on September 15, 2016

There's a Louis C.K. video from a few years back where he argues that the really insidious thing about having a smartphone is that it provides you a distraction from your sadness, your "forever empty." It's natural to not want to feel alone, to run away from our pain the moment we feel it coming on, and he asserts that because of cell phones it's easier than ever for us to avoid those feelings and disengage with them entirely. Because of this he fears that we'll drive ourselves crazy by not allowing ourselves to sit alone with our thoughts and let sadness take over the way it's supposed to, never allowing us to experience extremes, just a gray palette of feeling. "Sadness is poetic. You're lucky to live sad moments."

I thought about this while listening to Angel Olsen’s new record MY WOMAN. Like her other albums it's exploring subject matter that is undoubtedly sad, stories of love and self-love, the ecstasies and failures of both. And yet I still smile the whole way through. It's one of the musical experiences I cherish most, an engagement with pain to a degree you almost can't handle, but once you sit and embrace it you feel strangely happy, like it finally makes sense to be in the world for a little while.

To look around 8tracks is to see plainly that I'm not alone in this. As of this writing there are 158,128 playlists tagged "sad" on the site, and by the time you're reading it there will likely be dozens more. Like many of our most popular tags it lives in the abstract; it's not descriptive of a genre or a taste but a basic need. It's a context in which to live out and make sense of a broad spectrum of experiences; unrequited love, loneliness, inertia, loss.

With respect to Angel Olsen and artists like her there's a distinction you'll see fairly often, one that lends some vocabulary to how I feel about it, that's somewhat unfortunately known as "sad girl". As with anything resembling a musical movement I don't think artists who make this music would identify as "sad girls," and some would undoubtedly resent it. If anything, the term's use seems to refer less to the musicians themselves and more to the fans, who often wear the badge as a declaration, a part of their identity. The best way I've found of contextualizing this is artist Audrey Wollen's "Sad Girl Theory." She has described sadness as the opposite of the aggressively vocal male-centric approach to activism, as a kind of non-violent protest: "Girls’ sadness is not passive, self-involved or shallow; it is a gesture of liberation, it is articulate and informed, it is a way of reclaiming agency over our bodies, identities, and lives."

Ultimately the musical similarities are less important than the driving emotional center from which this art is made. It’s about purity of feeling, confronting sadness but also anger, arousal, jealousy, regret, ecstasy, calm, terror, bliss, and any combination of feelings head-on. By diving down into the parts of yourself that hurt to engage with you create an extreme against which the happiness you find when you climb out is all the more exhilarating.

The intention here is not to defend this music, argue for why it matters or why you should care about it. It doesn’t need defending and it doesn’t need advocacy, and it certainly doesn’t need either of those things from me. This is a love letter, an attempt to shout from a mountaintop or just my desk chair about music that I love that makes me feel the way it seems so many people on here do, that the full spectrum of emotion is not only worth having but beautiful and essential to feeling strong in who you are.

4 comments on Tears Dry On Their Own: The Joy of Sad Music

makes me think about grieving and lament in Homeric literature - all of the warriors in the Iliad and Achilles most of all are fixated on the fact that they're going to die and how they'll be remembered, but it's almost exclusively women who take it upon themselves to raise a lament for the fallen. Sadness isn't just an emotion in the Iliad, it's a highly valued commodity that is pretty much impossible for men to control. A warrior who doesn't leave behind at least one sad girl when he dies might have just as well never been born. Cool essay.

@going_to_graceland That is so beautiful, I wish I had that floating around in my head going into the essay, it really articulates another aspect of what I was trying to explore in an interesting way. Thank you for reading and sharing!

See also Alex Petridis' recent review of Nick Cave's "Skeleton Tree": "Not so much an exploration of grief as an example of how grief overwhelms or seeps into everything – a subtle difference, but a difference nonetheless." https://www.theguardian.com/music/2016/sep/15/nick-cave-and-the-bad-seeds-skeleton-tree-review-brilliant-music-on-the-verge-of-collapse

@otisblue Thanks for sharing! I had begun to write about Skeleton Tree (probably my favorite album of the year so far) and now I'm sort of glad that I didn't, as this review articulates a lot of what I felt about it better than I would have been able to.