Deadbeat: Don’t cry over neutral milk

February 27, 2014

I need some fresh air and a break. I’m run down and I can’t keep going on like this. It’s not my schoolwork that’s got me feeling overwhelmed, though. It’s my choice in music.

A friend and I were talking the other day about our tendency to listen only to sad music. This friend had just introduced me to Neutral Milk Hotel’s heart-wrenching album In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. It takes the listener on a scary ride through a land rich in fantasy imagery that pulls at the heart strings.

Apparently some of the songs are influenced by Anne Frank’s story and her death in the Holocaust. “And I know they buried her with others / Her sister and mother and five-hundred families,” from the track “Oh Comely.”

Although Neutral Milk Hotel gets made fun of and stereotyped as whiny and melodramatic, I think that when you really pay attention to their cryptic storytelling and wailing instrumental melodies, you see how terribly melancholy it can be.

My friend’s and my penchant for such tragedy in our favorite songs got us thinking about why we bother listening to sad music at all. It makes our taste in music an easy target for other people to pick on at best and leaves us feeling downtrodden and overwhelmed at worst. Have I pigeonholed myself into liking music that can produce only sadness?

There is no easy answer to this question. It’s always perplexed me why humans have a fascination in producing sad art forms, found throughout history in everything from Shakespearean poetry to contemporary movies.

The clearest explanation is the cathartic power of sad art. For both the artist and the audience, sad art creates a way to let negative emotions out. Even when something isn’t directly relatable, there’s power in letting empathy wash over you and experiencing that emotion internally for yourself.

Many believe that the etymology of “tragedy” comes from the Greek, meaning “goat song.” Theory holds that driving a goat out into the wilderness to atone for a town’s sins accompanied performances of tragic plays: a literal scapegoat. People have been letting their emotions and fears out with art for thousands of years. Perhaps it’s the image we have of the tragic artist trope—that good art can only be born from pain.

Nothing is more potent than music in creating empathy in the listener. Books are read, movies are watched, but music is experienced. At concerts, the audience dances and sings along because they know the songs so well that they have become a part of their own life.

Only some people, however, listen to music this way. A lot of people look for fun or a sense of humor in their favorite artists. Even I’ll admit that it’s undeniably heartwarming when an entire party of my best friends sings along to folk classic “Wagon Wheel,” but I would never listen to it on my own time.  Some people revel in feel-good music.

I think I need more of that in my life. I yearn to put on some easy pop music or funk jams, but I find myself stuck listening to the same old sad subgenres. I’ve come a long way over the past several years in testing new types of music. I will never refuse to listen to a song or album that a friend recommends. But rarely do I like something that isn’t melancholic. I’m ready for something new.

I wish people on the other side of the spectrum, however, were as open to change as I am. When I try to share music with people, they often react with hostility. I realize a lot of the stuff I like isn’t peppy ear candy, but that’s the point. It’s supposed to challenge the way you feel. It should be difficult to stomach. It’s only after getting into artists like this that their vibes and stories start to make sense.

It can be incredible to discover that a song you love is a true story. The best example of this is Brand New’s “Limousine (MS Rebridge)” from The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me.

The song portrays a real-life limousine crash that happened on Long Island, New York in 2005. The limousine driver and the seven-year-old flower girl at a wedding were killed by a drunk driver.

In “Limousine,” Brand New touch on everything from religion to whether the drunk driver deserves forgiveness.

Heavy stuff, I know, but it leaves me feeling tuned in to life’s preciousness. I think other people should try to find something similar in music. Neglecting to do so means missing out on the best of the world’s most emotionally-intense artform. Now I need to find an artist that’ll leave me feeling tuned in to life’s happy times. Just no country songs. I can’t.

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