In Nick Hornby’s modern classic, “High Fidelity,” the main character, Rob Fleming, ponders the music lover’s chicken-and-egg question. He asks: “What came first, the music or the misery? Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music? Do all these records turn you into a melancholy person?”
Rob’s point is this: Throughout pop music’s history, it has been one of society’s favorite mediums for personal expression, and, as humans, that expression is often one of sadness, rejection, pain or trial.
I’m the first to admit that I idolize several musical artists, and many of those artists have made a living on heartbreak. Did I turn to these sad songs to soothe my own dismay and find an empathetic voice? Or have my heroes instilled an omnipresent sense of loss and sadness within me? This is an interesting notion, and maybe Rob’s is a question worth asking. Regardless, I’m going to ask it.
The first name that comes to mind is the father of soul himself, Otis Redding. Redding worked his way into legend with classics like “You Left the Water Running” and “I’ve Got Dreams to Remember,” spelling out his sorrow line by line, tear by tear.
The love and loss that Redding endured provided a backdrop for a musical phenomenon, creating a heartbroken attitude among millions of listeners and defining soul music for the world.
Is it possible that listening to legends like Redding, obsessing over their ageless songs of love lost, could have instilled a similar despair within our own subconscious?
I’ve often said that “Big O” can “teach you how to cry,” only to imply how truly heartbroken and empathetic he can make a listener. However, I wonder if I mean it a bit more than I thought.
Let’s try a more recent favorite of mine: Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy and his (ever-changing) gang have recorded music for the last 25 years, and while the group has seen many changes in sound, approach, personnel and attitude, songs of sadness, loss and melancholy lurk in every record.
From “Too Far Apart” in 1994 to “Born Alone” in 2011, many of Wilco’s staples have been songs that will rip your heart out. Here’s a situation that fights for the “I listened to music because I was miserable” cause. In times of personal trial, I have constantly used Wilco as a coping mechanism, finding empathy in its heart-wrenching tunes.
On the other hand, Redding has given us so much music to dance to. How can this star of heartbreak also sing celebratory, upbeat classics like “Hey Hey Baby” and “The Happy Song”?
Wilco told us how “Misunderstood” it was, but it also took us on optimistic rockers like “I’ve Got You (At the End of the Century),” and even offered its whole self in service to you at your lowest hour with “Wilco (The Song).” Old man Cash ripped our hearts to pieces with “I Still Miss Someone” (and 85 percent of the rest of his catalog), but he gave us so much to laugh about when he sang about building a big, black Cadillac one piece at a time, and it didn’t cost him a dime.
Sure, Neil Young depressed me with songs like “Helpless,” but he taught me how to tell a story with “Down by the River” and “Cortez the Killer.” Surely this music and misery business is only part of the equation, right? I think Rob was on to something. Moreover, I think it was his constant pessimism that prevented him from getting all the way there.
I definitely listen to pop music if I get miserable, and I know I’ve been miserable because I listened to pop music. But I also know I’ve been euphoric, in love, moved and humbled because I listened to pop music.
I’ve developed opinions and handled myself the way I have because of the music I’ve listened to. It’s as a much a part of me as Coca-Cola, and that includes all shades of pop music, not just the good parts.
All things considered, I’ve come to a new question. Did I listen to pop music because I’m Kyle Crockett? Or am I Kyle Crockett because I listened to pop music? I think I know the answer.