Beer and Pavement

On Sadness

Posted in Intersections, Manifesto by SM on January 12, 2012

“Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.”
― Dr. Seuss

I recently watched the Pitchfork.TV documentary on the making of the Flaming Lips classic LP, The Soft Bulletin. If you haven’t heard the record, you’re missing out. It’s absolutely one of the ten best albums of my life and it may also be one of the saddest. Wayne Coyne has often talked about how sad songs can make us feel better or give us a sense of being part of something larger than ourselves. This is expressed in so many words in the doc and comes through in the Dr. Seuss quote above.

We love sad songs. Our favorite bands record mostly sad songs. There’s a reason bands like The Smiths, Joy Division, Bright Eyes, etc. are so beloved. It’s similar to the fanaticism for Elliott Smith and Nick Drake. These artists know how to speak to our sadness and this comforts us somehow.

Interestingly, we also choose alcohol more than almost any other drug. Alcohol’s a depressant, bringing our sadness to the forefront[1]. Yes, the effects of our drug of choice is mostly intended for us to feel that sadness again.

It should be clarified, however, that just because we choose music and drugs that make us sad that we still appreciate high quality. Sure, there is music and alcohol that appeals to the lowest common denominator. Those are not the people about which I’m talking. No, I prefer to focus on those with discriminating taste. There are no more discriminating enthusiasts alive than those of us who follow indie rock and craft beer. Characteristics such as quality and authenticity are important to us. Yes, these things are somewhat subjective, but one cannot deny the care and skill it takes to create and appreciate such endeavors.

So, why does the indie rocker play that sad record over and over? Why does the beer enthusiast go back to the bar time and time again?

This is what comes up when you search for "sad beer".

I think that we all just want to feel something. As the Dr. Seuss quote suggests, it’s better to have experiences even if it means some sadness is included. To feel something, anything, means that we’re alive. It’s even better when that something is real, something that reminds us we’re not alone.

Celebratory emotions can do that to a point. We can feel joy and camaraderie with our friends and family after a great triumph, but we know whom we can trust when we’re down and out. Our real friends and most trusted family members stick by our sides in the toughest of times. We comfort each other when we reveal a bit of ourselves. Sadness brings us together in a way happiness never can.

And this is why we listen to sad songs and drink beer that fills us up, slows our reflexes, and lets our guards down. This authenticity in feeling sadness helps us to feel alive, almost ironically triumphant. When I listen to The Soft Bulletin, I can relate to the sadness in those songs, but at the same time the dynamics of that music makes me feel said triumphs. If I can survive some of the things I have survived so far, I can do most anything. And that just makes me want to crack open a good beer.

1OK. So, I don’t really think that alcohol’s purpose is to make us sad. However, by slowing things down, we tend to reflect more on our life and inevitably our failures. Or think of those drunken nights when you felt so down due to your state and the embarrassment of having lost control. With alcohol, things slow down and our emotions can often match the rest of our body’s pace. They don’t call them depressants for nothing.

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14 Responses

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  1. jeffmenter said, on January 12, 2012 at 9:33 am

    It’s a great documentary that covers a great band talking about their greatest album.

    For me, I think sad songs or albums are really hard to get right. If there’s any hint of facade or conceit I get turned off pretty quickly. I think that’s why I gravitate towards the poppier songs and instrumental stuff. There’s a lot of alt/indie music that just strikes me as angsty and banal.

    So when an artist *does* get it right, it really speaks to me. Elliot Smith is probably the best example of this but “The Soft Bulletin” is right up there with it.

    Also, this: “Sadness brings us together in a way happiness never can.” was spot on.

    • Zac said, on January 12, 2012 at 10:36 am

      You’re getting at the quality idea I was trying to express. The problem with this is that it’s really quite subjective. People tend to go with the poppy or angst-ridden stuff, but it’s the well-done sad stuff in between that brings ’em together.

  2. Steve said, on January 12, 2012 at 10:56 am

    Nice post. I’m no fan of the Flaming Lips (which doesn’t really matter, does it?), but I certainly get the sentiment about sad songs.

    I think another genre and style of sad song that I really like is the sad song lyrically that sounds upbeat musically – so basically 90% of the Motown catalogue. I like songs that sneak the sadness in, or by being more musically upbeat add a little bit of defiance to the sadness.

    I like a sad, slow song more than most, but there is fine line between exquisite sadness and sounding maudlin and full of self-pity. Not an easy one to get right.

    I think the best songs (and beers for that matter) evoke a sense of what the Welsh call hiraeth, a lovely word with sadly no English equivalent.

    • Zac said, on January 12, 2012 at 11:15 am

      Yeah, I grew up on a lot of Motown and can see that. I suspect that’s part of what’s behind all the retro stuff filling the airwaves at the moment. It seems to me there’s a bit of that sentiment in all the Manchester stuff of the 1980’s as well where – correct me if I’m wrong – Motown had a great influence over, thematically if not a little aesthetically.

      Good stuff on the hiraeth. We Welsh know our sadness better than most…well, maybe not as much as the Irish.

      • carrie the destroyer said, on January 12, 2012 at 12:03 pm

        Motown is fucking magic – Atlantic Records soul stuff too; My dad brought me up on that so I’m an avid fan as well. I think the brilliance of that comes largely from being a marginalized group finding a voice for the first time.

      • Zac said, on January 12, 2012 at 12:08 pm

        Absolutely! The context of the times should also be considered. Again, as I stated below, I hate when the aesthetic of Motown has been co-opted by white folk down the road. I don’t mind the stuff that Motown inspired, but white people (esp men) ripping off Motown is a bit disturbing to me. I can say this because I am a white man who has ripped off Motown. Not really. I am a white man, though.

  3. carrie the destroyer said, on January 12, 2012 at 11:46 am

    I’m not really sure what your point is other than alcohol is a depressant and sad songs are addictive.

    I will admit that the Soft Bulletin is a pretty sad album, but there’s a sense of triumphalism to the sadness. I listened the shit out of it for a while because of that triumphalist sadness, because it was right at the time. Even a significant percentage of Elliott Smith’s output and some of Nick Drake’s stuff has a strangely uplifting quality (“Pink Moon” has a movement that I would qualify as hopeful). And while my Bright Eyes listening experience is limited, I’ve also found a sense of celebration in the sadness–but also a sense of self-important pseudo suffering that’s a real turn-off.

    As I think about it, most sad songs contain glimmers of hope–despite all attempts to hit rock bottom, there’s a secret optimism. There’s an unmistakable sublime beauty to sadness, that from pain great art can emerge. It is uncertain and seemingly endless and music provides away to fill the holes that sadness gnaws away at.

    Sometimes I think that the great power of a sad song is not to lift you up, but to sympathize and be the pal swapping shit stories when no one else can give a fuck–to say your words so you don’t have to and provide a melodic mantra to the wounded and that’s what makes it so addictive.

    • Zac said, on January 12, 2012 at 11:49 am

      Couldn’t have said it better myself. In fact, I didn’t. Well put, carrie the destroyer.

    • carrie the destroyer said, on January 12, 2012 at 11:51 am

      I think exploring sadness could lend to a more probing discussion about “The blues” and why delta and country blues of the early to mid 20th century are the most prime examples of insane, aching, haunting sadness.

      Hopeful sadness is for our privileged first-world white-people problems.

      Misery is reserved for the truly suffering, yearning for escape in the only way they can find it–music.

      • Zac said, on January 12, 2012 at 11:59 am

        Yeah, but for the privileged to sing about such misery would be inauthentic, even offensive. At least these artists are singing about what sadness means to them. Still, these sentiments are universal. Just because you feel the kind of sadness that results from poverty, bigotry, oppression, etc., doesn’t mean that you also don’t feel the pain and suffering of just being human. If you want, you can quantify which sadness is more meaningful, but I find that to be a waste of time and energy. I still think the sadness/misery found in delta and country blues is as hopeful as white-privileged-indie-alt sad songs. The difference is mainly found in the depths of the sadness. Wayne Coyne’s hope is to find some meaning to his existence. Maybe Robert Johnson would have just been hopeful to have a roof over his head, some food on the table, and the freedom that comes with walking down the street without fear.

      • Zac said, on January 12, 2012 at 12:00 pm

        My first sentence ^ is why I can’t stand white men in modern blues bands. It just feels forced or fake to me.

      • carrie the destroyer said, on January 12, 2012 at 4:10 pm

        that’s because it is forced and fake.

      • Zac said, on January 12, 2012 at 4:17 pm

        Exactly and I would prefer they sing about their privileged sadness rather than someone else’s sadness.

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