Does sad music demand any ethical responsibilities of its listeners? Can we use sad music any way we see fit? Or does the disclosure of pain oblige us to think carefully about the way we listen?
This is why I ask. In June, I went to a Vic Chesnutt concert. In the bustling bar, the 45-year-old singer-songwriter looked small. He sat in his wheelchair while two crew members hoisted him on stage. His face looked sallow, and red where it should not have been red. He said incoherent things. The audience – mostly there for the next act – grew impatient and rude, having loud conversations in the middle of Chesnutt’s set. They whooped when he sang that Florida was “the redneck riviera” but talked over the ominous line, “I respect a man who goes to where he wants to be, even if he wants to be dead.” While struggling to grip his guitar comfortably in the chair, Chesnutt poured out dark, plaintive songs. They were full of painful thoughts so few people can articulate with his precision, humor, and imagery. And most of the audience didn’t care.
The Empty Bottle, where he played, is a small venue, and I was able to meet Chesnutt afterward. I only had to wait for one other person before I could say hello. I told him I really liked his song “Wallace Stevens.” He smiled and said “I’m really proud of that song.” I didn’t know what to say after that. I moved away. Chesnutt was left like a lonely guest at his own party.
The moment made me feel like the way I’d been listening to music up till then had been cheap. I’d spent college listening to the saddest music I could find. I hadn’t found really good sad music, though, so this mostly amounted to Counting Crows and a few emo bands I’m too embarrassed to name. I wept along with verses like “I need a phone call/I need a raincoat/I need a big love/I need a phone call” and carried them around with me all day. I thought about the music, not the musicians, as if their art was a Frisbee flung far and whose owner was unknown.
In the gray light of the Empty Bottle, the songwriter was there and was so very human. His pain was not this thing created to make a good song.
This was Chesnutt’s last tour. Christmas week, he overdosed on muscle relaxers and died. There is controversy over whether the overdose was intentional; Chesnutt had attempted suicide in the past.
Many artists who make sad music have been doled a more than average serving of tragedy. Take Eels (Mark Oliver Everett) for example. Within a few years, his father died suddenly, sister committed suicide, and mother died of lung cancer. Or consider outsider musician Daniel Johnston. His quirky music has been created out of severe bipolar disorder. Even Counting Crows’ Adam Duritz was diagnosed with a dissociative disorder. Vic Chesnutt was paralyzed in a car accident at 18 years old. The list goes on.
Though an avid consumer of melancholy tunes, nothing too terrible happened to me in college. I was just moody. Is that okay? Is it okay to turn on the music of Elliot Smith, who suffered a drug addiction and died young, just because my day is in the tank? I mean, a break-up sucks, but it’s not the same as losing your whole family, being addicted to heroin, or losing use of your legs.
Clearly, one of art’s functions is to make people feel. Sometimes, it makes people feel miserable. Like Bleeding Gums Murphy told Lisa Simpson, “The blues isn’t about feeling better, it’s about making other people feel worse.”
But does the fact that so many of these experiences are beyond what most of us have to deal with increase the average listener’s responsibility?
I think yes. Being confronted with other people’s pain requires a thoughtful response, and art should require the same. A melancholy album confronts the consumer with several options:
1) Listen in a way that keeps looping you back to your own mood. This is probably the least ethically sound way to listen to music. It’s not good for listener or artist. Here, music is valued based on how wretched it makes a person feel, not based on its own merit.
2) Don’t listen to depressing music at all. There’s a section in Augustine’s Confessions where Augustine regrets the time he wasted weeping over the death of Dido. “I was forced to learn the wanderings of one Aeneas,” wrote Augustine, “forgetful of my own, and to weep for dead Dido, because she killed herself for love; the while, with dry eyes, I endured my miserable self dying among these things, far from Thee, O God my life.” Time spent commiserating with artists could be used more profitable things.
There is a time to wallow, but there’s also a time to put away the Chunky Monkey ice cream and emo songs. Like the Microphones sing, “Get off the internet, we are the ones who are alive right now, so let’s start living.” Augustine says there is no place for using art as a way to avoid God. However, this view would also mean that people would be missing out on several positive ways to listen –
3) Look to music to reveal something that will resonate, and that, like an empathetic friend, will reveal something comforting and true about oneself and the world.
4) Appreciate the common humanity music expresses. Tolstoy says, “The activity of art is based on the fact that a man . . . is capable of experiencing the emotion which moved the man who expressed it.” If I feel moved when Elliot Smith sings “Needle in the Hay,” this doesn’t have to lead me back to myself. It can lead me to wonder. To wonder that through a well-crafted lyric, I feel something that could be similar to what Elliot Smith experienced when he wrote it.
5) Experience the music as being invited into something totally outside one’s own experience. I will never know what it is like to be Daniel Johnston, Nico, or Joni Mitchell, but their music invites me to experience not just commonality but difference. Even with our shared humanity, I can’t say I understand completely, but their music gives me a way to begin getting outside myself and trying.
Too often, listeners talk over the music; they superimpose the current clutter of their lives onto art. I’d like sad music to be more than that. I wonder if I’ll be able to take it.