The Sound of Sadness

by Paul Stokes

Photograph courtesy of Grace Johnson

Throughout history some have observed that global happiness ebbs and flows in the form of historical eras, with some stretches of time being more universally prosperous than others. If one is to believe that the happiness of any given civilization operates on a two or three-decade cycle, it would appear that 2017 lies decidedly in the unhappy portion of the cycle.

It isn’t very bold to make the claim that the past decade or so has been one of consistent and sometimes even unprecedented tragedy. Naturally, this shared pain manifests itself in almost every facet of modern culture. In the internet age ironic detachment is as fashionable and cynicism is as unavoidable as ever, and this reflects in the modern discourse. Does it, however, manifest in modern music?

There has always been sad music, and sad music has always had its place in the spectrum of what is popular or “cool.” In the early 2000s the meteoric rise of bands like Arcade Fire, The National, and even late-period Radiohead made a case for the unfiltered expression of emotion in music, edging out the detached, uncaring cool of The Strokes. Sad music continuously rose and fell naturally as the years went on, and never lingered for long enough to be suspicious—that is until now.

I asked a few students from Boston University involved with the BU radio station for their thoughts on sad music, and whether it seems more or less prevalent than it has in the past, and their answers seemed to confirm my suspicions.

Sophie Sachar (COM ’20) said that she “definitely [listens] to more sad music…” and that while it can be difficult to generalize across the entire musical spectrum “the music [she] listens to is generally more downbeat.”

Abby Lebet (CAS/COM ’20) echoed these claims, once again being careful not to generalize across musical genres, but saying that “the genres [she] listens to tend to be more sad.”

Drummer Zach McCollum (COM ’20), who plays for the band Devon Goods (check them out on Spotify), said that “making and performing sad music [felt] better” in that it felt more honest to the band.

Through the proliferation of certain relatively new genres like trap and the popularization of high experimentation in electronic music, music feels darker than it ever has in recent memory. Even top 40 pop music has started to gravitate toward darker themes and more sinister melodies (look no further than Rhianna’s latest album for proof). Not only has sad music become more and more omnipresent in the current decade, but the true nature of the darkness within the songs has changed as well. Despite the varying opinions about Arcade Fire, their music was never nihilist in nature and it always pushed a message of change, as well as the power to make change. That message is no longer as popular as it was, and music has begun to act as more of a mere lament than a real call to action.

It doesn’t take much more than a cursory look through any given artist’s discography to find that many popular musicians are putting out their darkest material right now. From Bon Iver’s crushing 22, A Million to Mac Demarco’s uncharacteristically serious and muted This Old Dog to St. Vincent’s almost robotic commentary on love and humanity in her self-titled album, there is an observable change in the ideology of popular music. Even Kendrick Lamar, whose previous works always made a point of asking for change, put out his darkest album yet in 2017, with DAMN. acting not as a call to action like his past two albums, but as an unfiltered lament. Incidentally, DAMN. is also Kendrick’s best-selling album by far and one of the highest selling albums of the year.

Whether this continues or is just a brief trend is up to question. It does seem, however, that if the world in general continues to be so enveloped in tragedy and socio-political struggle that the cultural reflection of that zeitgeist should remain constant. Contrary to what some may say, sad times may not produce better