In Defense of Sad Bastard Music

I would say 90% of the music I listen to is “depressing” or at least “vaguely upsetting” and almost always in minor keys.
Publish date:
May 3, 2013
music, songs, sad music

The second saddest period of my life was the first semester of my senior year at the University of Florida.

I had just gotten back from an awesome summer internship in Delaware, where I had spent many a weekend at Rehoboth Beach, drinking Dogfish Head and hanging out with awesome British people. I came back to a massive course load which included physical chemistry, instrumental analysis, a lab from hell, a grad level organic spectroscopy course, and research for a man who didn’t like me very much.

All of this plus a fiancé who lived over two hours away resulted in a lot of drinking, crying and stress vomiting every morning.

The only people who really understood me during this time were Matt Berninger (of The National), Stephin Merrit (The genius behind The Magnetic Fields), and Stuart Murdoch (of Belle & Sebastian).

I listened to these sad bastards (plus some others) on repeat, driving my pop/dance music-loving roommate to threaten my life and my iPod. It was completely self-indulgent, almost masturbatory, and I’m sure the sight of me doing thermodynamics homework while listening "I Don’t Believe In The Sun" was truly horrific.

BUT, the fact that these songs existed proved that people had been just as sad, if not more sad, than I was at the time.

These songs were life-affirming in a way that peppier sonic fare never could be. People had felt worse pain than I was feeling and people had gotten through worse things than I was going through.

Things eased up a little for my last semester, I quit research and started DJing with my roommate at a local Internet radio station (the name of our show was The Barking Pony and it was awesome), but I remained moody.

Nearing the end of my time at UF, I penned the most sad-bastard blog I have ever written where I listed songs that I associated with certain people/events during my time in Gainesville. I would link to it, but I’m actually really embarrassed about it. You can Google “empirical snobbery present company” if you really want to read it.

But sad bastard music isn’t only for sad times. A brilliantly written sad song can make you nostalgic for things you’ve never experienced. Though I’ve made playlists to deal with the death of my grandfather (who I miss so much I’m tearing up about it now) and other less tragic but still sad events, I would say 90% of the music I listen to is “depressing” or at least “vaguely upsetting” and almost always in minor keys.

I am a sarcastic asshole by nurture but an extremely sensitive person. Though I was raised to cut any and all emotional tension with a witty quip, I still feel SO HARD. Listening to sad music makes me feel as though I am actively having a conversation about these feelings, allowing me to not talk about them.

Here is a list of some of my favorite morose songs that keep me from boring everyone with the more depressing parts of my inner monologue:

1. It Makes No Difference –- The Band

This is a perfect break-up song if there ever was one. I don’t even feel like I’ve had a break-up that is worthy of this song.

Favorite Lyric: Now, I love you so much, and it’s all that I can do just to keep myself from telling you that I never felt so alone before.

2. Two -- The Antlers

This song is off of the most depressing album of all time. "Hospice," by The Antlers, is about a hospice worker falling in love with a dying woman who eventually dies and haunts him. There's an abortion in there for good measure. There is such a romantic desperation to this song that slays me every time. That, coupled with the fact that the first verse perfectly encapsulates how I felt the moment I knew my grandfather had passed and was no longer suffering, means I rarely get through this song without crying.

Favorite Lyric: He brought me out into the hall/(I could have sworn it was haunted)/
And told me something that I didn't know that I wanted to hear:
/That there was nothing that I could do to save you
/The choir's going to sing, and this thing is going to kill you.

3. Conversation 16 -- The National

The lyrics of this song are truly depressing; the music video is truly hilarious. It has Roger Sterling AND Mel from Flight of the Conchords, so there is no losing. This is the song I listen to when I feel like a bad person. You know that feeling where you’re a dick to the person you love more than anyone else in the entire world? Yeah, that. That is this song.

Favorite Lyric: ALL OF THEM. But I especially like: It’s a Hollywood summer,/you’d never believe the shitty thoughts I think.

4. Oh! Sweet Nuthin’ -– The Velvet Underground

FIRST OF ALL: Lou Reed does not sing this song. Doug Yule sings this song because he was born to sing this song. I’m not going to cheapen this song with my interpretation of the lyrics; the sadness in it is so pure it can be adapted to suit anyone’s personal tragedy.

Favorite Lyric: Everyday she falls in love, and every night she falls…

5. I’m A Cuckoo –- Belle & Sebastian

This song SOUNDS happy, musically, but the lyrics perfectly represent how it feels to long for someone you can no longer have. I’ve been tempted to send this to those I suspect to be heart-broken and/obsessed with someone, but that would be rude.

Favorite Lyric: I was the boss of you and I loved you, you know I loved you. It’s all over now.

6. Busby Berkeley Dreams -– The Magnetic Fields

Stunningly beautiful piano, pathetically tragic lyrics and my favorite baritone…nailed it.

Favorite Lyric: I should have forgotten you long ago, but you’re in every song I know.

7. I Can Change –- LCD Soundsystem

Alana mentioning this song actually spurred this post. The lyrics are pathetic, but they are pathetic in the way that I have felt pathetic.

Favorite Lyric: And what you’re asking me now, disastrous now, hoping and hoping and hoping the feeling goes away.

8. Angie -– The Rolling Stones

Guys, I named my dog after this song.

The video is awkward. Mick Taylor looks bored, Charlie looks like he’s about to laugh and Mick Jagger’s suit is SO WHITE. Also: Roses in the guitar frets.

BUT. FUCK. The relationship is over and it is no one’s fault.

Favorite Lyric: There ain't a woman that comes close to you. Come on baby, dry your eyes.

9. Laughing With –- Regina Spektor

Another one of those songs that reminds me of my grandfather dying. Oddly comforting. It’s a corny sentiment, but this song makes me appreciate the happy moments. It also offers some interesting takes on religion and God, which are always appreciated.

Favorite Lyric: God can be funny, when told he’ll give you money if you just pray the right way.

10. What Would I Do Without You –- Ray Charles

Sean and I had been dating about a year before my grandfather lost his battle with lung cancer. Sean visited my family in Mississippi just before his passing. It was Christmastime, and Sean had stopped at a Cracker Barrel en route (everything started happening very suddenly) and bought everyone presents. He bought my grandfather a Ray Charles CD, which we all listened to with him. I could tell my grandfather enjoyed this immensely.

That was when I knew I would marry Sean.

Favorite Lyric: The piano is what gets me in this song.

JESUS. I hope I haven’t depressed the fuck out of everyone. Full disclosure: I have been drinking in a bar while writing this, getting a little weepy. But, this has been wildly therapeutic. That is what I love about sad bastard music. It allows you to feel your feelings without the embarrassment of TALKING about them. Someone else can express them, and you can just feel. If you want more of this beautiful sadness, go here.

If you haven’t slit your wrists, let me know what your favorite sad songs are in the comments.

Claire is usually less depressing. Follow her on Twitter @clairelizze