“Making love to my demons”: On Lykke Li, Pharrell and the truth behind sad songs

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In different hands, “Love Me Like I’m Not Made of Stone” could have been a blockbuster.

Not that it’s not something magical on its own terms. The song, which was the first to be released from Lykke Li’s devastatingly great new album I Never Learn, is one of the year’s most arresting music moments so far. Stripped bare to guitar and a faint keyboard part, the track has an amateurish quality that renders the vocal performance uncomfortably intimate, as Li cries out for her jilted lover to fight through her emptiness and commit to something, anything, to break her out of stasis.

But in both the song’s melody and its vocals, you hear a quiet escalation each time the chorus hits — a cue that, based on pop expectations, the song should suddenly become much more massive. In your head, you can almost write in the parts that aren’t there: the booming drums, the pounding piano, the string crescendo. The song cries out for the “power ballad” treatment but never gives in to the temptation.

There’s nothing wrong with a great power ballad, and I’m not the only one to note the degree to which I Never Learn flirts with that formula. (The closest it comes is probably “Never Gonna Love Again,” which does welcome the string and drum accompaniment.) But I’m quite glad it doesn’t: to do so would have robbed I Never Learn of the particular quality that makes it one of my favourite albums of the year. By adding vocal and musical heft, a power ballad promises redemption: as bleak as this particular voice is at the moment, it can muster the strength to belt these feelings out, offering a sense of hope and possibility. In contrast, Li’s songs ring out in resignation — you get the feeling that she may never truly shake her sadness, and that the mistakes and regrets she bears from this broken relationship may follow her around until she runs out of footsteps to walk.

I Never Learn is heavy stuff, yet there’s still something inspiring about the experience of listening to the album. When “Love Me Like I’m Not Made Of Stone” was first released, I found myself pressing repeat over and over like it was a hot new pop song whose hook I had to unravel. I had similar experiences with its proper first single “No Rest for the Wicked” and, now, the full album. As spring starts to tease the arrival of summer, and suddenly it seems that all our collective spirits are lifting a little bit, I’m spending much of my time drowning myself in the year’s saddest collection of torch songs.

What is it about the “sadthem” that keeps me coming back?

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I use “sadthem” (my homemade term for “sadness anthem”) to describe songs that manage to sound strangely powerful and inspiring despite the material and performance thereof being soaked in tragedy. I Never Learn is perhaps the year’s best sadthem collection, but not all sadthems need to be as barely-bearable as Li’s: Adele’s 21 fits the sadthem bill, but thanks to her vocal power and some intense production, the songs suggest as many fist-pumps as they do teardrops. So it’s fair to say that sadthems exist on a spectrum from the hopeful to the hopeless.

So far, 2014 has been a pretty great year for sadthems. Joining Li on the “oh god, this is heavy” end of things is Sun Kill Moon’s Benji, a stirringly beautiful album almost entirely preoccupied with death. EMA’s The Future’s Void contains a number of heartbreakers about the perils of life in the digital age. Angel Olsen’s Burn Your Fire for No Witness contains my perhaps my favourite sad song of the year, opening track “Unfucktheworld.” Then there’s Katy B’s “Crying for No Reason,” the closest thing this year has offered to a redemptive Robyn/Adele-style sadthem; the track flirts with the dance floor but, ultimately, stays sad and on the sidelines.

I’ve always been drawn to sad songs, despite the fact that most people would probably consider me a rather cheerful (if a bit cynical) person. This is hardly uncommon, I’m sure, but I’ve discovered it’s far from universal. One of my university professors regularly pestered me during my undergrad about how I could listen to those “sad-sacks” in Radiohead when I seemed like such an upbeat guy. (This was back before the band’s music was more emotionally direct and less abstract.) I have friends who openly and readily admit to avoiding sad music because it reminds them of feelings they’d prefer to avoid, choosing spend their time instead with music that amplifies more “positive” moods.

I was also struck by a pair of exchanges on Twitter/Facebook the other week involving my friend Adam and I: we both recommended “music for Mondays” to our friends/followers but while he chose the (awesome) new Ariel Grande song, “Problem” (“Listen to this song because Summer is coming and Mondays are a drag”), I went with I Never Learn (“It’s Monday, you’re probably already a little sad, so double down and listen to the heartbreaking new Lykke Li record”). What was it that led me to suggest doubling down? Why did I choose to recommend the sadthem first?

A study by a group of researchers from Japan, published last year in Frontiers in Emotion Science, offers some insight into our attraction towards sad music. They had individuals listen to minor-key classical music and communicate their emotional responses. One trend that emerged in the study is “sweet anticipation”: we expect to be sad when we listen to a song pre-identified as sad (or starts out sounding that way) so we feel satisfied, on some level, when that comes to fruition. Another trend suggested that because we associate sadness with romance and wistfulness, those positive emotions sneak into the listening experience. Finally, there’s the idea of experience simulation: sad songs allow us to experience sadness in a safe, non-threatening way.

These answers are all both convincing and underwhelming. They’re similar to the arguments often made relating to other so-called “negative” emotional experiences (like watching horror movies) but there’s something unsatisfying in their reducing our reactions to art to very basic, biological reactions. They don’t reflect my own cultured experience of artistic engagement/consumption, and leave me feeling like half of the story is missing.

Perhaps looking at music from the exact opposite end of the emotional spectrum might offer some clues. And I think I know just the song.

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This will surprise no one who knows me, but I’m not the biggest fan of Pharrell Williams’ “Happy.”

I can’t bring myself to hate the song outright; Williams is just too good at what he does, even he’s starting to sound a bit formulaic on the track (and much of GIRL, for that matter). The song has connected with a lot of people — it’s the year’s biggest hit by a good margin — so it’s clearly doing something right by the semi-righteous rules of pop. But there things “Happy” does that just grind my gears, all of which I’m sure sound petty but which hit at some pretty core ideas about my emotional relationship with pop music:

The phrasing of “HAP-EEEEE”: The gospel-inspired backup vocals that do a lot of the heavy lifting on “Happy” draw out the song’s title, dramatically emphasizing the “eeeee” sound. The phrasing gives the song a juvenile feel; think of the way a three-year-old says “happy,” loud and long and delivered with toothy-grinned smile. This leads the song to feel like a play to the false nostalgia of youth, to the idea of simpler emotional time full of carefree, inhibition-free, worry-free fun — a wistfulness that’s always felt like an emotional dead-end to me, especially when it suggests (as I feel “Happy” does) that sentiment is readily attainable by sheer will.

“Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth”: This is, by a good margin, “Happy’s” most memorable line and every time I hear it, it makes me cranky. (Clearly, I’m not the target audience for this song.) Really? Happiness is the truth? Such a statement suggests that there is more truth in happy songs than there are in sad songs, or angry songs, or anything else. But maybe Pharrell means “truth” in a higher, capital-T sense: is he suggesting that we’re supposed to worship happiness? I’m on-board with happiness as a goal to strive for, but I’m not exactly going to get down on my knees before its alter.

No conflict: I like my pop songs with stakes, with some sense of conflict or neediness therein. Even a song about going dancing at a club can connect with me if there’s some sense of why these people need to dance, what experiences they’re escaping from or looking to transcend. “Happy” offers not conflict, no struggle; “can’t nothing bring me down” is the closest it gets. In some ways, this might explain its appeal: the song isn’t a story, and offers up no characters. It’s a narrative blank slate, a “feeling” that’s simple, efficient and easy to adopt as a soundtrack. It’s emotion as product, as a consumable item.

…but is it really that much more of an emotional product than Li’s sadness?

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Of course, what distinguishes I Never Learn from “Happy” is that sense of conflict and character: as opposed to a blank slate, you feel like you’re right there next to woman at war with herself, caught in an emotional spiral and struggling to come to terms with the consequences of her actions. You really get the sense that Li is truly “making love to her demons,” as she put it in a Pitchfork interview recently. So there are certainly some reasonable explanations as to why I Never Learn is just the sort of melodic pop that buries itself a bit deeper under my skin.

But I worry that my preference is also due to a bias that’s perhaps somewhat less sustainable under scrutiny: a distrust of uncompromised happiness. Growing up in the digital multimedia age has embedded a certain degree of media cynicism in me, along with a predilection to pick apart marketing messages (something that’s only grown as I began working in communications). And as lifestyle marketing replaces product marketing — selling not the product, but how it fits into your life — happiness, itself, becomes the product. Buy this, be happy. Do this, be happy.

Is it any wonder then, against this backdrop, that I find the cultural portrayal of happiness less “real” than sadness? That I find more truth in Lykke Li’s heartache than in Pharrell’s celebration? I can’t escape the feeling that the only “truth” in Pharrell’s “Happy” is that it’s second away from asking me to buy something, that there’s a fancy new car I “need” just around the bend.

But I Never Learn, ultimately, is still a product. I listen to it the exact same way that I do “Happy.” Heck, the other morning, on my walk to work, both “Happy” and “Love Me Like I’m Not Made of Stone” shuffled through my iPhone as I listened to my “Songs of 2014” compendium playlist. I listen to it, and pay money for it, because it pings some sort of emotional response in me. What if my preference towards the sadthem is every bit as self-interested, as product-oriented, as the millions who love “Happy”? What if sadness is, simply, another feeling for me to buy into?

That thought leaves me a bit cold, and from a distance it makes me reconsider my esteem for I Never Learn. But then I put on the record for another listen and, lost in its misery, it sounds like truth once again.

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One response to ““Making love to my demons”: On Lykke Li, Pharrell and the truth behind sad songs

  1. Pingback: McNutt Against the Music’s “Song of the Summer” showdown | McNutt Against the Music·

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