All entries for Thursday 05 January 2006

January 05, 2006

3tunes: Happy sad songs

Song writers who don't want to leave their listeners in any doubt about their songs stick with the rule of thumb that sad songs should be slower and in a minor key, whereas happy songs should be faster and in a major key. That way there's no confusion; the song sounds sad and indeed it is sad; what could be clearer? But a few brave souls flout convention and cloak their misery and angst in songs which for all the world sound as happy as a 1950's TV family. Here's three such:-

  • Cat Stevens, Here comes my baby. This one just sets out to fool you every way it can. Even the title seems like it's going to be cheerful, right? Here comes my baby, maybe we're going out for a pizza and a movie later, life is good. And the music seems to confirm this; a twinkling glockenspiel, a rolling, bouncy piano line. This song, surely, is about the joys of being in love. Except it's not. When we get to the chorus, we find that what Cat's actually observing is that yes, here comes his baby, but unfortunately, she's with another guy. And as if that weren't sad enough, it seems that this comes as no surprise to Cat. Low self-esteem, I guess. (Although it's also possible that this song's narrator is not in fact a jilted boyfriend but a stalker who chooses to believe that this woman should be his even though they've never exchanged two words. In which case it moves from "Happy Sad Songs" to "Happy Creepy Songs".) The song found its perfect visual representation on Scrubs, when JD, who's recently dumped Elliot, watches miserably as she strides joyfully through the hospital corridors with her new boyfriend. And since she's lit and photographed even more stunningly than usual, we feel his pain.

  • Fleetwood Mac, I don't wanna know. Actually I could have picked just about any song from Rumors since they're pretty much all sunny 70s pop made by a group who famously at the time were sleeping with each other, marrying each other and divorcing each other, sometimes simultaneously. Second-hand news is equally sunny sounding, while Never going back again pulls off the difficult trick of being about the misery of failed relationships while sounding for all the world like a particularly catchy new theme for Watch with Mother. (Apologies if you're under 40 and this means nothing to you.) But I chose IDWK because over and above all the pop harmonies, the guitars and the rest, somebody (and I suspect uber-producer Lindsey Buckingham) felt that the song still wasn't quite conveying the misery that comes of never finding love sufficiently, and decides that the way to ice the cake, misery-wise, is to add just a few extra hand-claps in one speaker (eg. 0:55). Every time I hear it it makes me smile. Nothing says angst more than hand-claps.

  • Talking Heads, Road to Nowhere. Not all angsty songs have to be about me and my baby. In concert, Byrne often introduces this song by explaining that "the Republican Party asked me to write a campaign song for them; I hope they like it." In interviews, he's described it as a "cheery, upbeat number about the coming apocalypse". And although his lyrics are sufficiently elliptical for the listener to read most anything they want into them, that rings true to me.

If only there were more sad songs that sounded ridiculously happy, life would be good. And yet bad.


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