“Do we listen to pop music because we’re sad? Or are we sad because we listen to pop music?”

2010 is turning out to be a melancholy year. It wouldn’t be appropriate to go into all the reasons for that, and to be honest everyone reading this is likely to have their own take on that, so forget specifics. But it’s Holy Saturday, the quiet day, the silent day stuck between the violence of Good Friday and the triumph of Easter Sunday when there’s not much more, liturgically speaking, than mourning and sadness.

And then there’s music. I’m not sure why there’s music but there always is. It’s like we’ve got an urge as a species or a culture or whatever to soundtrack ourselves. Maybe it’s part of the process whereby we turn our memories into narrative, but…

… well, let’s just say I felt a sense of community during the back end of 2009 when we broke out Rock Band (top four songs I remember singing: Final Countdown, Accidentally in Love, Livin’ on a Prayer and the theme from Ghostbusters). It wasn’t about the music really, it was about community, friendship, fun.

But then the narrative twists and turns, and things cease to be so sunshiney. Deep inside the bad stuff stirs – your doubts (can I really trust all the things and people I want to trust), your fears about being lost, being doomed, being damned, not being the person you want to be, not being the person everyone thinks you should be, being the person you think you are when you start to believe that everyone you love would walk away from you if they realised what you really were… Your fears about the future, be it a future that’s on its way, a future that’s never coming, a future that you can’t see but you perceive as some fairy tale black hole, sucking in all the light and hope… Fears about work, life, love, illness. Fears that the world always feels like it’s ending…

(Top songs for when the world feels like it’s ending – The Man Comes Around, Don’t Fear The Reaper, All Along The Watchtower, End of the World As We Know It.)

We turn to music at those times as well. Maybe it’s a way of communicating with that darkness lurking within us. Look at the blues – Robert Johnson with a hellhound on his trail, his fears and mistakes hunting him down. And like steel-driving man John Henry, you may run that hammer down, but it’s gonna cost you dear.

Maybe it’s because we feel that someone understands. We don’t really need people to understand why we’re happy and laughing, because in some ways that’s easy enough to remain unspoken. But when we’re feeling sad, lonely, depressed, lost, when our brain, heart and hormones are holding three contradictory opinions at once, all of which somehow feel real to us, we need something, something that isn’t theory, something that isn’t answers half of the time, but something that feels it understands. That someone gets what we’re going through, and maybe it’s because music, being a large part performace and therefore communal, provides that human connection that we’re inspired to stick an MP3 on when we need it.

Or maybe that’s cobblers and we just read our mixed up feelings and emotions into songs anyway. Heck, I doubt I can really relate to the sentiments behind Johnny Cash’s version of Hurt, but "my empire of dirt" sometimes feels real.

But yeah, it’s all about the idea that someone understands, I think. There’s a moment from the Bible that illustrates the idea, when the great prophet Elijah has just achieved something great and butt-kicking. And yet everything seems to catch up with him, he collapses into a depression and runs to the holy mountain where he sees three immense manifestations of God’s power…. And yet the only thing that gets through is God whispering to him. Why? Because at that moment he doesn’t care about power or the textbook, Elijah just wants someone to give a damn.

(Incidentally, maybe that’s something that churches have lost – we sing in worship, which is great, but we’ve lost the ability to sing in lament. Maybe we need more sad songs.)

I’m not sure where I’m going with all this. But it’s Holy Saturday and it’s been a melancholy year and sometimes you don’t get to chose what you write about, it just appears on the page.

But I carry around sadness and fear and anger and clouds, and I’m willing to bet a lot of people reading this do too, at least one of those. And all the sad songs in the world don’t really help, what matters is that other people understand, I guess. And I’m going out to see Clash of the Titans in a minute, and I’ll get back and I might regret having written this, but there you go.

There’s still always a sunrise.


4 thoughts on ““Do we listen to pop music because we’re sad? Or are we sad because we listen to pop music?”

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