The joy of wallowing in musical misery

Kicking off his new music column, Patrick West sticks up for the cathartic power of self-pitying songs.

Patrick West
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During Christmas, it was with a mixture of approval and sadness that I read of efforts to clamp down on ’emo’ kids in Armenia. Their loud, gloomy and introspective music genre, and associated lifestyle, is being blamed for a rise in suicide rates in the country. ‘I do not like emos, in fact. I absolutely don’t like them. I do not understand or accept them’, said Armenia’s chief of police, Alik Sargsian. He called emos ‘dangerous’ and claimed that they could ‘distort our gene pool’.

I was happy because self-pity, which seems to be the guiding sentiment of emo music, is not an appealing character trait. Nor is it very constructive. On the other hand, music can serve as a medium for catharsis, and we should have sympathy for teenagers who are drawn to this type of thing. Their intellectual brains develop before their emotional ones, which is why they get frustrated, surly and irrational, and get life’s problems out of all proportion. This is why I agree with Richard Dawkins and the psychologist R Elisabeth Cornwell that the voting age in the UK should not be reduced to 16. Personally, remembering the risible student union politics of my youth, I would put it back up to 21.

Mind you, there is nothing new about using music to feel sorry for yourself. It’s probably one of the oldest themes in music. I’m sure the ancient Phoenicians used to lament about not being able to get a girlfriend, and that in the Borneo jungle an anthropologist is noting a tribal song called ‘Why does everything bad always happen to me?’.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the propensity for musical self-pity was hardwired in the human brain. I have a friend (cough) who used to love listening to Joy Division’s ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ after an unsuccessful night on the pull. Another used to listen many times every day to Rod Stewart’s ‘The First Cut is The Deepest’ when his relationship was going through a rocky patch. The Cure and Johnny Cash built an entire career on misery music, while ‘I Will Survive’ and ‘My Way’ remain anthems of morose self-indulgence.

Armenia’s police chief is on the side of those who believe this kind of self-pity only encourages more negative thinking and self-absorption. Some readers might remember an episode of Father Ted in which a priest given to depression, having been temporarily cheered up, comes crashing back down to Earth after hearing a dirge by Radiohead on the radio. The point of this, as far as I could see, was to illustrate that music can adversely affect those in a vulnerable state of mind.

In 1990, the metal band Judas Priest were taken to court, accused of putting subliminal messages on their albums that allegedly caused a fan to kill himself. The fan had been intoxicated and high on marijuana: the ludicrous case was dismissed. (Judas Priest’s lead singer pointed out that encouraging your fans to kill themselves is not a wise career move.) Still, the case came to court under the assumption that some music can be bad for your health. And on the twentieth anniversary of grunge this year, it is worth remembering that in 1994 few were surprised when Kurt Cobain put a gun to his head. Like Joy Division’s Ian Curtis, he did hate himself and wanted to die.

In opposition, there are those who maintain that music can be a beneficial way to process and make sense of one’s malign feelings, or that when bad things do actually happen there may be legitimate reason to feel sad for yourself. In any case, music is art, a realm in which fantasy and escapism reside. Remarking that the music of The Smiths is too miserable is like complaining that The Shining is scary or that Schindler’s List wasn’t very funny.

More to the point, if you’re down or in a foul mood, there’s a fair chance that if you hear a cheery tune it will make you feel even worse. Would you want to hear ‘Happy Hour’ or the bubblegum pop of S Club 7 at a funeral?

Art cannot be explained logically. That’s the whole point of it. Sad songs confound the Benthamite pleasure-pain principle: how can something that is upsetting make us simultaneously happy? The godfathers of heavy metal, Black Sabbath, recognised this paradox in the late 1960s. They consciously named themselves after a 1963 horror film because they realised that if people were willing to pay money to watch films that scared them, they would be prepared to listen to music that frightened them. (Indeed, why do people watch or read horror stories? Or go on rollercoasters that terrify them? Or enjoy spicy Indian and Mexican food that hurts them?) Often, there is no neither/nor in music. Are ‘My Way’, ‘Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien’ or ‘Always Look On The Bright Side of Life’ happy or sad songs? They are neither and both.

The famously gloomy philosopher Schopenhauer argued that there is no point trying to answer life’s big questions. He said it is a futile affair and that it is far better to explore these important issues through art in general and music in particular. In the twentieth century, Philip K Dick did something similar in science-fiction literature. Sometimes the pursuit of truth is more interesting and fruitful than its attainment.

This is why we should reserve judgement on whether emo kids are a bad thing. We should probably regard them with ambivalence because they, like many who came before them, acknowledge that ambivalence is intrinsic to the human condition. Sad songs sometimes can say so much. But as to whether these men in black are bad for Armenia’s gene pool, I am undecided.

Patrick West is spiked’s music columnist. Read his blog here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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