Sunday, November 6, 2011

Suspiciously sad

Jerry strummed the first few chords of his next song. To his right was Mike, another guitar player. I sat behind him at Duncan Stitt's keyboard. We were sharing the stage at a songwriters' open mic.

"The songs Susan and Mike just played were pretty happy," said Jerry. "I'm going to play a sad song."

He did—a lovely, wistful breakup tune. When he finished, it was my turn again.

"Like the last song, mine is also a sad tale, filled with regret," I said, and launched into Quicksand.

* * *

It was a running theme. Every time one of the performers played something that wasn't cheerful, they would point it out. As if music is by default happy and upbeat, and anything that deviates from this requires an apology, or at least an explanation.

I'm not sure why. Songs are meant to convey a full range of emotions. Sadness is kind of an important one. And when I'm feeling down, the last thing I want to do is listen to music that tries to convince me all is right with the world. I seek out something that suits my mood. Only after a few sad or angry songs am I ready to consider anything more upbeat.

So why were we defensive about what we'd written?

Do some listeners conflate "sad" with "low energy" and "boring"?

Have we as a society bought into positive thinking to such a degree that we don't want to acknowledge negativity even in our art?

What do you think? Do you avoid sad songs? If yes, why?


Duncan Stitt said...

As a writer, I try to make a sad song interesting - like "Coffeehouse" - one of the saddest songs I've ever written, but there is an element of comedy to it, which gives the listener a reason to root for the protagonist. Likewise, in "Quicksand", "hindsight holds the key to my salvation" indicates that the singer's predicament is temporary and resolution is coming. In other words, a well-written sad song gives hope to the listener - hope in knowing that others have gone through the same hell and made it to the other side.

The mantra in Nashville is "uptempo positive" which puts songwriters in a defensive position when the present a sad song. This might be why they apologize. In other words, I think the anti-sad song attitude is an industry thing rather than a cultural thing, in that sad songs still find commercial success. If I still listened to the radio I could quote some examples...

Speaking personally, I totally ruined a sad song by doing a happy re-write of it after getting critiques from both a Nashville publisher and my GF. The happy version, "Heather and Rose" is on my "No Dog..." CD. I'm still sick about it. The sad version was gut-wrenching. The rewrite is fluff. As noted songwriter Steve Seskin says: "I'd rather reach half the audience with a powerful song that turns off the other half of the audience than present a watered-down version that makes everyone in the audience say 'that was nice', after which they'll forget about it." (I'm paraphrasing here, but you get the gist of it.)

When people are sad, they want to commiserate with like-minded souls. There's nothing wrong with that. It's just human nature - part of the grieving process.

I was going to play another sad one today, but couldn't find the music for it. It's about a guy observing a drunk lady in a bar who appears to be meeting her lover for an afternoon quickie. At the end of the song, the listener discovers the observer is the lady's husband, hidden in a dark corner, watching, unable to find the courage to interrupt the proceedings. Now that's my kind of sad song.

Brian McDonald said...

Maybe I'm reading into your use of italics, but Jerry comes off a little douchey. "I'M going to play a sad song" like it's some kind of morally righteous thing to be miserable, like a coffee shop Morrisey.

I think some people believe that the darker emotions are just more valid, like it's just RIGHT to be sad when the world is such a mess. Maybe that's because the pop world is full of shitty pop songs that are mindlessly cheerful and upbeat. Maybe Poison didn't need nothin' but a good time, but there are children starving in Africa, so how dare you have fun?

It may also be partly HOW people listen to music. Many people, when they feel sad or angry, play songs designed to cheer them up. Nobody happy has ever played music designed to make them depressed.

Sad songs often ARE low energy, and tend to have a "dark energy" about them. Doesn't mean they have to be boring, of course. That's all on the writer.

cinderkeys said...

If Jerry comes off as douchey in this story, it's the fault of my writing. In real life he was more self-effacing and humorous -- as if he had to warn the audience that he'd be bringing them down.

I'll comment more after more people have had a chance to weigh in. Just wanted to defend Jerry now that I've unintentionally maligned his character. :)

KipperCat said...

I don't avoid listening to sad songs. They can be healing in their own way. We have to feel our sadness before we can get past it. Sadness is a part of the human condition.

I do prefer books with relatively happy endings. As a person with ME, there's enough ongoing pain and difficulty in my own life. I don't enjoy reading about someone else's unresolved pain and difficulties.

KipperCat said...

ps I'm not a musician. During years of sound sensitivity due to ME/CFS I could barely tolerate any music at all. Thankfully, that problem has mostly ended for me.

cinderkeys said...

Shoot, I meant to get back to this a while ago ...

I agree that sad people want to commiserate with like-minded souls, and that they don't have to be boring. Very few of the people at this open mic were well acquainted with Nashville, though, so they wouldn't have received the uptempo-positive brainwashing.

This merits further thinking ...