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.


- 11 comments by 3 or more people Not publicly viewable

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  1. Sonata Arctica – The Cage

    It's the most uplifting-sounding song I know but it's actually somewhat about being imprisoned.

    05 Jan 2006, 23:54

  2. Happy sounding sad songs? Ooooh, this is a good challenge ans these answer are purely off the top of my head…

    You could try Feeder's 'Just A Day' which has a wonderfully catchy "do do do-do" bit but is essentially about waking up hungover on your own. Or possibly Catatonia's 'Dead From The Waist Down' which woozes along with a summery lilt and is about a couple whose relationship is dead in the water.

    But the pinnacle is the curious genius that is 'Do You Realise???' by the Flaming Lips, the best song ever about the fact we're all going to die and life is short.

    06 Jan 2006, 00:13

  3. naz

    Verrry difficult. I'm trying to come up with something esoteric, but all I can think of so far is "We didn't start the fire" by Billy Joel. Sorry!

    06 Jan 2006, 14:45

  4. Bruce Springsteen 'Born in the USA', does that count? you think its kinda a cheery anthem, ad then you realise its all about Vietnam and American Politics.

    06 Jan 2006, 20:18

  5. John Dale

    Hmm. The Flaming Lips song is a great example; can't believe I forgot that. I thought about Born in the USA but decided that it wasn't so much sad as angry. I don't think of We didn't start the fire as being either particularly happy or sad, really; it's just a list song, and although it's lyrically quite clever, it's still, when you come down to it, a list.

    One song I thought about including but didn't is MMMBop by Hanson; it sounds exactly like bubblegum would if it were a song, but as indecipherable as the lyrics are, I think there's stuff in there about pain and strife and relationships which don't last.

    09 Jan 2006, 10:09

  6. Chris May

    coming late to the party…

    blur's to the end is rather good, with the triumphant chorus of 'and it looks like we've really made it, looks like we've made it to the end', until it becomes apparent that the triumph they've acheived is the breakup of a relationship.

    But my favourite not-what-it seems is not a song but a poem; The road not taken by Robert Frost. Most people have heard it, it's the one that starts Two roads diverged in a yellow wood... and ends I took the road less travelled, and it has made all the difference. Many people think of this as an anthem to not following the crowd, and "taking the road less travelled" has become the standard metaphor for doing something different, or even revolutionary.
    But it fact the whole thrust of the poem is that there really isn't any difference in the roads, and only "ages and ages hence" does the reminiscing narrator ex poste rationalise his choice as being somehow individual and unusual. We might think we're all free spirits, but if you listen closely you can hear the baa-ing :-)

    12 Jan 2006, 21:32

  7. John Dale

    Dude. Fair enough with the Blur, but this reading poetry malarkey is totally ruining your track-running, mountain-biking man of action thing.

    13 Jan 2006, 11:37

  8. Rumours was fantasitc when I was really depressed, because for all that I felt that the lyrics empathised with the awfulness of my life, I couldn't help but get bouyed up by listening to it.

    15 Jan 2006, 17:14

  9. I heard Wayne Coyne (Flaming Lips) describing somewhere (maybe at a gig – they are amazing live) about how 'Do You Realise???' isn't supposed to be a sad song about life being short, but an affirming song about making the most, and telling people you love them, instead of getting worried about the end of it all.

    But it is easy to just get caught on the '...everyone you know, someday, will die…' line!

    16 Jan 2006, 17:36

  10. I've heard that as well, and it's there in the line "But instead of saying all of your goodbyes/Let them know you realise that life goes fast/It's hard to make the good things last" which he sings like an order to damn well make those good things last… but it's that line "Everyone you know someday will die". No matter what a song's intention it is to me a sad sad line.

    16 Jan 2006, 22:48

  11. Green Eyes

    Eyes Without A Face….has a nice beat….yet the lyrics…..eyes without a face Such a human waste..ok maybe not happy sad…..but it is a good sad song

    25 Jun 2006, 05:42


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