by Carrie Courogen
A few years ago, I sent one of my friends my feelings playlist for the first time. Normally one of the happiest, most reasonably well-adjusted people I know, she was uncharacteristically upset about something. For once in her life, she just wanted some music to cry to.
“Why are there SEVEN versions of Landslide on this playlist? Do you want to die?” she texted me shortly after opening Spotify, dismayed at how, um, comprehensive the playlist turned out to be.
I love sad music with the enthusiasm and passion of a thousand Oprah giveaways. I know that sounds contradictory — who is excited about sad music? — but there’s some masochistic part of my brain that lights up when emotional songs start to play. I’ve spent years dumping songs that trigger that response in some way or another into my all the feels playlist, an eclectic curation of some of the most emotional songs on the planet in one place, every version of “Landslide” available on Spotify (it’s grown to nine now) included and at least 200 more.
The truth is, whenever I’m feeling off or anxious, distraught, lonely, or that weird homesick feeling where you miss something but you’re not really sure what it is you miss, I immediately turn to all the feels. I am the kind of person who needs to wallow in my sadness when I’m feeling it, sit with it and let it run its course before waving it goodbye. I’m aware of the opinions so many people have about those who willingly subject themselves to unhappy music. They are often the kinds of people who like to listen to happy music when they’re down in an effort to cheer themselves up. Those people are psychopaths and I don’t trust them, nor do I have time for their judgement. I just want to (un)happily listen to my depressing music in peace.
Hear me out: Being sad is not a bad thing. As living, breathing human beings, particularly ones tasked with the difficult job of being alive in the year 2018, we have feelings! And all of our feelings are valid ones! “Happy” may be viewed as the default setting, but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t indulge in, or at the very least acknowledge and respect, our other emotions as they come along. That means all of them, even the depressing ones.
Why do some people love sad music? Why are we suckers for something that makes us feel bad? In a 2013 study by researchers at Tokyo University of the Arts, 44 people were tasked with listening to excerpts of sad music in an attempt to understand this. While their samples were limited to classical compositions in minor keys (the key of all melancholy) and didn’t include well-known songs with lyrics, which could have personal memories attached to them, they came up with a few conclusions. One that sticks out the most is the idea that listening to music that was sadder than their own lives made them feel less upset themselves — a theory that rings even more true once you apply it to a desire to listen to devastating songs written about painful breakups and death and hopelessness. How can I be so bummed out about a guy who ghosted me after three dates when I’m listening to Jason Isbell come to terms with the inevitable mortality of the love of his life? My problems are irrelevant in the presence of that truly sad shit.
And, yes, that does offer part of an explanation, but not the entirety of it. Listening to gloomy songs can put us on a path of gratitude that helps us crawl out of the hole of despair. But not always. It’s not always about trying to feel good. Sometimes it’s about wanting to know that it’s okay to feel bad.
For me, listening to some of the saddest fucking songs I’ve ever heard — the ones that make me want to grab an industrial sized box of tissues before I’ve dehydrated myself from crying so much — is comforting. There is warmth in the sorrow. And it’s not the warmth of a sickeningly shallow pity pool party. It’s the warmth of a second blanket on those nights when you wake up from a bad dream, freezing, at 2 a.m. The warmth of pulling on a hat on that first chilly gray day of fall. It’s the warmth of a tight hug from someone you love, one that lasts a beat too long, but in a good way. Sad songs can make you safe and cocooned and loved by strangers. Most importantly: they make you feel less alone.
Human suffering is not unique, of this we are sure. We will all go through traumas in our lives, big and small, and we will come out on the other side okay. Maybe a little banged up, but having survived. We know this, and yet, when you’re going through something, it’s easy to feel like you are the only living person on this planet who has ever felt this way.
The beautiful thing about sad playlists is that they tell you, over and over and over again, that not only is that a fucking lie, but that you never know — maybe out of your own pain, you could create something beautiful, too. But if not, at least your temporary suffering will have a hell of a soundtrack.