Sad Songs

Then we should be right in doing away with the lamentations of men of note and in attributing them to women, and not to the most worthy of them either, and to inferior men, in order that those whom we say we are breeding for the guardianship of the land may disdain to act like these. […]

What, then, are the dirgelike modes of music? Tell me, for you are a musician.

The mixed Lydian, he said, and the tense or higher Lyidan, and similar modes.

These, then, said I, we must do away with.
-Plato, Republic Book III


I promised almost two years ago that I’d write a post defending sad songs. Now’s a good time to do it, since I’ve been listening to the new album by Bon Iver (For Emma, Forever Ago). He sounds a little like Nick Drake or Elliott Smith: he double-tracks his voice, and his singing approximates to a wail. He’s climbed from his little makeshift studio in a snowed-in Midwestern cabin to the mainstream via portals like NPR, so it may appear that the sad song doesn’t need defending. We’re certainly drenched in ballads of every description, from Rihanna’s new single “Take A Bow” (I’m guessing she hasn’t even heard Bedtime Stories) to Colin Meloy Sings Live.

Bon Iver is really an exception, though. On a lot of the best albums I’ve bought in recent years, an absolutely heartbreaking or despairing song is actually impossible. There are other negative emotions present — regret, alienation, anxiety — but the fact is that garage-rock bands like the Strokes or Franz Ferdinand are too propulsive to write desperately sad songs, and so are dance bands like the Knife or LCD Soundsystem. “I Will Survive,” amplified and sweetened by self-help, has seeped into every last verse coming from the pop factories. Beyoncé will survive (“Irreplaceable”), Shakira will survive (“Don’t Bother”), and Justin will also survive (“What Goes Around…”). (Spoiler alert: on Duffy’s new album, she comes close to not surviving, but then she totally does.)

Even a song that you would think was so utterly and unmistakably sad that it couldn’t possibly become blunted, namely “Hurt,” a fast current of icy black water if ever there was one, turned into an affectionate celebration of Johnny Cash’s relationship to June Carter Cash. In the late recordings Cash made with Rick Rubin, there is a struggle between Cash’s ability to sing darkly, and his turn of mind, which had actually become very sentimental and pious. There are a lot of awful religious songs on those American Recordings, and some of that seeps into the absolute best work. It’s not a “crown of thorns,” OK? It’s a crown of shit.

An aesthetic identity is a source of joy and comfort: underlying most modern songs of misery, whether they are Colin Meloy’s Victorian fantasies or a sassy breakup song, is the artist’s own constructed persona. You can hear Cash enjoying the chance to re-work songs like “Personal Jesus” by translating them into his Southern Gothic style. Cat Power, whose public persona was at once point merely her penchant for breakdowns, made herself over into a sober, twee Dusty Springfield and now sings “New York, New York” with ingratiating awkwardness instead of turning “Satisfaction” into a desolate lament. It is almost as though the relationship between performer and audience is now continually present in the songs themselves, giving the singer a reason to hope and to move forward, and giving the audience cathartic group therapy. The rhetorical self-consciousness changes and mollifies the very emotions of the song.

But if a song doesn’t do this, if it has no inclination to demonstrate resilience, what is its nature? Particularly now that gyms and iPods have run off together to Ibiza, Plato has returned in force, and (in one form or another) the brave “marching song” is ubiquitous. Even if a song is bittersweet, it keeps you moving on the treadmill. The somatic, imitative theory persists: slow songs make you move slower and feel gloomy, which is why they were banished from the Republic.

In the moment, it is probably true that sad songs kill the mood. I know this because I run approximately 10% slower while listening to Elliott Smith than I do while listening to “In Heaven” by DJ Sammy. (The treadmill has a digital readout.) But in the long run, the essence of the great sad song, something as crystalline as the Beatles performing “Yesterday,” is the sublime. It is a confrontation with something that may have roots in the everyday — it may begin with a breakup, or a death, or the ashes of a wasted year — but it touches what is irremediably tragic and without hope. Persona does not survive the sublime: the speaking voice is split apart by it, turned inchoate and uncertain. We take as much of it as we can stand, and though that is exhausting, it does not really make us sad. It shadows what is, what is left, making it burn white as bone or phosphor.

I crouch like a crow
Contrasting the snow
For the agony, I’d rather know