I get sad a lot these days, and I’m sure you do too. Whether it’s due to mental illness, or stress from work, or seeing something that just rubs you the wrong way, we all go through the motions of sadness from time to time. Sometimes it’s easier for us to snap out of our sadness, maybe by watching a funny YouTube video or talking to a friend who knows how to cheer you up. Other times, though, it seems nearly impossible to break the sadness, like you’re doomed to be sad for the rest of time, and it feels like there’s nothing you can do.
There’s this level of sadness or depression where you just feel like you can’t move, you can’t eat, you can’t get out of bed, you can’t shower, you just can’t be “normal.” You know, deep down, that you want to fight off those feelings, but you feel stuck. I get that way more often than I would like to admit.
Other than just trying to sleep in hopes that I’ll wake up feeling better (which only marginally works), there’s another thing that I often do when I’m feeling sad: listen to sad music.
Logic might have you believe that this is counterintuitive—why would you want to listen to sad music when you’re already feeling sad?—and I’m sure for many people it is the opposite of what they do.
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For me, bands and artists like Brand New, Bright Eyes, Kevin Devine, Kid Cudi, Julien Baker, Aesop Rock, Kimya Dawson, Modern Baseball, and others who delve heavily into the topics of depression and mental health. I’ll even listen to the sad songs from the Hamilton soundtrack when I’m feeling sad (especially “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story” when I need a good cry), or put on some songs from Kanye West’s 808s and Heartbreak.
To me, listening to sad music when I’m sad does a few things that actually help me feel more “normal” or reach a mental equilibrium that other mood-lifting or mood-shifting tactics don’t necessarily do.
There are two main reasons that I listen to sad music: knowing that others have been through the same experiences as I have, and finding a way to turn my sadness, and associated anger, into hope.
“Misery Loves Company”
The first is pretty cliché to say the least, but for me, misery does indeed love company. I don’t mean that in the typically cynical way though; on the contrary, there is something about listening to a sad song that helps you realize that you are not alone in your sadness.
It’s important to remember that you are not the only one who has gone through what you are going through, and that, in some ways, can offer hope for a better outcome.
One song in particular that offers this sense of “they know how I feel” is “Displacement” by LA-based post-hardcore group Touché Amoré. The album the song comes from, Stage Four, deals with the death of lead singer Jeremy Bolm’s mother, after she was diagnosed with Stage IV Lung Cancer. In “Displacement,” Bolm screams about the unexpected cancer diagnosis, his struggles with having “faith” in a God who would allow such a thing to happen to his mother, and trying to understand the idea of an afterlife and the possibility that she is now watching over him.
The themes of this song, along with the entire album, eerily align with my own life and my mother’s death almost 8 years ago. My mother was also diagnosed with Stage IV Lung Cancer, after never having smoked but being exposed to second-hand smoke her entire life (her mother/my grandmother was a life-long smoker who died of lung cancer, as well). It was extremely hard for me and my family to deal with the diagnosis, let alone accept that she would inevitably pass away. I had a lot of frustrations with the idea of God and faith because of these events. With my mom being religious and spiritual throughout her life, I wondered why she would be subjected to such pain and suffering, only to pass away in the end.
Fast forward 7 years from her death and Touché Amoré releases an album that in many ways tells mine and my mother’s story. I cried the entire time listening to the album for the first time. It hit home for me in all the best and worst ways. Jeremy Bolm’s yells and melodies held all of the anger and frustration and sadness I had, and in some ways continue to, bottle up in regards to my mother’s diagnosis and death.
“Displacement” reaches this point especially well, down to the details of getting into an accident which totaled the car he was driving yet “walk[ing] away unscathed” (it happened to me twice since her death) and wondering if maybe it was his mother “looking out for [him] the way she said she would.”
This song, and this album, remind me that there are others out there, people I look up to, who have gone through the same pain and suffering that I have, and when I get sad, especially thinking about my mom, I’ll play this record and know that my mother is “looking out for me” as well. Maybe you have a similar song that provides safe space and community.
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Through Sadness (and Rage) Comes Hope
I constantly hear about how sadness, along with anger and rage, are some of the most useless emotions we can feel because we view them as inherently bad. This even comes through much of the help people try to give others who are sad or angry: “Why waste your time being sad/angry when you could be happy?” or “Don’t be such a downer,” or “Sadness/anger never solves anything, it only makes things worse,” etc.
While these sentiments are meant to inspire folks to pick themselves up and go about their lives, they fail to recognize the fact that sadness, anger, and rage are all very important parts of healing from tragedy or trauma, and that running away from them and the truth that those emotions hold can be detrimental to a person’s mental (and physical) health.
Post-rock and emo-influenced band The World is a Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid to Die are well-versed in this balance of sadness and anger with hope and empowerment. Their song “Rage Against the Dying of the Light” deals heavily with this balance, especially considering the lyrics are inspired (and its title is borrowed from) Dylan Thomas’ poem “Do not go gentle into that good night.” In “Rage Against,” singer David Bello tackles the prospect of age and getting older, wanting to reminisce of happier times but inevitably understanding that there is much between him and “where I wanna be.” Bello evokes the imagery of building a “fire so high” that it is impossible not to notice, representing his unwillingness to simply accept the fate of death, asking other to join him in singing “I am alive, I deserve to be.” He accepts the sadness he faces (“But bless those sharp tears”) while still wanting to fight on (“But rage and burn”).
This song is one I have turned to many times in the past year since the release of Harmlessness, the album “Rage Against” comes from, as a source of both comfort in sadness as well as inspiration to “rage” against my depression.
Even if it is just for the line “I am alive, I deserve to be,” this song brings an immense amount of will to fight into my mind and heart, especially as I shout it in my car and get weird looks from other drivers. It is a sad song through and through, from the lyrics to the music, but it is also a beacon of emotional maturity that can help anyone in a moment of sadness not only face that sadness, but also embrace it and eventually “rage” against it, through it, and past it.
There are plenty of other reasons listening to sad music can help you when you’re feeling sad, and I hope that you can find some sad music that helps bring you out of emotional ruts you may find yourself in in the future.
Taking the sadness on directly can be a scary move to make, but it can also be one of the most rewarding feelings when you give yourself the time and space to process your sadness.
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[Feature Image: A fair-skinned person wears a plaid shirt while staring off over the water with headphones on their head. Flickr.com/Lance Shields]