Every sad pop banger that takes itself seriously culminates in collapse. The restrained verse-chorus-verse-chorus decorum must break into a bridge of absolute desolation. The artist can no longer channel the emotions through clean precision; the fabric of the song tears in the same way you rip off a Band-Aid. It becomes a sort of glorious, self-gratifying mess.
The break has myriad forms. Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill” (1985) is at its most raw when she belts “Let’s exchange the experience,” a desperate plea for a partner’s empathy. Charli XCX and Christine and the Queens’ “Gone” (2019) takes its chorus, chops, shreds and glitches the vocals, and then throws them into a raucous, clanging dance break.
Sometimes these sad pop bangers cave inward: Robyn’s “Dancing On My Own” (2010), a song about seeing an ex with someone new, fully strips the tough-girl act when she concedes that she “just came to say goodbye.” The implications are stunning. She’s saying goodbye to something that has already ended; the rug has been pulled out from under her, and her legs feel the stone-cold floor of reality.
People generally don’t consider pop music to be particularly profound. Of course, these people are probably thinking about songs like “Girls Like You” (2017) by Maroon 5 or “Fight Song” (2014) by Rachel Platten; tunes that play with topics like love and hurt without actually plunging into their emotional depths. The best sad pop happens when artists take this plunge seriously, mastering not only the words of inconsolable sadness but also the sound. In “Hit Me Where It Hurts” (2019), Caroline Polachek’s defeated anger is palpable as she snarls, “Do you feel safe / Now that you’ve found my cure?”
The pleasurable effect of sad music has been comprehensively studied by neuroscientists. In a paper titled “The pleasures of sad music: a systematic review,” Sachs, Damasio and Habibi contend that throughout history, sadness has been associated with pleasure when it is placed in an aesthetic context. The sadness’ conversion to art has three implications: First, it does not pose an immediate physical threat, second, its emotional content has aesthetic value and third, it can regulate mood.
In “The Republic of Plato,” Socrates condemns this artistic phenomenon as immoral. He asserts that “What is by nature best in us … relaxes its guard over this mournful part because it sees another’s sufferings, and isn’t shameful for it.” He looks down upon aestheticized emotion as lewd voyeurism because its consumers don’t feel the totality of its sadness. I think he fundamentally misunderstands its purpose.
In my life and in the lives of many around me, there is very real sadness, and as a human race, we face a great many existential threats. There is, of course, the pandemic, but we are also in the midst of a fateful election, a climate crisis and a period of economic turmoil. If aestheticizing sadness to momentarily forget its material threats is wrong, I don’t want to be right. There’s too much aching beauty to miss out on.