Saturday, June 04, 2016

30 Day Song Challenge, Day 4: A Song That Makes You Sad

As I've said many times before on this blog, the four essential ingredients of a great song (in my estimation) are three chords and a sad story.  I think I've always had a particular affection for sad songs, one that has only grown over the years, and my guess is that if I made a top-100 list of my Favorite Songs of All Time, a good 85% of them would qualify as bona fide heartbreakers.

In fact, I consider myself a connoisseur of sad songs, which may be a strange claim since, technically speaking, "sad songs" is not a "genre." There are, of course, generic sonic and narrative threads that can be traced throughout the majority of sad songs, especially in popular music.  But there are also many distinct and identifiable variations-- whole categories of narrative flavor, emotional bouquet, psychological nuance, affective subtlety, and discrete gradations of need and of desire--  to be found in sad songs. When you spend a lot of time listening closely to sad songs, as I have, you come to develop a palate for those differences, as the sommelier has for wine or the charcutier has for meat.

Sad songs are my meat and wine, to be sure.

In past iterations of the #30DaySongChallenge, my sad song picks have spanned several different, sometimes contrasting and sometimes complementary, sub-genres of the "sad song" category.  In 2011, I chose Emmylous Harris and Gram Parsons' "Love Hurts," which I think falls the most squarely within what I might call the "Obviously Sad Song" category. There wasn't a "sad song" prompt when I did this challenge in 2013, and the following year (2014) the prompt was "a song that makes you cry" (here was my pick that year), which constitutes an entirely distinct sub-genre of sad songs, to my mind.  In 2014, the prompt was "a song that reminds you of something sad" (here's my pick that year) but, again, that's another distinct sub-category.  Last year (2015) was the first year that "a song that makes you sad" returned as a Challenge prompt, and I chose Willie Nelson's "The Last Thing I Needed First Thing This Morning." Interestingly, I think that, in retrospect, my pick for today is more consistent with my 2011 and 2015 picks-- both of which simply asked for a "song that makes you sad"-- than any other of the number of sad songs I've included in my picks over the years.

So, maybe it's time to entertain the possibility that there's a more or less specific sub-genre of sad songs that make me sad.

Anyway, here's my pick for this year: Ryan Adams' "Come Pick Me Up," first released on his 2000 debut solo album, appropriately entitled Heartbreaker. The studio recording of "Come Pick Me Up" is great, but not nearly as great as the many acoustic versaion of it that you can find on the Internet. Here's just one of them.  Fair warning: this song is NSFW.



Maybe it's some idiosyncratic psychological or emotional tic that makes it so obvious to me that "Come Pick Me Up" and my sad song pick from last year ("Last Thing I Needed First Thing This Morning") share a deep and complicated kindred relation even within the broader family of Sad Songs. But let me try to explain...

[Warning: Game of Thrones spoilers to follow.]

I am convinced that there is a significant, perhaps even vastly significant, difference between the claim "[x] is sad" and the claim "[x] makes me sad." In fact, I was only just recently noting this to my friend after watching the #HoldtheDoor episode of Game of Thrones a couple of weeks ago, which left me gutted and in tears, while my friend-- let's just call him "the heartless misanthrope"-- was only able to manage a perfunctory "yeah, that was really sad" comment about it.  On the other hand, to be fair, that same friend was just as baffled at (what he determined to be) my not-sad-enough response to Ramsey Bolton's violent rape of Sansa Stark or Stannis Baratheon's burning his child Shireen at the stake as I was at his more or less "meh" response to the death of Hodor.

Who is the heartless misanthrope here, really?  Neither and both of us, most likely, but it's given me pause to think more seriously about the manner in which some artistic re-presentations of human pain, not to mention also the reality of those very same human pains, motivate different affective responses in us, many of which I'm sure are deeply structured (and perhaps more or less non-voluntarily determined) by social and political forces about which we are not and will never be fully aware, but others of which I do think we choose to "own" and to make our own. We do so in response to our more-or-less intimate familiarity with specific iterations of human pain, I suspect, as a way of drawing the chalk-outline of our living identities, drawn with a chalk that we feel might, will, could-maybe-someday kill us, too.

Back to the matter of sad songs, and of my pick for today, I think Ryan Adams is outlining in "Come Pick Me Up" his story in a particular sort of chalk that, for a a number of reasons, is particularly injurious to me.  It makes me sad because it's painted with my Kryptonite, it's outlined in a hue that highlights my tender spots, in psychologically- and emotionally-narrative colors to which I am particularly vulnerable.

Garden-variety romantic betrayals amplified by the inevitably corresponding and infinitely-more-devastating friendship infidelities, the slow and painful realization that what one once took to be a seamlessly interconnected, integrated and functional social world dissolving into insignificant bitter spats about proprietary claims to records, to even more insignificant speculations about who-is-sleeping-with-whom behind whose back, that self-lacerating desire to both recognize that it-is-it-what-it-is-now and, at the same time, to just ignore that things have become totally FUBAR... these are the ingredients of the adult version of what is, in all of what often feels to me like idiosyncratic agony and righteous indignation, nothing other than generic human loneliness.

I suppose that what I've discovered about sad songs that make me sad over the last several years is that none are as effective as those of what I might call the "Wronged, Betrayed, and Lonely"sort. Even within that category, though, I think my particular sadness in response to them remains idiosyncratic,

Because I think sadness is radically, particularly, specifically, perhaps even non-perfectly-repeatably idiosyncratic.What I do not think is that such sadness is unrepresentable, and thank god (or Whatever) for sad songs for keeping up comfort in our pain,

Click here to return to the "anchor page" for #30DaySongChallenge2016 with the full list of this year's picks

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