I’ve become the kind of person who feels very very sad and very very happy. Maybe this is what all humans are like, I don’t know enough humans to know. But the difference between sadness and joy is inexplicably at once a vast chasm and the thinnest of lines. This, I suppose, explains the unique and exquisite joy that is the happy/sad song or alternately the sad/happy song.
I’ll start with happy sad. I was reminded of this, I think my favorite song type, when I was in the midst of a very intense Mamas and Papa’s euphoria, listening to Glad to be Unhappy. This is a brilliant song, built around the idea that you can take pleasure in heartache, which is true and not true. It was originally an old musical song from the 30s and there are versions by Billie Holiday and Frank Sinatra but for me The Mamas and Papas totally perfect this song. Their version cuts out the first few lines and comes in straight away with “fools rush in”. The harmonies and the forceful delivery of each line are impeccable. I love the way the song builds and shifts, the way Mama Cass sings “I’m so unhappy” with such complete joy. Its weirdly unsettling because the production is so beautiful and sixties-slick that you get a sense that there is extreme pain and sorrow behind it. That it is an example of pleasure and despair rolled perfectly in to one – not balanced or split but one feeling heightening the other.
Another one of my favourite happy/sad songs is Sad Song by Otis Redding. This song is so amazingly ridiculous and funny that you can’t help but feel great when you hear it. Its so the opposite of sad! Which is what makes it so sad or something. Because he’s singing about pain, about sorrow, about how addicted we get to those blues songs, but he’s using joy to express it. In fact a lot of music from the past seems to fall in to this category of joyous, celebratory pain. Like old photos of dead people. There’s a sheen, a forced smile that seems like the saddest thing of all.
The other side of this is the happy song that sounds sad. I used to write a lot of these because sad songs sound nicer (maybe i’ll think about why one day) but I was never actually all that sad when I was younger. My favourite example is Say Yes by Eliot Smith. I guess its partly because most of his songs are so sad that I think this sounds sad. But its also so cautious in its happiness. Where ‘Glad to be Unhappy’ is musically over the top this song holds back. Its a simple declaration of happiness from someone aware of all the provisos, of the inevitability of sadness. “Situations get fucked up and turned around sooner or later”. But there is a sense that he doesn’t really believe this at the moment of singing. Within the song he is happy, but its coming out sad.
The way that music and emotions play around each other is hard to understand. Sometimes music is the most painful thing in the world to listen to and sometimes its just everything – its like you can’t imagine anything but listening to music. Happy or sad or both or neither (I’m not happy and I’m not sad) music is a really good way of understanding and expressing the complexity of the feelings we have to cart around all day every day. That its not as black and white as today I feel happy or today I feel sad. That there’s a lot of cross over and that there is music for every way, every combination of emotions, that you feel if you can just find the right song.