To Laura, Age 14: Emotional Damage and Pop Music

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grant
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To Laura, Age 14: Emotional Damage and Pop Music

Postby grant » Wed May 28, 2003 10:41 am

Before Nick Hornby's High Fidelity came out as a novel, a section of the first or second chapter was excerpted in Granta (the magazine that thinks it's a book!) under the title "To Laura, Age 14."

It's an OK piece of writing, describing the narrator's various infatuations & close brushes with the fairer sex up to his teenage years. But one particular passage really struck me. It included one of the best questions about pop music I'd ever seen spelled out.

The question, in simplified form, is this:

Is it the sad pop songs that make us unhappy people, or are we unhappy because we like sad pop songs?

It's an uncomfortable question for anyone who recognizes music as an addictive narcotic, and anyone who secretly yearns for the minor key.

A brief trawl of the web turns up this quote from the same passage:

The unhappiest people I know, romantically speaking, are the ones who like pop music the most; and I don't know whether pop music has caused this unhappiness, but I do know that they've been listening to the sad songs longer than they've been living the unhappy lives.

I have, in darker hours, been known to listen to Billy Bragg's "St. Swithin's Day" over and over and over again. Others of my acquaintance have done the same with Morrissey ("Please, Please, Please") or Pedro the Lion ("Invention").

So... do we, the pathetic, listen to this because we are damaged, or are we damaged because we listen to this pathetic music?

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through the static and distance

Postby stephanie » Wed May 28, 2003 11:57 am

I think miserable music can breed misery if you let it, or if you want it to (music as an impetus to be/remain tormented); I also think music has the ability to heal like nothing else can (music as a disembodied saviour).
A sad person had to've written the first sad pop song, though, so I'm going to have to throw myself (in all my diminutiveness) behind the idea that we like sad songs because we're already sad.

Damaged people create as a way to get the damage out of them; the result, almost exclusively, is fucked-up art that automatically attracts other fucked-up people. I really think that birds of that theoretical feather will flock together and revel in their likemindedness even when things start to look up. In my opinion, a deep-seated appreciation of auditory melancholia is a predetermined trait, and will come through regardless of the way things are going at any given time. (Q: Shit, can I sound any more pompous and inane? / A: Keep reading!)

The entire idea of songs affecting the way one chooses to live/ends up living makes me swoon and sigh like there's no tomorrow, which is painfully evident to anyone who's ever been witness to either my record collection, which I all-too-honestly refer to as being more precious to me than any human being will ever be, or my obtuse/unnecessary/overly frequent rants about the importance of rock and roll as a gear in the machine of (my) otherwise unremarkable pedestrian existence.

Personally, *sad* music makes me *happy* because it makes me *sad.* Tunes that involve the darker assemblages of humanity are much more evocative and affecting and close to me than the bubblegum stuff is -- in short, I feel more attached to Songs: Ohia than I do to the Apples in Stereo, though both can find themselves on my definitive list of Favourite Bands Ever Ever Ever.
Sad music makes me feel safe, too; I've been a sucker for minor keys for as long as I can remember, though I've also always tended toward the more funereal side of things. (I did get "Miss Misery" tattooed on my neck for more than one reason; no, none of the reasons involve the fact that it's a Nazareth song!)

It's thrilling to find kindred spirits out there, to realise that other people appreciate the very same notes and sentiments that make your chest feel like it's caved in, even if we're talking about legendary songs by ubiquitous artists (see: Billy Bragg, Morrissey, et al); I can imagine the feeling could only be more gratifying if it was something you created that people felt a boundless affinity with.
Finding out about the songs that make other people want to curl up in a ball and cry is always amazing, because (for me, anyway) the kind of people who can be moved to tears simply by way of music are the only kind of people worth knowing.

Aside: "St. Swithin's Day" is one of the most brilliant songs I have ever, ever heard, and I've also been known to listen to it for hours on end.
Cheers.

already reeling with nerdiness
and deserved embarrassment at
the fact that there is nothing
she would rather talk about
than the saddest songs ever,
-stephanie.

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Postby carlitos » Wed May 28, 2003 8:07 pm

I was standing in the shower thinking about this exact thing the other day... why we listen to what we listen to. Emotions are complex things, anyway, and the best songwriters (in my opinion) express a recognition of that complexity...

But yes, what a strange demographic are we... damaged music for damaged people? And is it damage, or just experience? awareness? recognition? all of the above?

Maybe music is like the fictional mood organ, giving us a limited ability to dial moods/emotions at will... a little Big Black after a weary day shlepping numbers and cardboard boxes around can be cathartic, no?
or I can pop on Dear 23 on one of the rare overcast, drizzly days here and the nostalgia is such that I can almost smell Puget Sound...

hoom.

and then sometimes you just have to laugh, because your own misery/angst suddenly seems so silly... the Smiths as a sort of absurdist mental enema...

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Postby heathalouise » Thu May 29, 2003 6:24 am

It really is a big ol' chicken-or-egg argument.

I often say to my friends, "It's my fault that I spent most of my adolescence locked away in my bedroom listening to records, and as a result have a fairly broad knowledge of rock." It was my way of dealing with the slings and arrows of teenage life, my ultimate defense mechanism. And to this day, if you ever end up in a conversation with me, it will inevitably go down the path of what we're listening to now, what records we love and what records we despise. I'm miserable (at times), and I listen to a lot of miserable music.

But here's another question to think about-- is it the music itself that we are so enamored by, or the associations we make with it? There are some albums that I can't listen to in winter because they are so deeply associated with summer and other records that instantly bring to mind a certain person or place, my own aural madeline.

When I start referencing Proust, I really know it's time to stop...

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books

Postby mischka » Thu May 29, 2003 3:11 pm

this is something I've been thinking about lately, but in reference to books, rather than music... I completely know what is meant when certain people orient themselves according to which albums/bands they like or dislike, it's a way to codify and align (british football clubs would also be a good example!)

and, then speaking of Proust

what about books? increasingly I find that people, both of my own generation and younger, don't align themselves in similar polarities or polemics when it comes to novels and authors...

I guess my broader question is: how much has pop music taken the place of books (or plastic arts) in this regard, a way of identifying with or against? When we're by ourselves and working through a train of thought, or when we're meeting someone for the first time, are we more likely to use pop music as the vehicle to propel ideas along?

For instance, if I were to say to someone, I much prefer Dostoyevsky to Tolstoy, they may not get the distinction; if I mentioned that I preferred The Wedding Present to Cinerama, then they might know what I'm talking about (sorry couldn't think of a stronger example).

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Postby AffluentSuburbOfAtlanta » Fri May 30, 2003 4:55 am

i think it's far more complicated that sad music - sad people - sad music. heathalouise is sort of beginning to hint at what i regard as the true nature of the phenomenon. people who really passionately involve themselves with any kind of creative process, which very often happens to be music, tend to be slightly of the beaten track anyway. hence they tend to be on their own, less popular than the other kids etc (i remember well getting my first guitar when i was 13 and thinking everything would get better now with that automatic popularity generator at my side). being on your own, of course, tends to get you down, hence you start listening to radiohead a lot, or the smiths, or whatever takes your melancholy fancy. on the other hand, not being used to people that much it'll probably also give you more sensitive antennas for the emotions around you (you're not worn out with the permanent onslaught of them). hence you'll pick up on subtle emotional music. but it doesn't necessarily need to be sad music - it takes a true weirdo musicgeek to listen to the same 20 second piece of beach boys harmony or horn arrangement over and over and over again with a stupid, blissful smile on their face - and these are quite often the same people who also favour the smiths et al. so it's not really sadness, it's all kinds of emotion, and the whol thing is more complicated than nick hornby says.

mho... my two cent... probably not making much sense to the independent observer... sorry...

:-)

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Postby grant » Fri May 30, 2003 8:04 am

mho... my two cent... probably not making much sense to the independent observer... sorry...



Nonsense, you're being perfectly sensible. Carry on!

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Re: To Laura, Age 14: Emotional Damage and Pop Music

Postby mildlyrestarted » Fri May 30, 2003 2:46 pm

grant wrote:
I have, in darker hours, been known to listen to Billy Bragg's "St. Swithin's Day" over and over and over again. Others of my acquaintance have done the same with Morrissey ("Please, Please, Please") or Pedro the Lion ("Invention").


mine is usually "Lover, You Should Have Come Over" by Jeff Buckley, when i'm feeling particularly heartbroken.

i'm not one to put on a sad record unless i am needing validation for my sadness. sad people need to know that there are others. isn't part of the human condition?

some people get sad and choose to listen to angry music, others choose to listen to happy pop songs as a recovery tool. the people i value the most in life are the kindred spirits that need sad music as a catalyst for the tears they couldn't cry when they really wanted to.

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your favorite music, well it just makes you sad.

Postby mildlyrestarted » Sat May 31, 2003 2:56 pm

post script:

i cannot believe that i omitted a mention of the song and album "Your Favorite Music" by Clem Snide, which illustrates perfectly how i feel about sad music and expands on it.

while on the subject of eef, i would also like to mention that my all-i-want-in-the-world-du-jour is for a boy to write a song like "Bread" for me. really. i could die with a smile on my face.

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Postby Moni » Sun Jun 01, 2003 8:14 am

counter questions:
- [Edited:]Why are these kinds of statements usually limited to pop/rock music?
- Does this statement imply that people who listen to (pop)music are by default unhappier than other people?

The connection between sadness/unhappiness and music that I can make is the fact that when people are sad they tend to retreat and be on their
own. And since music has an effect on your brain and your nerves and therefore lastly your emotional status, that's what many people resort to in these situations - you either want to feel better or you want to brood in that emotion.

But why would people prefer to feel rather unhappy than happy? My (weird) theory is that we all like to feel strong emotions, it makes us feel "alive". [Cheesiness here we come] And being unhappy is easier to achieve than happiness and also, self-pity is centered around ourselves and don't we all like to be concerned with ourselves? Seems to me. And once you get to know music that enhances all this, you want more and your record collection will grow. [That's quite a bit of an oversimplification I admit]

As I said, I think this doesn't only apply to pop-/rock music. But people who have this passion for pop music are obviously the ones who have elevated "unhappiness" to something "en vogue" for themselves.[/b]
Last edited by Moni on Sun Jun 01, 2003 9:10 am, edited 3 times in total.

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Postby meg » Sun Jun 01, 2003 8:36 am

Liz wrote:As I said, I think this doesn't only apply to pop-/rock music. (Tell people that you like "Classical" music and most of them are gonna give you the "What kind of retarded freak are you??"-look. Now there's a possibility to feel ummm "special".) But people who have this passion for pop music are obviously the ones who have elevated "unhappiness" to something "en vogue".


In terms of the original quote, we know Nick Hornby to be infatuated with all sorts of pop music, so as a writer it makes sense that he would tag his own vice. I think there's something very romantic about sadness and pop music--you're fourteen and you're with your friends at the soda fountain and someone hits the jukebox and it starts playing THAT SONG just as THAT BOY walks in, etc. Mozart isn't gonna start playing, something with a lyric you hang onto is. Maybe we shouldn't underestimate the value of lyrics in this equation, then...

I've got a little musical theater nerd in me, though, and speaking on behalf of the teenage musical nerds of the word, we pump plenty of lovesick sadness out of our own shows; even the brightest/dippiest/most traditional musical comedies have their "This Nearly Was Mine"s and "Lonely Room"s.

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Postby Moni » Sun Jun 01, 2003 8:44 am

meg wrote:In terms of the original quote, we know Nick Hornby to be infatuated with all sorts of pop music, so as a writer it makes sense that he would tag his own vice.


You're right - I was just wondering why this statement is basically always used in correlation with pop music in general. Should've clarified that - my bad!

On a side note: Classical music has lyrics in very many cases, too...
But ultimately I think "your" kind of music is mostly a question of what culture you're born into/you are surrounded by as a kid/teenager.

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Postby grant » Mon Jun 02, 2003 5:57 am

Actually, I've noticed the phenomenon (the moody, obsessive spiral) will work just as well with, say, Bach's Chiconne for Unaccompanied Violin or the Yo Yo Ma/Bobby McFerrin arrangement of Vivaldi's Double Concerto for Mandolin. (I think they're both in D minor.)
I don't think lyrics are necessary, but I do think a good "hook" is. Bach is good at hooks. Hooks aren't exclusive to pop music.

Now that I think it over, there is a certain amount of repetitiveness to pop music, which is shared by baroque music like the two pieces mentioned above. Little loops and cycles. And that sense of looping - the spiral - is also a characteristic of melancholy. If enthusiasm is a constant explosion outward, then melancholy is a cresting, collapsing wave, spiraling in on itself. Verse Verse Chorus Verse Chorus. (Bridge?) Chorus.

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Postby Moni » Mon Jun 02, 2003 9:11 am

grant wrote:Vivaldi's Double Concerto for Mandolin.

G major :) (me=geek).
Interestingly enough the difference between minor and major isn't always that clear - I know a lot of pop songs where you could think they're in a minor key, but they're not.... also I can think of only very few composers very the distinction is really easy to hear.

You're right about the hooks, tho I tend to find those in Classical compositions - but then I'm a sucker for melodies, maybe that's why I'm hooked on this genre...

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Postby grant » Mon Jun 02, 2003 12:13 pm

Dun-dun-dun-DAAA! Dum-dum-dum-DAAA! Beethoven's 5th definitely has a hook.


And actually, there is a sense of repetition in Classical-classical music, too, with themes and revisions. But Mozart and them are always so grand & busy. I think pop music melancholia might rely on quiet spaces, too. Hmm.

Emo (which is probably more relevant to this phenomenon than many would like) is definitely loopy and definitely built on quiet-loud-quiet-loud song structure. I wonder if there are any other outstanding qualities that we could pin down.

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Re: books

Postby heather » Mon Jun 02, 2003 1:23 pm

mischka wrote:For instance, if I were to say to someone, I much prefer Dostoyevsky to Tolstoy, they may not get the distinction; if I mentioned that I preferred The Wedding Present to Cinerama, then they might know what I'm talking about (sorry couldn't think of a stronger example).


What's funny is that I knew exactly what you meant with the Dostoyevsky/Tolstoy comparison, but I was completely lost with the band one.

Having just lost my job and having only $24 in my pocket, I am right in the midst of this whole "why do people listen to sad/pop/etc music when they're sad" topic. I think that people listen to pop when they're upset because most pop music is superficial.. I mean, you're not likely to dredge up some hurtful memory because you're listening to Justin Timberlake or AGSFB. It's like the Neosporin of music.

ps: and i'd rather read solzhenitsyn over tolstoy OR dostoyevsky any day.

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Re: books

Postby BladeRunner » Mon Jun 02, 2003 5:20 pm

There's like 8 million and one ways to address this.

If you take it from a purely psychological stand point. People whom have certain mind sets, tend to listen to certain music, to get "rewards" and "releases" from the music. Indie/ "sad" pop rock/ songs allow a fan of the genre (i.e. us) feel a certain emotion, which tends to be a sad, empathicaly apathic, despondent, melancholic atmosphere; where we feel comfrtable in. This isn't necessarily the case with those who listen to Linkin Park, or Staind or someone taken in by their genre.

Someone whom considers themselves a die-hard fan, as I have found, has a different "rewards"/"release" feeling when it comes to listening to the music. They (case study: my brother) are usually indifferently aggressive for no apparent reason, and have an inability to properly communicate their thoughts and desires accurately. Now, I believe, that they listen to this music to "feel." My brother probably feels very apathic toward life and is frustrated at his inabilities. Since he has this inability, he has no other option then, interwave his frustrations with that of Linkin Park, allowing for his frustrations to dissipate when the song/ album ends.

So if we compare and contrast these to view points, we find that we types of listeners appear to bear their emotions into the music, but for different reasons/ reactions. So I guess, a way of answering your question is that, listeners of music, generally have something they find "pathetic" about themselves and bury it in their music. This is that handy-dandy healing feature that music seems to have.

We take our feelings and collect them in to a piggy bank of sorts, and then cram it into a genre/ band/ album/ song. This genre/ band/ album/ song, then becomes encoded into our life. Whenever you're feeling blue, you listen to gbas (I abbreviated genre/ band/ album/ song, just incase you couldn't already tell) and the preset emotion you want to listen to comes out.

Where it might become a problem (lonely emo kid kills himself/ seemingly quiet linkin park fan bashes in a fellow students head) is when you take more from the music then what is there. Instead of allowing for the emotions to take hold of the gbas, and then having them being fed back out to them; the listener demands and grabs/ holds on to the music as if this one song/ album can define their own life; not just a certain emotion. They essentually start to "live out" the life of the gbas. They tend to start seeing everything one-sided and closed minded. Depending on their home situation, this might make them paraniod, passively-aggressive, cynical, inverted and/ or bitter for no reason. Then BAM! It happens.

Oh, and...

mischka wrote:what about books? increasingly I find that people, both of my own generation and younger, don't align themselves in similar polarities or polemics when it comes to novels and authors...


I believe that has to do with how literature is presented in school, and of course; the media. This though is a subject for a whole other issue. I'm just end that I, myself enjoy reading Vonnegut and if I had to align myself it any author, I'd pick him.

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Postby Moni » Wed Jun 25, 2003 7:34 am

That's one really great post Herb! (seriously)

I think it might also become a problem when people need music to feel at all, when music takes such an important place in your life that it can evoke whatever emotion in you, and you resort to music because you don't feel all that in "real" life.

I'm not saying that music shouldn't make us feel, but like many other things it can become an obsession that may become pretty unhealthy because it blocks your view on things that really matter - speaking from my own experience.

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Postby BladeRunner » Wed Jun 25, 2003 2:06 pm

Thank you, I was starting to feel like no one loved me. Image

And you're absolutely right. The complete lack of emotion and the desire to fill if with a certain style of music, can also act as an obessive desire that eventaully shallows people whole.

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Postby Moni » Wed Jun 25, 2003 2:49 pm

BladeRunner wrote:Thank you, I was starting to feel like no one loved me. Image


but of course we do! Image

The complete lack of emotion and the desire to fill if with a certain style of music, can also act as an obessive desire that eventaully shallows people whole.

yup. music as a drug so to say


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