied.

Sadness: One mood, multiple coping mechanisms

And that’s the thing about sadness. The cure for it isn’t always to find something else to think about, talk about, write about, or sing about (though that’s a good approach to take a lot of the time; I’m writing this blog post to occupy my thoughts and distract myself from other things for a while). Sometimes, the cure is to create a picture of the problem, make it as clear and definite as possible, so that you can wrap your head around it and see its actual scope. Then you can start to deal.

Now, not all of us have that gift or ability to define our own problems. When you’re in the thick of something, you’re living a moment, it’s not easy to create that picture. Not everything can be captured in selfies or other pictures. So, you have to find a way to express your sadness without expressing it yourself.

That’s where sad songs come in.

It’s Catchy because It’s True

“Forget You”. “Some Nights”. “King of Anything”.  “Hey Ya”. What do these have in common? They’re all sad songs. Oh sure, they sound upbeat, but if you look at the lyrics, you’ll see that they’re not purely happy. Don’t believe me? Just Google it for a bit. I can wait. If you can spare a few more minutes (and aren’t squeamish about mature situations or slightly blue language), you can read this article on upbeat but depressing songs while you’re away.

The thing about songs is that they can be very twisted. They describe sad or frustrating situations, and they’re camouflaged in toe-tapping and sometimes downright infectiously dance-inducing beats. Songs can have incredibly multiple layers of meaning, which is just another way of saying that songwriters can mess with people through their songs.

But even if people recognize these songs to be depressing as anything, they still like them. Why? Because they describe pain and frustration, and they describe them in a way that the average human being cannot ever manage by himself or herself… not within five minutes, anyway, which is the time most of us truly have for moping around. No sense in waiting for a thunderstorm or spending hours walking head-down around town. Oh sure, the weekends and Friday nights are there for clubbing, drinking, parties, and such, but until then, how do you cope? By blaring loud music into your listening holes. Heck, even the downright depressing songs can be cathartic. No matter what genre or artist people prefer, everyone gets sad, and music can be surprisingly effective in chasing those blues away.

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Creative rendition only.

Some people may be saying “I don’t need those sad songs in my playlist. I have a perfectly happy life, I’m a happy person, and I have happy relationships that will never be sad, so there’s no need to bring those downers and bad vibes in”. Well, I can’t really contest those people; I can never know about their life for sure. But I think that situation of perfect happiness is highly unlikely. If there are people who claim to live such lives, I suspect they deserve congratulations for living in the most insulated, hermetically sealed emotional bubble ever. Or for being delusional or in some sort of denial.

Love, Plain and Simple

So last week I bought Jason Mraz’s new album Love Is a Four-Letter Word. Simple album art, simple sleeve. And, sure enough, when I played it, there were simple songs.

What do I mean by simple? Well, let’s take some of the songs for example. I Won’t Give Up is a declaration of a love that will not surrender.

I won’t give up on us
Even if the skies get rough
I’m giving you all my love
I’m still looking up

Even though the imagery of skies evokes a sense of grandness, and there’s an absolute declaration there (“I’m giving you all my love”), the words are simple in that it feels like they’ve been sung by so many other singers. Consider also the lyrics from The Woman I Love:

We don’t have to hurry
You can take as long as you want
I’m holdin’ steady
My heart’s at home
With my hand behind you
I will catch you if you fall
Yeah I’m gonna love you like the woman I love

Again, simple words that sound like they should be familiar. Sometimes I feel sorry for singers and songwriters; it’s difficult to touch on new artistic ground when so many other musicians have lived, played, and died before you were even born. But Jason’s voice, which I think will always sound like a boy’s, makes me listen as if they were new and more sincere.

But the song that spoke straight to my heart was the eighth track, called Frank D. Fixer:

Frank D. Fixer was a handyman
He could handle everything; he was my granddad
He grew his own food and fixed his own car
I watched it all happen in our backyard
He’d reinvent the part to fix the broken home
He restored the heart

The first verse sets the tone for the entire song, in which he wishes that he could express love the same way his grandfather could. This is a form of love that is rarely sung about; forget about buying things, or fighting a world that won’t let you be together, or being so attracted to the cutest guy/girl in your school. What this song extols is a man who was steady, level-headed, and able to set things right for his family.

This is a sincere, basic form of love, free from abstract concepts like “forever” and “soul.” Though the lyrics referred to gestures like “restoring the heart” or “building a town if the world came down,” those are just flourishes of artistic license. What I think of when I hear the song is a love that is as good and honest as a bar of soap. It may sound boring to some, but to me, it’s something that’s sorely under-represented in music nowadays.

The album isn’t restricted to romantic love, either. There are also songs about love of the world (93 Million Miles), love of life (Living in the Moment), and even a song expressing his love of expression (Everything is Sound), but they’re sung in the same effortless, bombast-free way.

A simple album with simple songs. And quite simply, I loved it.

Beautiful Blanks

Being born in this generation, where one is exposed to content from various media, I can’t avoid being influenced by songs I like. I hear a certain line, listen to a certain riff or hook, and it sticks. Why? Is it because it connects with my emotions and personality? Or is it because my personality, through continuous exposure to it, has been molded and shaped to prefer a particular kind of music? Not sure.

One of the bands that I responded strongly to was a band called Sugarfree. The first album was released in 2003; the last was released in 2009. There were five in all, and each one was good. The songs’ themes were all sentimental, oscillating between celebrating the experience of love and mourning its passing. A few songs explored other themes, but a large part, like much of Filipino music, was focused on love. The melodies were great, and the lyrics never failed to blow me away.

Here is one song of theirs I like. It’s entitled “Burnout.” Roughly translated into English, here is how it goes:

Oh don’t look at me
In the way you’re doing right now
Don’t bother me
Don’t ask me a thing

Because just like you
I have changed
We are not the way we were
Moments pass so quickly

Chorus:
Oh for a long time, I have loved you
Oh for a long time, I have loved you

If you consider things
It didn’t use to be like this
Just a minute, hold on
When did we start feeling put off?

If you consider things
It didn’t use to be like this
It’s just that life is so fast
Even we were swept away

(Chorus)

Oooh… Ooh..

I call to you
I woo you
Though you don’t hear it
Though you don’t feel it

Oh for a long time, I will love you
Oh for a long time, I will love you

The translation is clumsy, of course. Reading it again, I see so much of the impact is lost in English. But considering how little is said about the actual relationship between the singer and the one for whom the song is sung, it’s amazing how much emotion gets through. That’s the beauty of it. The listener is left to imagine what they are going through, what could have possibly brought them where they are. Never mind describing their faces, the place they’re in, how many tears are falling, or what they’re arguing about. Let’s not even talk about their gender (the video notwithstanding; the song by itself leaves it open). All that’s irrelevant. The listener can fill in the blanks however he or she likes, using whatever experience he or she has gone through.

Great songs are like that. Universal, but not generic. It’s sad that Sugarfree have broken up (the lead singer, Ebe Dancel, is still in music, and has come up with a solo album), but I will always have a soft spot for music like theirs: music that leaves room for musing.