Sentimental Powers Might Help You Now
We were going to get married. We'd talked about it daily for over a year. We'd discussed names for children. And then one night out of the blue, she told me I needed to move out and she'd arranged for somewhere for me to move. I cried both about the end of our relationship and because the cats were staying with her - the place she was sending me didn't have pets. I found out weeks later that she'd broken up with me because she'd started an affair with my best friend. I learned this when he moved into our place with her. He hated cats.
It was 1994 and for the next 13 years, I woke up every morning still expecting her to be next to me. For the next six months, I was in mourning. The only thing that brought me any solace was driving my scooter down to the beach, laying on a towel and listening to ABC's heartbreaking The Lexicon of Love album on my Walkman.
Prepare for massive 80's-style Trevor Horn production:
I'd listen to Martin Fry and the boys perform a suite of songs about lost love (including "Poison Arrow," "The Look of Love," and "Tears Are Not Enough") while I let the sun damage my skin to match the way my heart was damaged. Somehow, I'd leave feeling a lot better inside (and feeling like I needed a lot of aloe on the outside).
As Sir Elton John might say, "When all hope is gone, sad songs say so much." I believe he also said "Hold me close young Tony Danza." I miss you, Phoebe from Friends.
There's a certain amount of scientific evidence that sad songs do, in fact, make us feel better. Part of this has to do with a concept called sweet anticipation. If I can massively oversimplify the concept (and I think I can), we basically derive a kind of pleasure when we expect for a song to be sad and it turns out to - yes - be sad.
To whit, when I listened to ABC's album, I knew it was going to pull on my heartstrings, so I was pleased when it did exactly what I knew it was going to do. I can't help but think about how very young children like to see things happen over and over again. Somewhere in our brains, we don't quite ever get over the joy of repetition.
"Joy of repetition" also explains why I am still playing World of Warcraft.
Another reason that sad songs cheer many of us up has to do with the fact that the emotions of the singer are not our emotions - we're experiencing them vicariously through the song. Aristotle, in his Poetics, writes about how one of the purposes of drama is to purge negative emotions by depicting those emotions. The same thing can, perhaps, be said about music. Perhaps listening to ABC's failed romantic experiences somehow helps me work it out of my system. I know that aggressive songs often help me release pent up anger, so it makes sense that sad songs would help me purge sorrow.
On the other hand, after I am forced to listen to them several hundred times, a happy song can sometimes make me want to punch a wall right in its stupid wall face.
There's a concept from Indian theatre (specifically recorded in the great theatre treatise, the Nāṭya Śāstra) called rasa. Briefly, rasa is what an audience member feels when they witness a performance. In order to make the audience feel these rasa, the performers on stage (both actors and musicians) portray different emotional states which are called bhava. For example, if you wish for an audience member to feel the rasa of compassion, you must portray the bhava of sorrow on stage.
Feelings you portray in your song are different from the emotions your audience feel when they listen to them. Ergo, sad music played well can elicit a feeling of compassion from a listener. This tends to support the "vicarious experience" hypothesis.
If you're into art theory, I strongly encourage you to read the Nāṭya Śāstra. It completely altered the way I approach music and art, specifically in regards to awareness of how audiences respond.
Of course, just like how some cats aren't effected by catnip, some humans aren't effected by music, so your own personal mileage may vary in regards to how well music soothes your savage breast. Personal taste surely plays a role, too. For example, I suspect that if you're not already a fan of ABC's brand of lush, over-produced 80's pop, Lexicon of Love will do nothing for you.
... and sometimes songs we associate with specific events in our lives can impact us in unexpected ways. I used to dance around with my old cat singing Queen's "You're My Best Friend". He died a few years back and whenever I hear it now I'm reduced to a blubbering mass of crazy cat person.
When life rips my heart out and stomps it flat, when everything seems bleak and awful, there's almost nothing that sets me aright (that, yes, sends me to my happy place) quite like listening to a really gloomy song. Sad songs have helped me through bad break-ups, deep losses and just the niggling dark thoughts of everyday life.
If I never got back together with my fiance from the early 90's, at least I have always known that ABC will always be there for me ready to make me feel better with a poison arrow right through my heart.
That band is no substitute for sun screen though. Kids, don't be like yer ever-lovin' uncle Prog_Schlock. Wear your sunscreen. Sunburn - music won't help you much with that.