Rolling in the deep: Why sad songs make us happy
No matter where you are right now, if you listen really hard, you can probably hear Gotye and Kimbra’s song Somebody That I Used To Know. Hell, you’ve probably been humming it all day. It’s as ubiquitous as the waft of cherry blossoms and has racked up 140,000 sales (double platinum!), 6 million views on YouTube and a legion of international twitter fans via Ashton Kutcher, Katy Perry and others with actual music taste.
It’s a very sad song making a lot of people very happy. So why has Gotye and Kimbra’s paean to pain resonated with music fans all over the world? It’s a tricky question but one I can answer for you, curious reader.
Partly, it’s about empowerment. A tight arrangement, catchy verses and soaring chorus can make you forget all about that person what dun you wrawwwng. But mostly it’s not about that at all. Mostly it’s about recognising – almost subliminally – that a sad song has more truth in it than a happy song.
Indeed, Triple J buzz band Grouplove’s new album is called Never Trust A Happy Song. When you can hear genuine hurt and genuine yearning in a singer’s voice it does a strange thing to your heart and actually lifts it.
Interestingly, the song that Gotye and Kimbra dislodged from the number one position on the charts was Adele’s Rolling in the Deep, an equally disquieting song that triumphs over tragedy through the power of a dismissive, dynamite chorus: “We could have had it all.”
A friend of mine who has just gone through a shocking break-up says she couldn’t listen to any music for a while. “Especially not bloody Adele, I break down as soon as I hear that bitch on the radio.” But something has changed. A few months have gone by and now she is joining in with the rest of us, singing along without wallowing in the wordplay. All she hears now is the truth of the song. And that makes her shoulders feel a little lighter.
I’ve had my heart broken twice. Not fun. But both times it was music that got me through. Firstly it was Quannum’s I Changed My Mind, a hip hop tune that is basically five minutes of caustic catharsis and the second time it was Beck’s Beautiful Way, with the clarion clarity of this line: “Such a beautiful way to break my heart.” Now when I hear these songs I am reminded of a happy time in my life, not a sad one.
Gotye’s assertion “You can get addicted to a certain kind of sadness” drips with agonising self-awareness. It’s a telling observation.
Thankfully though, most of us are too busy marvelling at the melodic hooks and readying ourselves to soar – in every sense – with the visceral, nothing-else-matters-right-now line of the chorus:
Now you’re just somebody that I used to know.
And that’s the truth.
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