Science Says Your Obsession With The National is Totally Cool, Bro

Apparently, it's completely normal to prefer to listen to soul-deadening heartbreak music as a default.
Publish date:
July 24, 2013
breakups, music, breakup songs, mixtapes

This past week, I got a text from my friend Scott.

"Um, Kate?" he'd written. "Is something bothering you?"

I blinked at my phone. I wasn't feeling particularly grim; in fact, I'd just gotten some pretty exciting news about plans for the short-term future. Sure, it was like 2 pm on a Wednesday, so it wasn't exactly all jazz-hands and glitter sharknadoes, but I was, y'know, fine-to-good.

"No?" I texted back. "Why do you ask?"

"According to Facebook, you've been listening to The National for six hours," he replied. "I got a little concerned."

I glanced at my profile, and sure enough, he was right. I'd accidentally forgotten to disable the "publish to Facebook" option on Spotify, and now all my relatives, acquaintances, and (apparently) former housemates could see that I'd listened to the same two songs off Boxer, over and over, more or less since waking. The previous day, it'd been Billy Joel's "Vienna." The day before that: "Of Angels and Angles." In retrospect, I could kind of see why Scott thought I was constructing some sort of hyperbaric audio sadness-chamber.

"I'm fine, honest," I wrote. "Thanks for the concern, though."

"Enjoy your breakup music," he said. "Hope none of your exes think you're pining over them."

I checked, winced, and put my settings back on "private." Dammit, Spotify.

The thing is, Scott was totally right. Anyone looking at my day-to-day listening habits would probably think that I'm constantly about five minutes away from showing up outside someone's house armed with a boom box and a hangdog expression.

And this isn't a recent phenomenon. I remember being eight or so and dragging around my CD player, listening to the Goo Goo Dolls' "Name" on repeat and thinking Deep Thoughts about the inevitability of tragedy in love while lying facedown on my couch. If an indie band puts out an album, it's pretty much a guarantee that I'll stick on the saddest song to fixate on, scrawling the lyrics in margins of notebook paper for weeks. Every mixtape I've ever made for anyone, unless it's specifically themed for pants-off-dance-offs, ends up being titled something like "Winter Hearts Frosting Over" or "Driving Alone Under Empty Violet Skies."

It's not a wallowing thing, though! I know a lot of people have playlists full of primed for when they need to get through the Rough Times, but I actually have to avoid mopey music altogether when I'm legitimately sad, lest I fall into a despair coma and choke to death while apathetically eating Oreos.

Instead, I listen to music like this when I'm feeling more or less positive, because it tends to lull me into a kind of sweet, productive contentment. When I'm gut-bustingly, effervescently happy, it leaves me smiling vaguely at no one and feeling like I just got out of a hot shower. When I'm just kind of neutral, it hurts a little more, but in a good way, like digging your thumb into a bruise or remembering a crush you had on someone a few years ago. Listening to sad songs feels satisfying, like a deep-voiced stranger has protected you from being hurt by doing all the hurting for you.

This sounds a little odd, but I know I'm not the only one who does it. I frequently share music with people based on a shared "sadness scale," and psychologists recently found that bummer songs actually elicit romantic, squishy feelings in listeners rather than tragic ones. The way the studies tell it, people listen to sad music as a kind of vaccine against real sadness: They can empathize with the emotional struggles involved, but they're not being left vulnerable to any sort of real tragedy. This makes sense, I guess, since the sort of pleasant stomach-knot I get from listening to a lot of Bon Iver bears a strong resemblance to the feeling that comes from mainlining a bunch of rom-coms that don't end in a final wedding slow dance.

It's as if Sufjan Stevens came to your house and told you all about his love troubles, then confided that this terrible experience had inspired him to keep the same heartache from happening to you. Then he wrapped you in one of those fancy Costco fake-sheepskin blankets. And made you an ice cream sundae. And played you a song on the banjo. And told you you were pretty. What was I saying?

If you, like me, require sad music to lull you into a relatively contented state, I made you a mixtape of some of my go-to favorites. Look, it even has an appropriately mopey title!

Or, if you prefer the non-8Tracks version:

1. Yeah Yeah Yeahs, "Hysteric (acoustic version)" -- The first time I heard the violin come in on this, I burst into surprised tears. Something about that chorus just calls to mind every time anyone fell in love with their best friend and didn't realize it until a minute too late. (I couldn't find a good version of this acoustic version on YouTube, so listen on 8Tracks if you can.)

2. Joanna Newsom, "Baby Birch" -- I'm like 90% sure this song is about abortion. It's also a great crowd-splitter: either you hate it immediately, or it worms its way into your soul and burrows down in there, resurfacing to make your stomach clench once a week or so.

3. The Weepies, "Gotta Have You" -- One time this song came on while my best friend TOK and I were semi-aimlessly driving from Syracuse to Ithaca. The conversation abruptly turned from who was fucking whom on our freshman hall floor to the futility of love and friendship and how all good things must come to an end sooner or later. We both cried the whole way home.

4. The Weakerthans, "Night Windows" -- Glad to be moving, but suspect that you never gave the city you lived in a real chance? Have I got the perfect song to play on your way to the airport!

5. Jenny Owen Youngs, "Fuck Was I"

6. Jay Brannan, "Half-Boyfriend" -- Two deceptively sweet fuck-you songs for the price of one! JOY and JB have made every bad decision so you don't have to.

7. The Low Anthem, "Charlie Darwin" -- If you're not already having some kind of quarterlife crisis, this song may send you into one.

8. Gregory Alan Isakov, "Big Black Car" -- This is one of the rare breakup songs where I'd actually recommend not listening to the lyrics too closely (there's one in there about clowns -- you know what, just take my word for it). Instead, just let the fingerpicky acoustic guitar wash over you and feel a mild sense of Midwestern despair.

9. Laura Marling, "Blackberry Stone" -- In contrast to above, this song has no discernible lyrics to try to ignore. It basically just sounds like pretty English moaning to me, which is really breakup music in its purest incarnation.

10. The Format, "On Your Porch" -- A bit of loving your family no matter what, from the man who brought you That Ubiquitous Song on the Radio.

11. Sufjan Stevens, "The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades is Out to Get Us!" -- As if I wouldn't include the Anthem of Unrequited Homosexual Preteen Love that haunted me throughout my entire adolescence. More of a summer song than a winter song, but given that it is actually July, I suppose I'll let it slide.

12. Yoko Kanno, "Space Lion" -- No, YOU'RE heavily emoting over a song originally written for an anime about space cowboys!

13. Right Away, Great Captain!, "Cause I'm So Scared of Dying" -- The title, while evocative, does not exactly convey the fact that this is part of a concept album about sailors whose wives cheat on them with other sailors. It does, however, convey this track's complete sense of despair. There's little hope here of reaching land.

14. St. Vincent and The National, "Sleep All Summer" -- Another bummer-summer song. If you're going on a road trip with someone for whom you have been harboring intense romantic feelings, I recommend playing this the whole way down and shooting them furtive, increasingly despairing glances.

15. The Hush Sound, "Hurricane" -- Every time I listen to this, I trick myself into thinking that I've broken up with someone, even if I haven't, just to sing along to that "You're the finest thing that I've done / a hurricane I'll never outrun," bit.

16. Frightened Rabbit, "Good Arms v. Bad Arms (Live)" -- Scottish men and really pretty strings combine to drown out the fact that this might be a weeee bit of a Nice Guy Anthem. Whatever, it still gets me every time.

17. The Mountain Goats, "Minnesota" -- Who knew a song about planting a garden could be so effin' devastating? (Besides anyone who has ever listened to another Mountain Goats song, ever.)

18. Ingrid Michaelson, "The Chain [Live from Webster Hall]" -- There's a reason, I think, why every Grey's Anatomy episode for an entire season featured at least one tune from Ms. Michaelson. Simple melody, pretty piano, leaves you sobbing on your futon about forgetting and forgiving, eventually.

19. Natalie Merchant, "One Fine Day" -- "One fine day, you're gonna want me for your girl." Need I say more?

I could probably come up with approximately eight more hours of these, but eventually the descriptions would just devolve into gifs of me crying. Do you guys listen to sad music when you're otherwise completely happy? Any particular recommendations?

Kate is listening to Frank Sinatra without any despair: @katchatters