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Why Do We Listen to Sad Songs?

By Reis Tobolski

Maybe because it’s a reminder of you and me and the enigmatic liaison we once had. ‘I’ve been replayin’ the same song on repeat trying to find a piece of you’. The words of Beach Bunny from 6 Weeks buzzing on in the background as I go about creating the perfect playlist for this article.

In the era of Soundcloud sad boys, Billie Eilish and the popularisation of late-night depression sessions. It seems ever more topical that we look back at the question, why do we listen to sad songs? A persistent paradox throughout the arts, why do we find pleasure in tragedy? Which is made ever more problematic because we actively seek out sad songs when we are sad. In some shameful form of fighting fire with fire, we are now fighting inner turmoil with more inner turmoil.

There’s the case that sad songs and music that cause emotional responses are of a higher aesthetic value and that’s why we’re drawn to them. The common argument that great pain creates great art. But, as much as the new wave of emo rap resonates with me it’s hard to put forward an argument for their aesthetic value.

I guess we could go all the way back to a footnote in the major works of Aristotle. The idea of catharsis, but what does this mean? Turns out we don’t really know, and a lot of philosopher’s have been arguing over the definition since Aristotle was too busy to define it in his Poetics. So, I’m just going to go with the critical consensus. Which claims that catharsis is a form of purification or emotional release from fear, pity and sadness. This is where our enjoyment of sad songs comes from, it allows us to bring negative emotions to the forefront of our mind and liberate them.

But to me this just sounds like more prototypical, melodramatic, philosopher tripe. Countless times Hold Me While You Wait has appeared out of nowhere on my shuffle and put me into a sad state. And then in a masochistic frenzy I’ve gone searching for more. I’ve relished the sadness that the mystical powers of Lewis Capaldi’s voice brings. So, I find it weird saying that sad music brings a release from pain, but then I still find it strange saying that it brings pleasure. Walking down the street a little bit teary eyed listening to Lil Peep isn’t the most enjoyable experience and hardly motivates me for a day in the library. Yet I don’t want it to stop, I want more.

There’s a common trend with our generation, that we are numb to feelings. Maybe it’s just that songs like Ivy by Frank Ocean or Eventualities by Daddy’s Beamer, help us feel stronger emotions we don’t often get to feel in this rather mediocre existence. Look who’s being melodramatic now. That doesn’t sound right.

When I think back to songs that invoke a powerful emotional response in me, they’re frequently tied to other events. After the Manchester Bombing crowds all around Manchester would sing Don’t Look Back in Anger. It became an anthem of the city and now whenever I hear that song, I become teary-eyed reminiscing about my home. There is an argument that it’s a sad song anyway, but for me it has nothing to do with the lyrics and everything to do with what that song represents. A time when Manchester was in ruins and came together as one.

And then there’s another song that comes to mind, Your Graduation by Modern Baseball. When I found this song about a year ago now, I had it on repeat for three weeks straight. To put it simply it’s not a good song, made by a modern-day American pop punk band with a likeness to Blink 182. Which is made even worse by the fact the song was released in 2014, so I don’t even have the excuse of nostalgia to fall back on for liking this song. The worst part is that no matter how much I listen to this song it still makes me feel emotional. Whenever I listen to it, I’m reminded of the girl I just let go, and who I still can’t stop thinking about. Maybe that’s why we listen to sad songs because they awaken powerful memories inside of us that we don’t want to lose. They remind us of someone important from our life. Is it any wonder that so many of the great sad songs are break-up songs, they relate to that one special part of our life that we don’t want to lose even if we can only remember the bad.

But then I think there’s an added extra that invites us to listen to sad songs. The artistes create these songs with a certain level of authenticity and honesty. In order to write lyrics that resonate with ourselves they must also resonate with the artiste. Through doing so we get to listen to the artiste in a vulnerable state which gives us permission to feel vulnerable as well.

I don’t feel like I’ve truly been able to answer the question at hand rather I’ve been on a journey of self-discovery in hopes of understanding why I’m awake most nights in a fit of teenage angst listening to Johnny Cash’s rendition of Hurt and an assortment of emo rappers. If you get nothing else from this article do go and listen to Your Graduation by Modern Baseball and reminisce about the good old days when pop punk was cool.