Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Perhaps a better word for it is "melancholy"

In my last post I asked the question: "What is the most depressing song ever?" The post title itself reveals my problem with writing late at night. My use of language diminishes as the evening goes on, leaving me with only a limited number of adjectives to call upon.

I think the more appropriate word for what I am looking for is "melancholy"—not depressing or, for that matter, morose or morbid. In other words, I like to listen to songs that let me experience a temporary gloominess, not songs that make me want to go stick my head in the oven.

But my criteria are more specific than that. These are some of the things I've ruled out in compiling my current playlist:

• Songs from the lovesick, unless the experience shared in the song is recognizable, and speaks of more than mere narcissistic longing—U2's "One" meets this criteria because the "we" in the song seems universal and not just limited to one couple/one frustrated man.

• Songs that speak of personal tragedy yet are more cathartic for the singer than evocative for the listener, e.g., "Mother" by John Lennon, listed on another web page that polled readers about their favorite depressing music.

• Songs with gloomy lyrics but happy music. On that same web page, people voted for "Luka" by Suzanne Vega. Yes, the subject matter of child abuse is depressing, but the music itself is a little too upbeat for my purposes. Likewise, the subject matter of "Layla" is a little depressing, but the music rocks (and it really could be categorized as a lovesick song).

• Songs that create bitterness or anger, no matter how beautiful the melody or poignant the lyrics—I can't include Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit" because I find it too upsetting.

• Songs that are so depressing they cause me despondency and despair, e.g., "Gloomy Sunday."

• Songs that are schmaltzy or cloyingly sentimental. In this category, I'd put Gilbert O'Sullivan's "Alone Again, Naturally," which surprisingly is listed among some people's favorite depressing songs on other web sites. Yet, I'd include Harry Chapin's "Taxi," perhaps because I've always had a certain fondness for Harry Chapin, having seen him live and upclose when I was in college, and also because I like the cello in the song even if the recorded song's orchestration veers towards the overly sentimental.

But the other reason that "Taxi" makes the cut is that I've realized, in compiling my playlist, that one of my favorite themes (currently, and ongoing) is the dashing of the wide-eyed hopes of youth. Is there anything more melancholy than this? Richard Thompson's "Gethsemane" is a perfect example of this, as well as Joni Mitchell's middle-aged rendition of "Clouds."

Perhaps the overall theme here (which includes this optimism-dashing) is the unfairness of life—which, for my listening comfort, cannot include songs about brutality, hatred or helplessness.

Of course, your criteria may be different. Maybe you're without a mate and loneliness is the more compelling theme for you. Or you're young and you don't want to hear anyone sing about the dashing of dreams because you're optimistic it won't happen to you.

But if you, too, long for songs of middle-aged and middle-class malaise, as well as songs that sound deliciously gloomy, tune in tomorrow for my current (short) playlist, as well as a list of sad albums I remember fondly from my own youth, and the most depressing/exhilarating music video I've ever seen.

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