Some people like bouncy, happy, positive songs. But some weirdos (like me) are cheered up by the sad dirges that you would think would drag them lower. How can that be? For some, sad songs soothe the wounds from a brutal work shift or a fight with a loved one. Some people prefer sad songs, even during good times. Why is that? Are their brains full of scar tissue? Perhaps. Does a sad song take someone to scary depths or does it offer a life raft?
View a sad movie, when things on the screen are unbearably tragic. How does the director sneak such devastating images past us without leaving us total wrecks who have to be carried to bed? Sometimes as the heroic sacrifice approaches, those sad refrains that every musician knows start to play. And Captain George Clooney versus the biggest wave ever is noble and admirable, instead of only infinitely depressing.
Putting A Quarter in the Sadness Jukebox
There’s that human instinct we have to glamourize anything we’re going through. Triumphant or tragic. It’s been a part of music and literature and all art for centuries. We can wallow in our sorrow or pain or splash it across a cave wall or Instagram feed.
When we go through tough times, a break-up, a layoff, the loss of a loved one, we can turn to a sad tune to immortalize our epic sorrow. Forlorn poetry is also be in the same vein. The Book of Job from the Bible. Maybe he could’ve used an early Coldplay song at just the right moment to buoy his spirits.
Instead of being a loser without a boyfriend or girlfriend, we can suddenly be the hero in a Greek tragedy. Put on some George Jones and suddenly we are more than just an unreliable partner who forgot to pick up someone at the airport. We are Achilles, the greatest of heroes, but with a fatal flaw built in from childhood. Unavoidable.
Do we really know a sad song until we’ve sat in the dark with it? Let it transform our sorrow? Let that song fold our pain into a shape we can survive.
Hitting Bottom Faster to Rebound Faster
I’ve always felt that battling grief after a death or trying to put a break-up behind you can be made easier when we let ourselves experience the full scope of that pain.
We try so hard to avoid the pain, numb it, escape it. It’s a hard-learned truth that if we don’t face a trauma, we may be struggling to keep it contained for years. Perhaps for the rest of our lives.
You can deny pain. Expend a lot of energy trying to block it out. Or you can allow it in. In manageable doses, of course. Because if left to constantly trickle small amounts into your days, a lot of days will be lost and soured and the healing process won’t be able to start. It’s a stunted recovery.
And harnessing the power of a blues song can perhaps ease that initial pain and help transform our slide through the stages of grief into a smoother journey.
We can hold out hope, be in denial, and build lockboxes in our hearts and minds to keep the pain contained, instead of going down with the ship to see what lies on the other side of an emotional loss. We often limit the stages of grief we experience. We don’t fully say goodbye to a job, a significant other, a loved one. We either can’t face it or we feel better holding out hope that someone’s not really gone, physically or just from our lives.
The Stages of Grief as a Ladder
There have been a few times in my life that I’ve had to hold the hand (or paw) of loved ones as they’ve passed on. They’ve been the hardest moments of my life, but they brought me to a realization.
Enduring this excruciating moment can lead to healing from it much faster in the days and weeks ahead. The first stage of grief is denial, but if you’re there with someone as they transition to the next realm, your brain has to accept reality and has little grounds for disputing the truth.
Many people can struggle clearing this first hurdle, disbelief, because they got word while miles away or refuse to accept reality in any form.
The same with a failing relationship. If you get broken up with by text, there’s always that quality of imagined loss. Your brain can’t process it because it didn’t really happen anywhere but in the text or social media sphere. As hard as it is, facing someone in person as a partnership ends can help you accept what has happened. Get you to the bottom faster to rebound much faster. Experience those last few rungs of grief so the scar tissue can form.
It’s difficult for sure, grabbing the anchor and giving up fighting. And of course a song can help. Radiohead’s “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” has always touched me as a good description of the process. At the end of the song, “hit the bottom and escape,” a line that always drives the point home.
As my dad lay dying in a hospital for six months I woke up one morning with another Radiohead song blasting in my head. (sorry to use so many Radiohead songs as examples but they are the Lords of Sorrow after all) “My Iron Lung” wasn’t a song I’d heard a lot but it took on the shape of my pain. Everyone on life support. The patient, the relatives, the doctors and the beleaguered nurses.
My dad didn’t end up dying. He was on the sign-up sheet, but they didn’t call his number. All those stages of grief and then to have your dad sitting up in a hospital chair smiling. It’s a blessing, but it’s another kind of shock that you have to allow yourself to recover from. Enough to have you creating a playlist of sad and happy songs in equal measure. Because that’s how most lives play out…joyful sorrow.
The Long And Winding Road
So take heart when that sad country tune finds you on a long midnight drive. Or you hear the Commodores’ “Nightshift” for the first time in 20 years. Or Taylor Swift pulls yet another heartbreaker from her journal.
Let those notes do their work. To soften your heart so you can sink through your sundering or toughen your heart as you rise through your recovery.