The Sadnesses of March: In Search of Extreme Emotion by Ander Monson
“Why listen to sad music if it makes one feel sad?” asks Stephen Davies, a professor of psychology at the University of Auckland, in 1997. I ask myself this not for the first time as I’m neck-deep into the Joy Division discography on the way to a job I do not dread, mourn, or fear. The singer sings “Don’t turn away / in silence” and I do not turn away, not as I drive past sunblasted car dealerships and burrito shops on Tucson, Arizona’s, Speedway Boulevard, a street Life magazine once called the “ugliest street in America.” I turn away in song, if not in silence.
It’s a good question, but for Davies anyhow it’s not a real one. He points out in the following sentence of that article (“Why Listen to Sad Music if it Makes One Feel Sad”) that his argument runs counter to that. For sure it’s sure counterintuitive: Most of us don’t like to think we seek out unpleasant experiences. Yet when it comes to music, many of us gravitate to tragedy, to lament, to elegy, breakup ode, cri de coeur. We seek out the funereal, the fado, the dirge. That is, we want to feel down. We pursue wrecked emotional states to the point of obsession, sometimes, listening to a sad song over and over and over until it’s done with us or we’re done with it, at least for today.
If you’re listening to “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” Elliott Smith, R.E.M., Sinéad O’Connor, Tom Waits, Kate Bush, “Fast Car,” The Cure, Sarah McLachlan, or Neutral Milk Hotel this morning, then it’s you I’m talking to. Or Adagio for Strings, Adele, woeful country, or even, I guess, “Every Rose Has Its Thorn”: I say to you, I am your people. I know there are a lot of us out there getting our sad on today. Many of us lead very happy lives. And I like happy things, too. I love pop music, too, though I’m drawn to the down moments in pop songs, the ones where you can hear the darkness creeping into daylight, like in Don Henley’s peerless 1984 single, “Boys of Summer,” which celebrates summer from the perspective of its end.
So what’s up with us? Why am I built this way? I mean, why are we suckers for punishment? I want to know why I like sad songs, and why, though I’m not alone, I like feeling alone. So I created an NCAA basketball / March Madness-style bracket of lonelinesses:
Well, my wife Megan and I (The Official March Sadness Selection Committee) created the bracket, in which we selected 64 songs from the era of music we like best, being the era of College Rock, loosely 1980–2001, with an emphasis on 1985–1995. We limited songs to what we used to call “alternative,” the sort you might find on MTV’s 120 Minutes or its outskirts and antecedents.
Thought that I’d forget all about the past
It’s hard to imagine now, in the era of infinite availability and the ability to soundtrack every moment of our lives, that there was a time when, unless you lived in a real hip city or close to a cool college radio station, all there was available on the radio was the terrible Top 40 or country or Christian rock; all there was was Loverboy and Foreigner and Asia and “The Piña Colada Song” and songs that I do not believe will ever mean anything again. And even I find it hard to remember, when we can dial up almost anything with a couple clicks, how stumbling on a song on the radio that felt torn up and weird and confused and disturbed and not pretty-girl-sad felt like revelation, how it felt like salvation.
That’s one of the appeals of the sad song: we recognize the sadness it describes. It articulates something that we feel better than we could do so ourselves. We project ourselves on it, and playing it lets us feel our feels intensely and at will.
To get a better sample, The Committee limited itself to one song per band (with a couple of fudges: like we included a song by both Joy Division and the band that emerged from its ashes, New Order, since they’re pretty different, though we resisted the urge to use the first New Order single, “Ceremony,” still arguably their best or saddest, because it was pretty much a Joy Division song). We seeded these songs, sorted them into regions, in some cases set songs against each other in conference tournaments and play-in games, and then started up a single-elimination, March Madness / college basketball–style tournament that ran online in March 2016 and that you can still find and play online at marchsadness2016.blogspot.com. We annotated every song and matchup, disambiguated what we could of these sadnesses, and submitted it to readers and listeners, you that click through sites and magazines and social media and blogs, to see which songs you found the saddest, and, more importantly, why?
Arriving is great—I mean, the tournament is designed to crown a champion—but the journey’s the real jam. The why reveals more about you and about us than the result: why do we find this song sad? What makes it sadder than its opponent? Why do we seek out these particular sadnesses, and why are we still moved by them these many years later? Why do we court pain?
I’ve been staring so long at
these pictures of you
I don’t know. It sounds like a dumb idea, doesn’t it? Aren’t all our sadnesses individual? Who wants to or believes they can judge and weigh and rate and rank another’s pain? Well, we do. And we did. And no, as much as we’d like to believe it, our sadnesses aren’t entirely individual. Time tells us that most of our heartbreaks follow a pretty conventional plot.
So we started with the obvious: The Cure, The Smiths, Elliott Smith, Joy Division, Tom Waits, Kate Bush, Tori Amos, The Magnetic Fields, R.E.M., before moving into deeper waters: Low, This Mortal Coil, Liz Phair, the Eels, Neutral Milk Hotel, The Church, Indigo Girls, Swans, and Pet Shop Boys. Choosing songs for was often easy: for The Cure, we selected “Pictures of You” and gave it a 1 seed, since they’re one of the saddest bands of the era (as well as, oddly, one of the happiest: see also “Just Like Heaven,” “Friday i’m in Love,” “Mint Car,” etc.). The grandness of the way the song articulates its romantic loss and fixates on memory embodies a certain brand of sadness: beautiful, big, caked with makeup, dramatic, more than a little self-involved. It’s easy to love a song like that, and many do.
Why do you come here when you know it
makes things hard for me?
It’s trickier to love a song like Morrissey’s “Suedehead,” in which the situation of the song isn’t particularly sad, nor is, if we’re being honest, the speaker himself. If there’s a sadness, it’s at the speaker’s expense, or at the expense of the you addressed in the song. Look at the lyrics (“It was a good lay, good lay, good lay”) which seem to describe an uncomfortable situation with an ex-lover or one night stand, focused purely on the self-interested awkwardness of the speaker. It’s sad, yes, but mostly for the lover, the you that “comes here . . . and why do you hang around . . . when you know it makes things hard for me.” As delivered by Morrissey, though, it’s a dramatic monologue in which we gradually understand that the speaker—possibly closeted—is an unlovable narcissist, perhaps the sort of person who demanded to publish his autobiography (not to say anything as banal as a memoir) under the moniker Penguin Classics. But then that’s how I read almost all of Morrissey’s songs: they dramatize unappealing aspects of our personalities. One loves that about him or not. As for me, I do love him and his songs for their layers and complications and many echoing ironies. Is it sad? Yes, but at angles.
So here’s a related question: if a song has a sad affect, does that mean it is sad? On some level, yes, since affect is what most of us respond to. That is to say: does it sound sad? That’s partly because, unlike books or films, songs don’t require so much of our attention: they easily background our lives and our dramas. So, for instance, I never felt I needed to look up the lyrics for “Suedehead” to understand what the song was about (though it turns out that I was wrong).
Consider R.E.M.’s arpeggiated tear-jerker ballad, “Everybody hurts”: at first glance, it’s the saddest, best-known song in the REM canon, yet when the committee ran the R.E.M. regional play-in tournament, something became obvious to us that’s probably already obvious to you: “Everybody Hurts” is a song not of sadness, but of consolation. It’s an antidote for sadness. So though we felt we needed an R.E.M. song on account of them being one of the mopier bands of the era, we had a hard time identifying a truly sad song, which probably speaks well of the complexity of their songwriting. We settled on (8) “South Central Rain,” a choice that I’ve come to understand was wrong, and not just because (9) Mazzy Star’s “Fade Into You” defeated it soundly in the first-round matchup.
Any song that prominently features a plaintive “I’m sorry” in the lyrics would seem to be a good choice, and that’s true, it was a fine choice: relatively well-known, relatively old-school, right in the middle of the bracket. We could have gone with “Country Feedback,” the Serious Fan’s definitive choice for sadness, but a much less-known song. We talked ourselves out of “Man on the Moon,” mainly because that campy “Andy are you tripping on Elvis’ ‘Hey Baby’” bit Stipe does spoils the pity party. We talked ourselves out of “Fall on Me,” because of the political overtones that infuse a lot of R.E.M. songs, but I think that would now be my choice. Would it still have been bounced by “Fade Into You,“ a song with a lot of resonance for a lot of people, even if, to us, it’s more sexy and sunburned than sad?
I’m trying to remember what it felt like
not to feel this way
Well, what is sadness, anyway? It’s not sex and sunburn. I talked with Mary-Frances O’Connor, a psychological researcher at the University of Arizona whose work specializes in a phenomenon called “complicated grief . . . a disorder following bereavement that is marked by intense, persistent, and prolonged symptoms,” as she describes it, particularly yearning, which is to say an intense desire for what’s gone. In a coffee shop on the university campus, she talked me through some of the physiology of emotion as the radio warbled unidentifiable, Auto-Tuned pop, which left no mark on me. This, I thought, was what alternative served to counter.
There are physiological signs of sadness you can track, she told me: heart rate and sweat, for instance, so you could actually run an experiment in which you play sad songs for listeners and chart how they’re physically affected. I perked up at the thought of this.
Plus, she said, almost all emotions have a third-party consequence. A communicative quality, she explained: because emotions are tied to facial expressions that are remarkably universal across cultures, we respond to them in different ways. We see someone crying, and we want to comfort them. It’s learned or wired—we’re not totally sure which—that we have a need to give care. Caregiving is natural and enjoyable, as many parents would tell you. So, she told me, one feature of listening to a very sad song is that we perceive the artist in their moment of greatest vulnerability, and we’re wired to want to love them.
This idea of yearning fascinated me: not just that the yearning can often persist far beyond the actual loss, but that yearning itself can be pleasurable in its way, that it can be self-reinforcing. O’Connor’s studies have borne out what many of us have long known to be true. One of her articles, for instance, uses an epigraph by Aeschylus: “There is no pain so great as the memory of joy in present grief.” As her work shows us (in slant anyhow), for some, the inverse is also true: There is no joy so great (or as persistent) as remembering pain. As she puts it in one article, “Although successful adaptation to the loss is the most frequent response . . . grief does not abate in a substantial minority; rather, it develops into Complicated Grief.” Complicated Grief, I thought, sounds like something I could get interested in.
Buy the sky and sell the sky
This is one reason why, though it should be objectively sadder, since it affects more people, for most of us, the political is less sad than the personal. That’s because the political leverages its sadness toward another purpose. Political sadness wants us to be sad but then to move to understanding or action: it gives us an outlet. It’s flatter and less complicated in its overtures (if surely no less so in its details). Peter Gabriel’s “Biko” is meant not just to get us to cry or to feel empathy, but to mobilize us, to make us aware.
For me, the sadder songs don’t have that exit point: they’re trapped in their emotion, unable to get out, to move past it to action, which sounds a lot like O’Connor’s explanation of the pathology of complicated grief. The only action they can take is the singing of the song, like the Indigo Girls’s version of Dire Straits’s “Romeo & Juliet.” Give it a listen. I’ll wait. Pull the car over. Listen hard.
Okay. You’re back? It’s exceptionally anguished, isn’t it? Amy Ray takes a doomed, star-crossed Dire Straits’s song, riffing on one of the most famous pieces of literature of all time, and makes it utterly her own. Of all the songs in the bracket, this one surprised me the most. In fact, The Committee selected it from memory (hey, you know what song was sad? oh, totally), and both Committee Members had it come on their radios while driving and were each—independently—overwhelmed and had to pull over and let it pass. It’s a forceful song, probably the most impassioned, the most angry, the most desperate of all the songs in the bracket. Those other emotions are there too, but in “Romeo & Juliet” they serve sadness, not the other way around. When was the last time you felt emotionally overwhelmed by a piece of music? When was the last time you went in search of just that feeling? What hurts you so good?
“Romeo and Juliet” does best what the dramatic monologue does: it exposes emotional and intellectual spaces beneath the speaker’s ability to articulate what we the listeners are able to read; it also has its own narrative movement and rising action; it goes from sadness to anger to raw, unfiltered rage to self-consciousness to desperation to resignation, as “this lovestruck Romeo . . . finds a convenient street light and he steps out of the shade” and sings this “love song that he made” and then disappears again into darkness and silence.
Without you what does my life amount to?
At least the song remains, that evidence of that love and that betrayal. It’s a ghost, a persistent yearning, spectral remnant that still floats out there—and it’s out there even more literally in the era of Every Song Ever . . . an Age of Musical Plenty, to grab the title and part of the subtitle of The New York Times music critic Ben Ratliff’s 2016 book on strategies for listening in the age of the streaming service and the cloud: “We know all that music is there. Some of us know, roughly, how to encounter a lot of it. But once we hear it, how can we allow ourselves to make sense of it? We could use new ways to find points of connection and intersection with all that inventory.”
Ratliff wasn’t on our radar when we began the tournament, but when we stumbled on his book during the second round, we realized that March Sadness is a machine made in part to root and sort through that old inventory. These songs are sad, we mean to say, and so were you. Remember. Not just the song but who you used to be.
One way to sort and root is to match up sadnesses against each other. The Indigo Girls have their political leanings, though in this case they’re not singing some with political lyrical content. But sometimes the act of singing a song is political: Amy Ray voicing Romeo with such unstoppable passion in 1992 is a lot more potent than pop megastar Katy Perry’s toothless 2008 single (a cover of a 1995 Jill Sobule song), “I Kissed a Girl.”
Yet songs with political content in the bracket didn’t fare well when matched up with the tragically personal. Consider “Blue Sky Mine” by Midnight Oil, the most in-your-face political song in the tournament: the video for the song begins with a mashup of news headlines: “An Exxon oil tanker / CSR Company faced tough questioning at the company’s annual / From Geelong / payouts to workers affected by asbestos” and the song gets right to it with lyrics like: “The company gets what the company wants” and “Nothing’s as precious as a hole in the ground.” As you listen, it becomes clear that the speaker is a mine worker, indentured, “caught at the junction, still waiting for medicine / The sweat of my brow keeps on feeding the engine.” It was bounced from the tournament in the first round by PJ Harvey & Nick Cave’s probably-more-grotesque-than-sad-but-totally-great murder ballad “Henry Lee.”
Did I dream you dreamed about me?
It’s not great science to generalize about sadness from just one game or even a nerdy online tournament, but in almost every early game between the apparently autobiographical (say, Sinéad O’Connor’s “Three Babies”) and the more abstract (in this case, Ride’s shoegaze classic, “Vapour Trail”), the autobiographical/ confessional won. I guess that’s not surprising. Our appetite in America these days is for our sadness to be personal, authentic, and autobiographical, perhaps in part because in our intensely consumer culture we feel less individual all the time: if we’re treated as just a collection of likes and web searches and desires, it figures that we’re hungry for evidence of others’ individuality and realness.
So let’s listen again to “Three Babies,” a song that she’s described as being about her miscarriages: by so explaining, it’s easy for us to assume the she who’s speaking is the she who’s singing. There’s little to tell us otherwise, and that assumption makes it easier for us to enter into the song. Would it be less sad if she hadn’t had miscarriages? It’s a blunt question to ask but an important one. I think it would be, yes, because the object of the sadness becomes more distant. We wouldn’t see Sinéad but a character, or the idea or experience of a miscarriage, which we may or may not have any personal experience with. If we believe she has, it’s easier for us to trust her: we add ethos to the song’s already considerable pathos.
Plus, I don’t know if she could or would have otherwise written the song—or performed it with the level of anguish and strangeness that she wraps herself in, trying to console herself with her voice. In “Blue Sky Mine,” if we knew the singer to actually be a downtrodden mine worker (and not a rock star and a future politician) and not just playing one on television, we’d give it extra sadness credit.
Persona is an abstraction: it creates a distance that the song or performance must bridge to be successful. So when Sinéad’s voice suddenly surges and nearly breaks the song in half in the lines “No longer mad like a horse / I’m still wild but not lost,” it’s thrilling: we feel the wildness. It sears us. We can’t be anything but changed.
Compare that to (6) Kate Bush’s “This Woman’s Work,” also a song about parenting. Bush is incapable of being untheatrical, and that theatricality—that is to say, the readable presence of artifice—creates a little bit of distance between the emotion of the song and us. As we learn not only that the song was written for the John Hughes film She’s Having a Baby but that it was written to score one particularly dramatic montage sequence in the film, we add more distance still. It went down to Tracy Chapman’s more apparently sincere “Fast Car” in the Sweet Sixteen.
That readable presence of artifice is the gap that Tori Amos crossed so effectively and powerfully with her very first single, (3) “Silent All These Years.” That song almost single-handedly seemed to shatter an unwritten code of pop and rock and alternative music at the time that assured us that songs, though they might be dramatic and disaffected, they would still seem safe. These songs managed their emotion so as to move us but not to touch us, not really. I remember when I heard “Silent All These Years” first: I was at my friend Graham’s house and we were watching a Def Leppard video, and all of a sudden here’s this woman in a box and this piano and this voice. I don’t know how else to describe it except to say that it felt real.
That real feeling is partly the result of artifice: the greatest goal of a certain philosophy of production (the sort employed by Rick Rubin in putting together Johnny Cash’s American Recordings, for instance) is to get the song to sound unproduced, to banish all the double-tracking and orchestration, to hide the studio, to make the song seem to be transparent, like what we’re hearing is just a human voice and a piano. And it is, sure, but it’s a made thing: it’s not like “Silent All These Years” or any other song is a first recording of a first draft, unmanipulated and recorded on the first take. That it feels like it could be is extremely effective artifice: it punctures some of the many defenses we build up against sentimentality and our own expectations of sad songs. When Tori lost in the Sweet Sixteen to The Cure’s “Pictures of You” in a close game, we wept, appropriately.
I am listening to hear where you are
Four months after the tournament had concluded, Rob, one of the few friends from high school I still am sort of in contact with, e-mailed me to complain about our choice of Tori Amos songs. He says, and I’m quoting him because I love the fervor of his emails:
“Marianne” [from Boys for Pele] is the song you crawl into a ditch and die to, or crawl out of and still fucking die to. [Boys for Pele is] aprecious intersection of mad youth, voodoo, gospel, and rebellion against the father figures that had dominated her career till then. Her wildest and most free, uninhibited. The one I think she might admit that prolly shoulda killed her in just the writing and making of it. The one where she’s suckling a suckling pig a la Mother Mary and Pieta.
Rob’s an intense dude, and one of the two most obsessive Tori Amos fans I know. (Alison Stine’s the other: she wrote the essay about Tori for the Sweet Sixteen; she was the winner of the Tori Amos round of MTV’s short-lived show called Superfans or something of the sort.) His e-mail goes on to talk in a circumspect way about his love for Tori. I don’t quite get it, to be honest, but I love hearing people talk about their obsessions, so I sent back an e-mail asking for more. This March Sadness machine is powerful enough to keep eliciting some strong opinions.
First you look so strong,
then you fade away
Obsession is part of why we listen to sad songs: we listen to sad songs not just because the singer seems sad but because they allow us to be sad—and safely, insulated from the practical consequence of extreme emotion: the broken marriage, the miscarriage, the guilt at not anticipating the suicide of a friend: they open up spaces inside of us that are otherwise inaccessible in our daily lives. Listening to a sad song punctures time and the lived experience of our moment-to-moment, which is to say it connects us to our own mortality. According to Ratliff, “when we listen we might think about the most vulnerable aspects of our own sensibilities, too—the irremediably blue parts, the hopeful parts, the shy or naïve parts . . . many of us are not only guarding ourselves against specific calamities, disappointments, or embarrassments, rites of passage that we will inevitably face, whoever we are—missed deadlines, bounced checks, the trials of school and money and love and work. We are guarding ourselves against death.”
Art allows us to feel alive in ways we otherwise can’t—or don’t. This happens in at least three ways, according to a 2013 study of why exactly we enjoy sad songs by Ai Kawakami, Kiyoshi Furukawa, Kentaro Katahira, and Kazuo Okanoya. First, we experience empathy for the speaker or situation (this is familiar to all of us who read books). Then, “when music is connected with a personal memory, such as a lost love or someone’s death, the listener may experience a sad emotion that is accompanied with suffering, similar to how the emotion is experienced in everyday life.” Here a sad song triggers an autobiographical memory—damn, that breakup that was your fault but you really handled badly because you just didn’t know any better then—and that memory spikes us with whatever emotion we associate with it. Last, sad songs operate on us by allowing us to experience sadness vicariously: “The sad emotion that is induced when we listen to sad music that is not accompanied by extra-musical factors would be regarded as vicarious and can be pleasant. Because the danger that is associated with listening to sad music does not pose a direct threat to us, listeners are able to trust and enjoy the listening process.”
The study concludes that one reason why we enjoy listening to sad songs is that we sense that a sad song is going to be sad, and when it is, our brain rewards itself for its correct prediction. So “by adding sweet anticipation or a cognitive appraisal of the aesthetic experience as described above, listeners can experience the emotional quality of sadness while simultaneously experiencing ambivalent emotions accompanied with pleasant or unpleasant emotions. This experience allows listeners to feel pleasure regardless of whether a piece of music expresses sadness or happiness.”
I will not forget you,
nor will I ever let you go
The Kawakami study cites Jerrold Levinson’s 1997 article, “Music and Negative Emotion,” included in the same book as Stephen Davies’s question that began this essay. Levinson suggests that the three benefits of listening to sad songs are “benefits of enjoyment, of understanding, and of self-assurance.” We enjoy and take satisfaction in the feeling of feeling itself, no matter what that feeling is, and “because music has the power to put us into the feeling state of a negative emotion without its unwanted life consequences, it allows us to partly reassure ourselves in a nondestructive manner of the depth and breadth of our ability to feel.” Last, “by imaginatively identifying our state with that of the music, we derive from a suitably constructed composition a sense of mastery and control over . . . emotions that in the extramusical setting are thoroughly upsetting, and over which we hope to be victorious, when and if the time comes . . . . Call this the reward of emotional resolution.” Though his analysis isn’t based on empirical research, these insights track well with my own listening habits: listening to sad songs makes me feel like I’m in control of my sadness, that I can choose when it begins and (mostly) when it is over: that control—or its illusion—is a powerful drug.
Everybody wants to be special here /
They call your name out loud and clear
As Levinson puts it:
If one begins to regard music as the expression of one’s own current emotional state, it will begin to seem as if it issues from oneself, as if it pours forth from one’s innermost being. It is then very natural for one to receive an impression of expressive power, of freedom and ease in externalizing and embodying what one feels. The sense one has of the richness and spontaneity with which one’s inner life is unfolding itself, even where the feelings involved are of the negative kind, is a source of undeniable joy. The unpleasant aspect of certain emotions we imagine ourselves to experience through music is balanced by the adequacy, grace, and splendor of the exposition we feel ourselves to be according that emotion.
Reread that while listening to “Pictures of You” and feel how well the splendor of the song—beginning with the tinkly synth sounds that cascade and chime into the first chord—leads to our ownership of it and sense of its—and our—majesty.
There was a time you let me know
what’s real and going on below
Grace is another matter. Now I’m listening to a cover of a cover: Robert Plant covering This Mortal Coil’s version of Tim Buckley’s “Song to the Siren” as an epitaph for Tim’s son Jeff, who had recently died by drowning in the Mississippi River. I found it by watching the This Mortal Coil video on YouTube and following the trail to its covers, including those by Sinéad, George Michael, Bryan Ferry, Dead Can Dance, and very many more. It’s a beautiful version that Plant performs, indebted, as all the covers are, to This Mortal Coil’s version, which found a song of timeless yearning in the slightly folky original, performed on The Monkees’ TV show.
I know Plant’s cover is not autobiographical, but when he sings it and dedicates it to Jeff, the situation makes it so. So I follow that trail to Jeff Buckley’s (2) “Hallelujah,” his spectacular take on a towering Leonard Cohen song. Here too there’s no danger of our reading it as strict autobiography: instead, the experience of listening to both songs, each with just a guitar and a voice, is trying to parse out the feelings Buckley and Elizabeth Fraser (of Cocteau Twins, moonlighting here as part of the 4AD label’s This Mortal Coil covers project) are feeling, and letting those feelings run on whatever circuitry we’ve got. Ratliff calls this kind of self-effacing transparency: “some singers . . . go transparent in their voice. They seem to become the property of other forces.” I was crushed, then, when “Song to the Siren” was eliminated by Radiohead’s (2) “Fake Plastic Trees” in the sweet sixteen. It took a while for me to understand how the voters could have chosen their beautiful, transparent song over mine.
The bracket is a machine for my humbling. I watched the sad songs I loved the best, the ones that I felt defined me, go down one after another. And I tried to figure out why. Now I think that Radiohead’s “Fake Plastic Trees” defeated “Song to the Siren” because it goes anthemic, which means it allows us into it in a different way. Even though it’s apparently personal (it becomes personal anyhow within the last minute, when it moves from talking about the “her” (“it wears her out”) to “If I could be / what you wanted”), it’s not specifically personal. That movement becomes narrative; it allows us into the song’s sadness in a way that “Song to the Siren” doesn’t. “Song to the Siren” is like overhearing someone talking to a god or at least a myth. “Fake Plastic Trees” is like listening to someone speaking to us—and by the end we understand it’s our voice we’re hearing, like how some sung notes resonate in particular spaces that fit their frequencies: Yorke is wearing us in that moment.
That happens in lesser songs, too, in clunkier ways. As one of our collaborators, Matt Vadnais, points out in his commentary on the firstround matchup between (2) the Eels’s “Dead of Winter” and (15) Counting Crows’s “A Long December,” when “December” makes its way to the repeated “na na na na, na na na na na na na na, yeah” outro at the end of the song, that’s the invitation moment for us. Nothing could be less specific or autobiographical than “na na na na, na na na na na na na na, yeah,” which is why it either rings right to you in the moment or perhaps as mawkish later.
If we were sort of inside the song before, well now we’ve been ushered in entire. Our arms are around each other. And so what if the song was later adopted by fraternity bros across America? Don’t they deserve to be included, to feel loved like that, too?
If I could be who you wanted
Maybe, though, I’m projecting a personal memory of “Fake Plastic Trees” onto the song. In college I became friends with a guy I’ll call Alex, and it quickly became obvious that I was an obsession for him, a romantic fixation, as he revealed to me many times in increasingly awkward ways. I genuinely liked him but had no romantic interest in him. I’ve sometimes been oblivious to romantic or erotic undercurrents in my friendships, and I didn’t understand at the time that what I needed to do was to push him away much more forcefully than I did, so as not to allow him to entertain his hopes. Anyhow, I drove several hours with him to his hometown to see a concert where Radiohead was opening for R.E.M. He and many of my friends were Big Sad R.E.M. Fans. I liked R.E.M. fine and could shout obscure requests if I needed to (“Bury magnets! Swallow the rapture!”) but really I was going for Radiohead. Because he underestimated the travel time, we got there too late to see Radiohead. Pulling into the massive stadium parking lot with the windows rolled down I could just hear the end of “Fake Plastic Trees,” their closing number, echoing over row after row of SUVs. I was, to put it mildly, pissed. I don’t remember what I said, but it was probably needlessly hurtful. And while I remember moments from the rest of the concert (inexplicably I was wearing a fireman’s jacket I had stolen from a bible camp in Michigan the previous summer), the thing I mostly remember is missing Radiohead.
A’s persistent pursuit of me went on for another several years (a decade, actually, in its way, more passively). I don’t remember the last time we really hung out, but I do remember that a year after the Radiohead show we missed, he dedicated a cover of “Fake Plastic Trees” to me at an open mic (he was—and I’m sure still is—an outstanding singer and guitarist: he was more talented than me in most of the ways that mattered, I understood then), and I did not miss the feeling in that last minute of the song: “If I could be / who you wanted.” I’m sure that we had a series of increasingly awkward interactions after that, largely on account of my failure to recognize that my attempts at kindness were too easily misinterpreted, but that’s the moment I remember: a clear transmission, a good one, I think, to close a memory on.
I’m self-conscious about revealing these personal details to you here, but because we’re talking about sad songs, they’re important. They might even be crucial to how we experience these songs and why we keep coming back to painful memories: here’s a song that showed us something about ourselves or about another or about the world, that articulated something we couldn’t otherwise. Maybe we still can’t articulate it properly.
I’ve been looking so long at these pictures
of you I can almost believe that they’re real
It’s difficult to write a truly good autobiographical song, Professor of Psychology Daniel Sullivan tells me in his office at the University of Arizona. His research specializes in the intersections of culture and suffering, though not exactly sadness, as he explained to me on e-mail. Still, as an amateur songwriter, he had a vested interest in the question of why we love sad songs, so, sure, he’d love to meet. The emphasis on autobiography differs a lot across cultures and has evolved in America over time, so that our present obsession with autobiography is an anomaly and not by any means an international norm, and the songs that really stay with us, generation to generation, are the ones that tell all of our stories.
He explains that the songs that really get him are narrative but not necessarily autobiographical, like Richard Buckner’s song “Elizabeth Childers,” from his album The Hill, based on Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology, addressed to a dead child, and coincidentally recorded in Tucson, my landscape with the ugliest street in America. It’s hard to compare any other grief to that: any parent doesn’t want to imagine how their child’s death might extinguish them. But how autobiographical can sadness really be if it’s physical and universal? The good songs feel autobiographical because they play in the background of our lives so they soundtrack our sadnesses, and because we use them to prompt emotional experience
Sullivan directed me to Sartre’s 1939 theory of emotion, that emotions are “magical transformations of the world.” That is, emotions are “experiential episodes that are prompted by the perception of difficulties. During these episodes the world is magically transformed . . . through the use of one’s body,” as glossed by Andreas Elpidorou in “Horror, Fear, and the Sartrean Account of Emotions.” Emotional experiences are largely unreflective ones in which our consciousness of ourselves recedes to make space for an intensely physical experience. This is rare for most of us. And perhaps that’s why the right sad song can be so powerful; perhaps that’s why we feel so possessive of the songs that can induce them. Give Buckner’s song a listen. It was released outside of the years of our bracket, and wasn’t on my radar until this conversation, but it—and the whole album—is exceptional. In connecting me with this song, I felt connected to some small part of Daniel Sullivan, and that feels real.
I almost believe that the pictures
are all I can feel
How do we connect with the emotional lives of others? For the Sweet Sixteen, I invited friends to write short essays introducing, advocating for, or analyzing the songs that made it that far. The thing that I found fascinating about these introductions—each lovely, rangy essays in their way—was how personal they were, even the ones that didn’t seem at first to be overly personal. It was obvious, reading what my friends had to say about the songs, that these were songs that Meant Something to them at important or impressionable points in their lives. This is what these songs meant to us then, each of us outsider, downtrodden, unformed in our ways. As poet and essayist Brian Blanchfield tells us, “The bigger mystery is whether and how This Mortal Coil anticipated that a boy in central-piedmont North Carolina needed to wail the elongated phonemes of this song of huge, free-floating desire, in the fathoms of its depths, even as he pivot-turned the lawnmower and paced parallel swaths, back and forth, back and forth, rewinding, starting again.” Or as fiction writer Kate Bernheimer writes, “I first heard [Joy Division’s (1) “Atmosphere”] in the 1980s, during an incomprehensibly fogged and hurtful awakening.” She goes on to write the most personal prose she’s ever written, she tells me, more evidence that the right sad song—or writing about the right sad song—can allow us to reveal and explore parts of ourselves that we otherwise conceal.
Will I see you tonight on
the downtown train?
The comments section unearthed several more of these stories, as did informal conversations I had with everyone I bugged about the project, which was everyone I communicated with this month (sorry if you had the misfortune of running into me at a party or a reading last March). These sad songs are not just sad songs: they’re modes of transport. They connect the past and present, and because there’s so much more past for us, the older we get the more powerful that concoction feels.
In the case of Jeff Buckley’s cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” as March Sadness guest columnist Elena Passarello points out, referring to the very first vocal sound (“huhhhh”) that begins his version: “Breath on a neck, a lover’s last breath, or a dejected sigh—no matter what it signifies, that breath is like a reset button, blowing away all the sinister horniness of Cohen’s original take and replacing it with high, earnest emotion.” I think that’s largely why his version is so successful for most of us: a song written by a 50-year old and performed by a 28-year old is able to contain and sustain both experience and innocence: who we became and who we used to be. That rings true because it’s also how we are: we are both those selves, shell on top of shell, accreting and distancing us from but never entirely burying our pasts.
This is gonna take a long time
and I wonder what’s mine
I should say that I was most sad to see “Song to the Siren” end its improbable tournament run, not just for its underdog quality and my attachment to it, but because it’s not a song that I attach to any autobiographical memory, so I feel like I’m experiencing whatever sadness it has to offer me in a purer, less self-serving way. Or maybe I just like to tell myself that. I was complaining about its loss on the blog, when Matthew Vadnais responded, referring to the relative ubiquity of “Fake Plastic Trees”:
more of us had an emotional experience with the song to begin with so that remembering the song (let alone listening to it) is remembering ourselves in a variety of moments, many of which either do or don’t enhance the song’s sadness. I, to my shame, have no history with This Mortal Coil (or the original song) so all it gets in terms of my sadness is what it has been able to generate in the five or six listens since the tournament began. While repetition can hurt songs too, for songs we still love, it makes it almost impossible for a new song to be sadder because our only compass is our own feelings. Without a history or a car trip in which someone I liked but wanted to love helped me figure out the lyrics and sing the thing, “Song of the Siren” is merely pretty and super forgettable, which is blasphemy I’m sure, but sadness will almost always privilege songs we’ve known forever because, when it comes to sadness, the real instrument being played is us.
This is true but it cuts both ways: for instance, it’s possible that I may have rooted (and voted) against Radiohead on account of my memories of Alex regarding the song. But in a contest pitting subjectivity against subjectivity, knowing that my experience of “Song to the Siren” is not largely autobiographical, I craved these moments where I felt more able to trust that my assessment was not just autobiographical but aesthetic, when I felt I could see more clearly the song and the performance. Opposing that, though, I should also admit, is the considerable pleasure of (re)discovery: here was a song I didn’t know I could love, but I did.
When we were young, we had no history
so nothing to lose meant we could choose
As a reward for our thought and our intense feeling and our sorting through the feelings these songs bring up, the tournament has offered us increasingly difficult choices: how could we choose “Song to the Siren” over “Romeo & Juliet”? How to pick Elliott Smith’s brilliant “Waltz #2” over possibly the saddest song in the tournament, perpetual underdogs The Replacements, offering us the sweet self-conscious alcoholic haze of “Here Comes a Regular”? How can we possibly weigh Sarah McLachlan against New Order? How to hold the intensity of (14) “Words,” an old song by Low, a band I’ve seen live more than any other band, against (2) Concrete Blonde’s “Joey,” a song described by Committee Member and essayist Megan Campbell as “guttural and pleading . . . [un]attractively sad . . . [not] winsome or sexy or sweet . . . no cleavage and no pretty girl tears—just lead singer Johnette Napolitano looking fierce and unapproachable . . . backed by a band that was not good-looking or hip or even youthful”? That’s a forceful read, one that I find almost impossible to argue against.
I remember the song and the video well, and though I was secretly rooting for “Joey” to win it all, especially over some of the sad boy rock bands that I remain susceptible to, I wasn’t voting my head on this one. I was voting with my heart, which is to say with Low, with whom I share more autobiography, and whose tournament continued past this point, improbably.
Ooh, the years burn, burn, burn
Low upset “Joey,” then lost in the Elite 8 to Joy Division, who looked at that point frankly unstoppable. Tracy Chapman took down Elliott Smith and then did what seemed impossible and beat Joy Division to make it to the championship game. The Cure did upend Radiohead. Neutral Milk Hotel lost, perhaps unsurprisingly, to Jeff Buckley, who crushed The Cure to make the final game. I was surprised by how close it was not. This gave us, as one reader pointed out, the least edgy championship matchup that you could have engineered from the original field. This was a North Carolina–Duke matchup we were looking at, one that “could have been played in a Starbucks in Overland Park, Kansas,” as a listener tweeted. This is as unsurprising as it is true. It’s not the final I would have argued for, but it’s no shock that in a democratic contest we ended up with what the most people could agree on, which was this.
I had a feeling I could be someone,
be someone, be someone
What does this mean for the effectiveness of the March Sadness machine that we end up right in the middle, with all the idiosyncrasy of our sadnesses washed away? Does it mean that we are not as individual as we thought? Or does it mean that we ended up with what we could agree on?
Well, these are both great songs and performances, for starters. It’s hard to argue with dead, white, drowned, romantic Jeff Buckley, the voice of innocence (about to be extinguished) channeling experience, the lyrical complexity of a song written by Leonard Cohen, half a life his senior, and one of the best songwriters of the last century. And of all the songs in the bracket, possibly “Fast Car” did the best commercially—so well, in fact, that that one year when it was out you couldn’t avoid it; it saturated everything, and no matter how sad a song it was, repeated exposure to its stimulus dulled response. That’s how I felt listening to Buckley’s “Hallelujah” for the fiftieth time, just dried out and wrung up, impermeable, reminded of nothing beyond what I was doing: watching a video of a sad, dead boy online. I wondered, too, just how surprising it was that in an almost entirely white field (#MarchSadnessSoWhite someone mentioned in the comments, which is true, the era and the genre being what it was) that Chapman had made it this far. This was a good argument both for diversity and for the excellence of Tracy Chapman.
Chapman is pretty damn excellent, too. The song’s got pathos, pop, the movement between the doomed situation of the speaker and the powerful memory of hope that sustains—or permanently imperils—the speaker: “Remember we were driving, driving in your car/ speed so fast felt like I was drunk.” Plus, Chapman’s from Cleveland (as a couple Cleveland commenters pointed out). She’s one of the city’s only success stories. Cleveland’s a city of legendary disappointment. At the time of our championship game, they hadn’t won a national sporting championship of any sort for more than fifty years.
And we did the analytics at the halfway point. Of the fifteen women in the original field of 64, eight made it to the sweet sixteen. Of the 64 songs, sixteen were by solo artists. Of those, seven made it to the sweet sixteen. This means that women and solo artists punched above their weight. Why is that? Is it that, as novelist, music critic, and March Sadness contributor Rick Moody suggests, “The best instrument for the music of loss, which is the best of all music, is a woman’s voice”? As it turns out, both solo artists (Buckley and Chapman) took down the bands (The Cure and Joy Division) in the semifinals. So we were left with just two people standing, their songs and their voices. Which prevailed?
Does it matter? Like every month, March 2016 got washed away too, with all its sadness and its memories of sadness. It’s now July. I’m writing this in 108-degree heat, where the cool of March in Arizona feels pretty damn far away. And I don’t think it really does matter whether Buckley or Chapman cut down the nets and hoisted the sadness cup. This is a sad songs contest. Maybe losing’s the better trophy.
If you really want to know, go to the website and see for yourself. Or—way better—take a month or a week or a night and run the tournament yourself from its beginning. The outcome of the games is secondary to the journey, since each of us will find and choose our own sadnesses: they will be the ones that we desire—and deserve. The bracket isn’t a contest but a self-diagnostic tool. So turn it on and play it yourself or with someone you love or used to love. What does it feel like? Talk about it. A sad song is a door. And let me know where it leads you.
Don’t walk away, in silence.
Don’t walk away.
March Fadness, Essay Daily’s “tournament of essays,” has reached its Sweet Sixteen and you can follow all the action at www.marchfadness.com Read. Listen. Vote!
Ander Monson is the author of six books of nonfiction, fiction, and poetry, most recently Letter to a Future Lover (Graywolf). He directs the MFA program at the University of Arizona and edits the magazine DIAGRAM <thediagram.com>, the New Michigan Press, Essay Daily <essaydaily.org>, and March Fadness <marchfadness.com>.