Wednesday, January 26, 2005

DOWNERS FOR DOLLARS. Comments in the past day or two show that we have no dearth of animal vitality 'round these parts. So I have a project for you.

I was in a Hallmark store today and noticed the CD rack. Among the Swingin' Sinatra and Night Jazz discs was a compilation called Walkin' On Sunshine! Tunes to Brighten Your Day. The tracks included the eponymous Katrina & The Waves kicker and a bunch of bouncy-fun tunes meant to imbue the listener with pep.

Now I can understand that. Music hath charms, and I can imagine some of Hallmark's patrons picking up Walkin' On Sunshine! to cheer up their gloomy-gus friends, or themselves. Hey John -- It's your birthday! Shake You some Booty! xxx Marla etc.

But it struck me that people also listen to music to make themselves more miserable. It was till recently a country music tradition to mourn a dead relationship by pumping quarters into a jukebox stocked with George Jones and Patsy Cline songs, and drink Pabst Blue Ribbon and shots till your friends carried you out of the bar. Sinatra made whole, desperately unhappy albums with titles like Frank Sinatra Sings for the Lonely and When No One Cares ("and the phone never rings/the nights are endless things").

These are drinking albums, but I would also say that you were expected to take hard drugs that could induce a deathlike state before listening to The Idiot or Tonight's the Night. The common thread is this: someone is depressed and, along with getting shitass drunk or swallowing several Nembutol to depress himself further, ingests musical downers to accelerate the progress of the dark bus till it crashes at the end of Lonely Street. At which point he dusts himself off, takes some Tylenol, and resumes his life, his agony purged. (Or gets a ride to the morgue.)

This would seem a widespread and long-lived human phenomenon. Why then don't the companies that make compilations to Brighten Your Day, Relax Your Friends At Dinner Parties, Give You The Confidence to Wear That Ridiculous Fedora etc, make one or two CDs that are engineered to make the listener more unhappy? Such companies are nearly nameless, so it can't be out of concern for brand image. Is there a law against it? Do they fear they may be prosecuted if someone takes a header and Songs for Swingin' Suicidalists is found on his iPod?

Me, I think if you're going to buy someone a snotty alterna-card of this sort, or this, you might as well go the whole hog and provide some maudlin audio accompaniment. A guy I was in a band with once went through a devastating breakup, and his roommate gave him a bottle of bourbon and a bunch of Conway Twitty. It seemed the thing to do.

Here's an opportunity for some enterprising and morally corrupt souls to grab a niche! What shall we put on our compilation? And what shall we call it?

UPDATE. Excellent grey-sky session in the comments! You guys are like way eclectic.

It's true, as Jeremy says, that some "sad" songs have a little wink in them that takes out the sting. Tunes like "You're Not Drinking Enough" or "Auf Wiedersehn" are actually sly ways of getting around depression -- tricking it, cheating it, playing up the petulance or bombast so you can pretend it's a pose you're controlling, not a heartache that's controlling you. (Loudon Wainwright III's "Mr. Guilty" actually doubles up on that strategy: an I'm-sorry song that's so transparently fake, it's chillingly funny. LWIII is a neglected national resource.)

And, Harry, that may be why I didn't think of the blues: those guys hurt but they seldom wallow like most weepers wallow. Maybe I haven't been listening to the right stuff but blues songs seem to me less about sadness than survival -- a coping mechanism that became beautiful, like The Consolation of Philosophy. (Though now that I think of it, "How Many More Years" is pretty fucking bleak.)

But one man's mock is another man's maudlin, and all I would add are these:
  • "Tourniquet," Marilyn Manson
  • "I'm Free From the Chain Gang Now," Jimmie Rodgers
  • "That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore," The Smiths
  • "Guess I'll Hang My Tears Out to Dry," Frank Sinatra
  • "That's the Way Love Turned Out for Me," Ry Cooder
  • "Dink's Song," Dave Van Ronk
  • "I Told a Lie to My Heart," Hank Williams
  • "Time," Tom Waits
  • "After The Ball," Joan Morris
  • "A Case of You," Joni Mitchell
  • "Pardon Me, I've Got Someone to Kill," Johnny Paycheck
Boy, it's hard to stop once you get started...

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