The month was January, the year 2021, and I was doing that thing again. A habit formed in the thick of teenagedom: getting purposely lost in the torrential rain, listening to Phil Collins’ ‘Against All Odds.’ Is that embarrassing to admit? Perhaps. But see, the thing is, historically, I’ve never had to concern myself with what other people thought of such a practice. No, this was my own little private world to indulge in a bit of melancholy. Until it wasn't. “Sounds like you’ve been listening to too much sad music,” someone noted down the phone. His speculation being entirely, somewhat infuriatingly, correct. The prescription? “I’m going to send you a happy song…”
And so off I went. The happiness experiment, living off a cultural diet of feel-good rhythms to try and curb the emotional hangover this lockdown trilogy has brought upon us all. So, why is it that months later, I am back doing that thing again? Submerging myself, sonically speaking, in heartache, jealousy, anxiety, ego crushes, insecurity and being “unrelentlessly upset (Ah! Ah! Ah!).” For fans of Olivia Rodrigo’s debut album, Sour, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about: a songbook that has spearheaded a Sad Girl Summer revolution (think Hot Girl Summer’s younger, more emo, cousin) and, my god, is it addictive listening. Pulling me right back in touch with decades-old feelings that permeated an angst-ridden, bittersweet and boy-obsessed, youth. But is consuming too much of the darker slice of Spotify, at its worst, a bit like smoking or flirting with an ex – masochistic the more you keep doing it? It’s not quite that simple.
For one, sometimes the reason we take pleasure in other people’s pain, in this case an entire album’s worth, is that it validates our own. Both past and present tense.
“Listening to sad music can be quite primal,” says music researcher and DJ Jesse Bernard. “In that we listen because we feel seen and heard, even though it’s often perceived to be a one-way communication. In this case, the sender (musician) doesn’t necessarily receive our response, but it’s still communication because of the way it makes us feel and that can be transformative.”
This mode of introspection strikes a cathartic chord, agrees musician Jessica Winter (her latest EP aptly christened Sad Music). “Music is nostalgic and it can be triggering,” she notes. “For example, when your loved one is no longer with you and ‘their’ song comes on, it can be like they are in the room with you.” But certain songs, she says, helps you to feel less alone, to accept that life is always going to be painful at points. “People singing the same woes as you, all over the world, is a comfort.”
“Daniel Johnston is my favourite go-to for sad music,” Winter adds. “His pain is all over the music, from the wonky strumming and relentless bashing of the keys to the terrible recordings and to his vulnerable vibrato vocal." All of that make for the "saddest" and "most beautiful" of listens. "And, for a moment after listening, you are glad to be alive.”
It’s like the psychoanalyst Carl Jung once said, “even a happy life cannot be without a measure of darkness, and the word 'happy' would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness.” Whether we choose to present our battle scars, our darker shades, in public is immaterial. Experiencing this mood cycle is merely part and parcel of being human. Still, there is something deeply satisfying to hear Olivia Rodrigo laying bare so visibly her rage in - what I deem to be the catchiest pop song maybe ever (?) - ‘brutal’: I’m so sick of seventeen / Where's my fucking teenage dream? / If someone tells me one more time / "Enjoy your youth, " I'm gonna cry / And I don't stick up for myself / I'm anxious and nothing can help / And I wish I'd done this before / And I wish people liked me more.
Speaking to Tiffany Yu, Head of Music at WeTransfer (and fellow Rodrigo fan) she says that in this “crazy year of reflection” she’s leaned on sad girl music more than ever; flooding back memories from different parts of her life: “I had to actually live with my own thoughts and expressing them sometimes came in the form of listening to Fiona Apple, Phoebe Bridgers, Carly Rae Jepsen, some dips into Angel Olsen (her new song with Sharon Van Etten, 'Like I Used To', is stellar) and Jazmine Sullivan (her album was sad, but also extremely empowering).”
This last year has proven itself to be the unsexiest of ménage à trois’: joyless, chaotic and uncertain. At times, despairingly difficult to compute both the surreal state of the world and the sheer depths of sadness we can carry with us. Music that scrutinises personal sorrow can, perhaps oddly, be a remedy to this. Provide a little more mental clarity. Remind us that wading through the murkier waters of our emotions has the potentiality to mark the beginnings of a changing tide. Like adding white wine to cover up a red wine stain. The wine is still there, but its shade has softened.
via instagram / @oliviarodrigo