The vast majority of sad songs have music that is equally (or sometimes more) depressing than the lyrics that go along with them. There aren't many mournful, minor key songs about cupcakes, puppies, rainbows, and unicorns. But every so often a song with horribly depressing lyrics comes along with music that doesn't match, creating a lyrical dissonance we may not discover until that one listen where it all comes together. Country music excels at this trope, offering catchy and enjoyable tunes that shroud the often dark and disturbing lyrics contained within. But as we discovered, this musical incongruence shows up in pop, rock, and even punk as well. Here's a look at some songs that sound happy but are actually incredibly depressing.
"Mamma Mia" - ABBA
ABBA taught America a lot about itself. Operating out of their ABBA Fortress in Stockholm in the 1970s, the group studied the pop culture landscape of the United States and then made music that catered to the prevailing trends of the day, which at the time meant disco. Like most bands who followed the trends of the times and hit it big, they were saddled with the reputation of being soulless bubblegum pop or, at the very least, vapid mainstream tripe.
And in many ways ABBA embodied this ethos, but on deeper inspection we find some pretty screwed up stuff in their lyrics. Take "Mamma Mia," for instance. When you're shopping for handbags and you hear the familiar commercial-sound jingle coming through the store music speakers, you might tap your toe in spite of yourself. But if you pay attention you'll also hear this:
I've been brokenhearted
Blue since the day we parted
Why, why did I ever let you go?
Not exactly pleasant subject matter is it? The infectiously catchy music combined with the depressing prose makes it seem like a Mentos commercial written by Sylvia Plath. But it gets worse:
I think you know that you won't be away too long
You know that I'm not that strong
Just one look and I can hear a bell ring
One more look and I forget everything
Despite the cheery delivery from Agnetha and Anni-Frid, they can't help but admit that they're in a relationship with a real cad. And try as they might, they just can't will themselves to leave him for good. And just as we knew more Anthony Wiener photos would surface, the guy in the song keeps cheating, and the girls keep repeating the vicious cycle by giving him another chance.
"I'll Be Around" - The Spinners
The Spinners might be considered an early precursor of later groups like Boyz II Men and New Edition. Hailing from 1960s Detroit, the quintet were among the darlings of Motown's glory days. R&B, like Detroit itself, would never see such glorious days again. The Spinners, however, outlasted Motown and experienced their greatest fame in the early '70s, thanks to their breakout hit "I'll Be Around." The familiar slinky guitar riff and sensual drums are instantly recognizable, and rare is the person who doesn't start to feel a little better once this romantic ballad comes on. Especially the very well-known chorus:
Whenever you call me, I'll be there
Whenever you want me, I'll be there
Whenever you need me, I'll be there
I'll be around
A beautiful sonnet to a lucky girl and maybe a precursor to the Friends theme song. But the memorable hooks and touching chorus obscure the less well-known verse lyrics of this seemingly romantic tune:
This is our fork in the road
Love's last episode
There's nowhere to go, oh no
You made your choice, now it's up to me
To bow out gracefully
Though you hold the key
What fresh hell is this? It seems like this sensual ballad from one lover to another is actually a desperate plea from a recently jilted man, as he tells the love of his life that he'll still wait around for her no matter how many suns rise and set. Still romantic, but with an air of doomed futility, which always puts a bit of a damper on romance.
Fitting that the lyrics were written by a guy named Phil Hurtt, who it turns out is rather upbeat and affable. His heart was not aching at the time - he's just a good songwriter. "That's what part of the job requires you to do," he said in a Songfacts interview. "I was an early reader, so I read a lot of stories from the age of 3."
"What's A Simple Man to Do?" - Steve Earle
Steve Earle is no stranger to mixing catchy tunes with despair. His song "Johnny Come Lately" starts off as a toe-tapping, patriotic song about his grandfather finding love in England during World War II and then coming home to great fanfare and cheering crowds. The last verse, however, tracks the singer's own return from Vietnam, but this time nobody was waiting for him, nobody to cheer for his part in the unpopular war. So Earle is no stranger to lyrical dissonance.
"What's a Simple Man to Do," though, takes the discrepancy between upbeat music and depressing lyrics even further. Found on the Jerusalem album (a big stinking clue as to the depressing content of the whole album), this catchy number features electric organs, harmoniums, and other feel-good instruments. The song sounds like something Billy Joel would have come up with, and like Joel, pleasing tunes aren't always indicative of pleasant subject matter. If you listen to the lyrics, you'll see that the song is about getting arrested in San Diego for selling balloons full of heroin. Pay attention to the beginning of the song and you'll know right away that happiness and joy isn't on Earle's mind, despite what the music suggests:
Dear Graciella, I'm writing this letter, deep in the night and I'm all alone.
It's nearly breaking my heart to tell you, I'm so far away from home.
The singer then tells the story of his attempt to earn a little quick cash by selling drugs for a man he met in Tijuana. Sadly, we know what really happened. In the last verse, he asks Graciella to apologize to his mother for him. He laments the fact that he likely will die in prison and never see his loved ones again. Each verse is complemented by one hell of a catchy piano run. Score another win for Earle in his often successful attempts at making you tap your toe as you wipe your eyes.
"Let's Not S--t Ourselves (To Love and Be Loved)" - Bright Eyes
Bright Eyes frontman Conor Oberst is an expert in agony. A child prodigy who recorded his first album when he was 13, Conor has been a poster child for depression ever since. If you haven't heard Bright Eyes, imagine Elliott Smith without the merry and chipper spirit and you're there. In his first commercial album with Bright Eyes, Oberst sang a song called "Padriac my Prince" about his fictional brother who drowned in the bathtub. In other words, this is the kind of thing Conor fantasizes about to take his mind off his real problems. Dark, innit?
But most of Bright Eyes' songs are appropriately downbeat and depressing musically speaking. It is "Let's Not S--t Ourselves (To Love and Be Loved)" that stands out amongst the pack for its extremely enjoyable rhythm, playing in the background of some of the most depressing lyrics ever scrawled on paper.
The only thing longer than the song's title is the song itself. Over the course of ten minutes, Conor delivers a series of criticisms, jeremiads, and confessions that sum up his opinion of the world we live in. It is around the six minute mark that we hear Conor recount a possibly true suicide attempt, though knowing his penchant for fictionalized misery we can't be sure. At any rate, he recounts:
I awoke in relief my sheets and tubes were all tangled
Weak from whiskey and pills in a Chicago hospital.
And my father was there, in a chair by the window, staring so far away
Remember that, while this is going on, the background is filled with some rollicking good music. Conor then goes on,
I tried talking, just whispered 'so sorry, so selfish'
He stopped me and said 'child, I love you regardless.
And nothing you can do would ever change this, I'm not angry, it happens.
But you just can't do it again
In the same song Conor sings about mothers who take loans out to send their kids to colleges until "her family's reduced to names on a shopping list." Also, he references a coroner kneeling beneath a crucifix, knowing there are worse things than being alone. We can think of one thing worse than being alone: Being Oberst's shrink!
"Spanish Bombs" - The Clash
We can be forgiven for not immediately knowing that "Spanish Bombs" is more than just a catchy ditty. After all, both Joe Strummer and Mick Jones aren't exactly well-known for their articulation. Add to that a strong Essex accent across the board and you've got more problems than a posh Berkeley Hunt in Brixton, mate!
But it's even worse than that. Many of the lyrics in "Spanish Bombs" are in, not surprisingly, Spanish. And, as with other Clash songs featuring Spanish lyrics, the words and phrasings are butchered beyond recognition. But at any rate, this jaunty, beautiful ballad from their 1980 masterpiece London Calling is about the brutal and bloody Spanish Civil War, fought in the late 1930s. The war was between fascists and revolutionaries, not exactly the best of friends. At any rate, the song opens with mentions of "bullet holes in the cemetery walls" and "Fredrico Lorca is dead and gone." Then the chorus kicks in with what the Clash considers "Spanish":
Spanish Bombs, yo te quiero infinito.
Yo te quiero, oh my corazon
The Clash would often translate into other languages by simply looking up each English word's equivalent and then simply transposing the sentence with its English structure. Hey, they were punk rockers, not linguistics majors! But the lyrics they were going for in Spanish definitely don't mesh well with the poppy English pub feel of the music.
I will love you forever, oh my heart
Now this is sad because, as we see in the next verse: "Spanish bombs shatter the hotel, my senorita's rose was nipped in the bud." The song is about a rebel fighter lamenting the Spanish bombs that killed his one and only true love in the hotel. The song might be seen as the band's Hemingway moment: A beautiful yet heartbreaking combination of love and war; empathy and carnage; romance and repugnance.
"LDN" - Lily Allen
Wow, another Brit on the list, and an Essex one to boot! Perhaps it is the constantly dour and dreary weather in London that causes melancholy and disenchantment to seep into even the most pleasant sounding numbers. "LDN" is just such a number, based (as you might have guessed) on London where Allen spent much of her adolescence. The lovely, intoxicating reggae beat flows beautifully with the enchanting melody and at first it seems that Ms. Allen has penned a loving ode to her old stomping grounds. It isn't until we analyze what she's saying that we realize she is actually quite adamant about asserting her lampshade hanging capabilities:
Everything seems to look as it should
but I wonder what goes on behind doors.
A fella looking dapper and he's sittin with a slapper
Then I see it's a pimp and his crackwhore
Though it is possible that the pimp and his crackwhore might have a healthy, mutually beneficial relationship, Allen goes on to describe somebody's grandmother being brutally beaten:
There was a little old lady who was walking down the road
She was struggling with bags from Tesco.
There were people from the city having lunch in the park
I believe that is called al fresco
When a kid came along to offer a hand
but before she had time to accept it,
Hits her over the head, doesn't care if she's dead
'cause he's got all her jewelry and wallet
Sadly, we are not told what happened to the old lady and are left to wonder why Lily herself didn't try to summon help. Perhaps this is another seedy aspect of London that Allen wants to highlight: Loose threads. The chorus is just as catchy as the rest of the song and just as dark, as Allen chants, "When you look with your eyes, everything seems nice. But if you look twice you can see it's all lies." The same can be said for the song itself and its subject matter, making Allen, if not one for filial attachment to her hometown, certainly a qualified expert at going meta.
"The Ballad Of Charles Whitman" - Kinky Friedman
Depressing doesn't even begin to cover the lyrics of this song. Kinky Friedman has always been known as a bit of a counterculture figure; Today he's more popular for his outspoken political career but there was a time not so long ago that he was the lead singer and brainchild of the Texas Jewboys. Clearly, this is a man who isn't afraid of letting people know what he thinks, and this was never made more apparent then when he released "The Ballad of Charles Whitman."
Whitman was the famed gunman who climbed the tower at the University of Texas in Austin and gunned down 16 people on August 2, 1966. It was an incredibly evil and horrific story that immediately became part of the grand and eerie mythos of the state where everything is bigger, including the shooting sprees. Kinky was actually a student at the university when the shooting occurred and thus he was in a special position, as a musician, to immortalize the tragic event and bring closure to his fellow statesmen.
Friedman's choice of homage, however, was to craft a toe-tapping honky tonk tune that was impossible not to dance to. Perhaps empathy is the one thing in Texas that isn't bigger. At any rate, the lyrics certainly held true to the events:
He was sittin' up there for more than an hour
Way up there on the Texas Tower
Shooting from the twenty-seventh floor
Now keep in mind that these lyrics are complemented by a wonderfully melodious saloon piano and you get the idea. But whereas the above songs had depressing lyrics that were meant to be depressing, this song is filled with depressing lyrics that are actually meant to be comical. Friedman goes on:
All the while he smiled so sweetly
then he blew their minds completely
They'd never seen an Eagle Scout so cruel
Whitman was in fact an Eagle Scout when he was growing up, and this leads us to what is easily one of the most depressing, discomforting, and acerbic comments in any form of music:
The doctors tore his poor brain down
but not a snitch of illness could be found.
Most folks couldn't figure just why he did it
and the good would not admit it: There's still a lot of Eagle Scouts around
What a great way to immortalize a tragic event: Make fun of it, and then remind the survivors of the massacre that this sort of thing could happen any time, any day, with any person. Ah well, they say comedy is tragedy plus time.
July 20, 2011
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