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.

I Don’t Look Happy, but Should I?

Okay, it’s been a while since I posted. Lots of things happened. Lots of things still happening, actually. But I’m here, and it’s good to be back.

Some people who saw that last sentence probably are imagining someone male, scrawny but good-looking with a Jake Gyllenhall/Adam Levine thing going on, flashing a megawatt smile and pumping his fists in the air, sleeves on his collared shirt rolled up to the elbows, emitting a general “let’s do this!” vibe of positivity.

Well. That’s not me.

That’s Me in the Corner

And that’s not been me forever. Well, not literally. Just for as long as I can remember, I suppose.

(Note: This is not a cry for help. A lot of the things I write from here on in may seem sad or depressing, and I can’t stop anyone from seeing it that way. But it’s a description of things the way I see them.)

I wasn’t the saddest kid on the block or anything, but I was never a zipping pocket of energy either. Why bother? There were enough unruly kids in the neighborhood or in the classroom, so why should I take on that role? It would’ve been redundant, and it would’ve resulted in more pediatric Brownian motion than the adults could handle. Kids are called “bundles of joy”, but even back then I had an inkling that the phrase was used as some sort of ironic joke by hassled, frazzled, at-the-end-of-their-rope parents more often than it’s polite to admit. Warped? Maybe. Misinformed? Possibly. Perhaps you could chalk that up to early exposure to sitcoms. Whatever the reason, I thought it was better to stay still and be as non-disruptive as possible. If I could stay out of people’s way, it would be better. Less contact, less friction.

I still think like that. Old habits die hard.

Yes, I think I'll stay in my alone jar for a while. What, you don't have one?
“Yes, I think I’ll stay in my alone jar for a while. What, you don’t have one?”

And it’s not just for others’ sake that I want to be alone sometimes. It’s also because I just want to be alone sometimes. It’s irrational, but I find it exhausting to be social. I know that humans are social beings, it’s important to maintain networks, you have to acquire bridging capital so that you can make small talk and keep networks alive, et cetera. But the idea of being always on, especially in this age of social media and constant connection, sounds like a chore to me. For me, when it comes to using my free time, it’s often more important to rest than to connect. I need to be rested so that I can remember to be a half-decent human being. I can’t be the life of the party, but I certainly can smile and nod politely with the best of them, as long as I’ve slept properly.

In Defense of the Gray

Don’t understand what I mean? Well, if you’ve ever heard someone say “I’m not a morning person”, then that will give you an idea of what I’m talking about. Still not sure you get it? Watch this video of one of my all-time favorite ads.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that it’s wrong for people to be all bright and smiling and brimming with enthusiasm. I’m just saying that I’m the kind of guy who can’t muster up that kind of mood most of the time, and find it annoying when people expect me to. And I’m certain I’m not alone. Plus, in my personally pessimistic opinion, if you’re happy all the time, it’s not happiness. You need troughs to have crests. You need valleys to have peaks. You need negatives to have positives. Otherwise, it’s just one long, flat, unfulfilling plateau.

And it’s not as if a person’s emotions are set on binary mode. It’s not as simple as “you’re either happy or sad”. There’s a whole spectrum of possibilities, between drug-high euphoria and total staring-into-the-abyss depression. And for each degree of happiness/sadness, there is a different flavor thereof. For instance, there’s being happy from bonding with family, and there’s being happy from hanging out with friends/co-workers/other people whose company you can actually enjoy. And there’s being sad because you have to go to school or work again, and there’s sad because you’ve been eating the same meal for the past three days.

But sometimes, people come up to me and say “cheer up, sourpuss”, “turn that frown upside down”, “smiling is a tax-free activity, you know”, or something that suggests I look sad, and I should work to be happy and look it instead. And I’m sometimes frustrated when people act as if those are the only two choices one should have.

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“Hi, my name is Leo, and I confess that I am not deliriously over the moon 100% of the time.”

Look, I get it. It’s easier to live life with just a limited set of assumptions and choices, and to operate as if other possibilities are a non-issue. It’s more convenient to just work with the assumption that people have to be happy all of the time, and things get easier when people are happy. The thing is, not everyone can be enthusiastic. Not everyone expresses their happiness in whoops, howls, and fist pumps. Not everyone can manage anything much more than a tight-lipped grin.

So I submit that just like how standards of beauty don’t have to be set in stone or imposed, so too should standards of looking happy not be imposed. A Colgate smile should not be mandatory apparel for happiness.