For decades artists and songwriters have delved into their personal experiences to render explanation, meaning, closure or solace for themselves and their listeners. Every time an album or track is played, collections of mistakes, tragedies and losses make up the next sad song.
But does a person have to experience some sort of emotional pain to produce such touching works of lyrical sadness ? Does the songwriter’s life have to be as painful as it is wonderful for it to be written well ? Does a positive correlation exist between the songwriter’s depth and depression ? Do you have to be sad to write sad songs?
I probably know no less than 30 great songwriters in the Nashville and Los Angeles cities alone. Over the pond there are many other great writers as well, Terry Britten, Graham Lyle (Tina Turner – “what’s love got to do with it”) Phil Collins, Mark Knopfler, etc. I can attest to the fact that a large majority of these people are well balanced and happy people.
Do you have to be sad in order to listen to sad songs ? The human experience has always guaranteed a certainty of sadness and conflict. There is no good without bad, no best times of your life without the worst. But I think we prefer to only focus on the good. I think we are consistently pushing down the bad to make more room for productivity, success and the supposed “good times.”
Art recognizes all the emotions that belie the masks of happiness we wear. All forms of art, and music especially, help us to feel less alone in our sadness or misunderstandings.
If we accept sadness and conflict as the constants they are, we’ll render a community less judgemental of the art we experience. We can listen to sad songs when we’re happy, purely out of an appreciation and understanding of another human’s shared experiences. Some sad songs make us happy because of the comfort they provide. How amazing it is that someone you’ve never met, and probably never will, understands your struggle ? How great it is that one or two clicks on a computer can produce a person who gets it, too?
I’m still not sure if you have to be sad to write a sad song. My forced answer is, however, that I assume so. Roy Orbison’s “Only the Lonely (Know How I Feel),” a song that is definitively depressing, had to be written from a place of deep struggle and sadness. Bruce Springsteen is quoted with saying that the “Darkness on the Edge of Town” album saved him from his spiraling decline in mental health. “Fake Plastic Trees” by Radiohead holds a plot that can be very depressing. Whether fictional or not, the storyline is derived from a position of understanding another’s sadness.
I don’t believe in a required level of personal sadness in order to validate or consider sad songs. Enjoy, instead, this spectrum of emotion. Take comfort in the struggle of others. Let that self-awareness effect your life. Allow yourself to understand that pain so that you’re more gentle with another’s or your own. Contemporary cultures have placed depression on some artistic higher ground. Take it down; replace it with understanding, appreciation, and hope.
Next year Elton John and Bernie Taupin will celebrate a rather stunning achievement – 50 years working together as a songwriting team.