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When Do Sad Songs Become Too Sad?

Music is a medium for expressing emotions. We can all think of songs that embody seething anger, exuberant joy, or aching despair. Lately I’ve been thinking about the sadder side of things. There’s a place for letting out the true emotions of your heart, but just because all emotions exist doesn’t mean all of them are healthy to revel in. When does a sad song cross the line into self-pity and simply become too sad?

It all started with Anberlin and the moodier songs from their new album, Dark Is The Way, Light Is A Place. Stephen Christian’s never been the happiest songwriter around, but when he sang, “Because of you I’ll never write another love song,” that was just too much for me, and I began to think about the difference between sad songs I like and sad songs I can’t stand.

I don’t like songs that portray no hope, because there is always hope. But what if you don’t feel hope? Songs that have a cheesy “don’t worry, Jesus saves” ending can take away from the legitimacy of the feeling of hopelessness.

And what if I’m just biased? I get really cynical about depressing pop stars, like the rapid-fire “woe is me” singles from Kelly Clarkson and Avril Lavigne (or whoever is filling that role nowadays; I haven’t listened to much pop radio since 2006). At the same time, I love Johnny Cash’s “Hurt” cover as a personal expression of the realism that we are imperfect human beings: “I will let you down. I will make you hurt.”

But did I just choose to see that because I already respected Johnny Cash and I’m just a musical snob regarding self-indulgent industry-propelled radio divas? Would I have dismissed the original “Hurt” by Nine Inch Nails if I’d heard it first? Or is there some kind of mark separating “This really sucks” from “This really sucks and it’s all your fault” or “This really sucks and it always will“?

If I’ve learned anything from cheesy leadership books and inspirational movies, life is not just about what happens to us. It’s about how we respond to what happens to us. I’m trying to avoid leadership-babble like “reactive” and “proactive,” but these concepts are true.

And the Anberlin song “Art of War” is completely reactionary. “Because of you, I’ll never write another love song.” The character is allowing his future to be defined by something that happened to him in the past. I don’t think that’s reflective of the hope that Jesus gives, and really I just don’t think it’s very healthy.

It’s the same reason I used to hate on “Because of You,” the sugary pop ballad (complete with an “ooooh” vocal intro) from Kelly Clarkson. The song’s attitude is not to learn from her parent’s mistakes and work hard to make her relationship work, but, “Because of your broken love, it’s now impossible for me to find love.” As I wrote in a snarky Facebook note several years ago, “The only thing that changes by the end of the song is the key.”

So what about the sad songs that I do like?

Coldplay’s “The Scientist” has such a beautiful melancholy that just the opening chord progression seems to cover the sky in clouds, but lyrically it’s mostly just a description of what’s happening: “Nobody said it was easy.” And when it touches on Chris Martin’s response, it’s one of both responsibility (“Tell you I’m sorry”) and hope (“Oh, let’s go back to the start”).

A Fine Frenzy’s “Almost Lover” is another song that is mostly just description of the past and current situation, but she does not linger, telling her almost lover “goodbye” with a twinge of responsibility-like regret (“Should’ve known you’d bring me heartache”). Primarily, this is a powerful woman recognizing the difficulty of moving on (“Can’t you just let me be?”) but incredibly determined to do so.

Finally, Marketa Irglova’s “The Hill,” off the underrated musical Once, is a heartbreaking song about a woman whose husband doesn’t understand her: “Please try to be patient, and know that I’m still learning / I’m sorry that you have to see the strength inside me burning…. / And I know that you can’t do it all, but you can’t say I’m not trying.” Most sad songs simply tell the world how they feel about someone; this song is trying to tell that someone how she feels because he’s not paying attention. She admits her mistakes while simultaneously pleading, “This isn’t all my fault. When will you realize?” This song has no response – no ultimate conclusion about her own fate. It’s suspended in a precious uncertainty, begging the man to work together with her instead of giving up.

You may disagree with me about the value of hopelessness in music. These are just my thoughts and I’d love to strengthen them with yours. You may think I’m simply taking some of these lyrics way too seriously. But we can’t say that music is a beautiful way to express the truth about life and then say that those expressions don’t really matter.

So it doesn’t bother me when you sing about what’s happening to you. I want you to do that and clearly reflect that truth in brutal honesty. I care more about the part where you respond. Take responsibility for your life and the attitude you’re going to have about it. If you don’t, I won’t condemn you, but I won’t listen to your songs.


3 thoughts on “When Do Sad Songs Become Too Sad?”

  1. It’s interesting that none of my favorite sad songs are even from the Christian market. I believe there ultimately is no hope without Christ – and I think there is even something beautiful in the fact that our hopelessness without Christ reflects our need for him – but I’m just looking for songs that recognize that such hope can exist.

    1. I think sometimes a song needs to be left with that feeling of hopelessness because you can not fit multiple emotions or expressions into one 4 minute song. There are many albums where I feel like some songs touch solely on hopelessness, and I’m perfectly fine with that, because later on the album there are expressions of hope.

      I feel like an artist needn’t worry about toning it down or watering it down with some cheesy cliche. The fact of the matter is, when a person feels depressed, they usually write a piece about that depression, and the hope comes back later, usually not in the same piece. I’m not saying it can’t happen, but that is one reason why I feel like certain songs may leave you with that feeling of hopelessness and leave it at just that.

      When he says “Because of you, I’ll never write another love song.” That is relative truth, meaning at the time that he wrote it, he really believes it to be true. But what we write doesn’t define us for eternity. The truth is, he will probably get over it in time, find some other girl and write her love songs all the same. It doesn’t mean what he originally wrote “isn’t true”, it’s just that people experience different things at different stages in life. That’s the hopeless half of it, someday he’ll write something like “I love you so much I wrote another love song even though I’d never thought I’d have the inspiration for one again.” and that will be the hopeful side of it. They don’t need to be encased in one song. or even one album.

      Once again in the kelly clarkson song, it’s like… you really can’t judge someone on the expression of one feeling or emotion. What she says is what she’s feeling at a certain point in time, but by putting it into song it makes it immortal, forever associating her with those feelings. but people change and grow and mature. There is a season for everything, and I believe there are seasons for true utter hopelessness in music.

      I know you’ve spoken before about TDAGARIM by Brand New, saying that you can’t get past the fact that it’s one of the most depressing albums you’ve ever heard. But where you see that as hopeless, I find that to be one of the most hopeful albums I’ve ever heard in my life. Maybe because when it came out I was in one of the most hopeless times of my life, and there was a peacefulness in knowing that other people hurt and struggle from the same life pains. There was a joy in knowing that I understood what he was saying and knew what he was feeling and that he lived through it long enough to write about and get past it. There is a season for everything, and God used that hopelessness I felt, and that desire to shake things up I got from listening to that album to bring me back to Him.

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