The Dark SideNov 13, 2023
“Sad songs, they say so much,” sang Elton John in 1984. The dark side of art was popular long before Bernie Taupin wrote those lyrics and remains so now.
Sophie’s Choice; The Road; Tears in Heaven; The Raven: we adore art that portrays melancholy, depression and outright despair. What is it about the dark side that is so attractive?
The Sociology of Sadness
Sad songs and movies often tell stories of loss, heartache, or tragedy, which can enhance our empathy by allowing us to understand and connect with others' experiences. These works often touch on universal themes. This can create a sense of connection with others who have had similar experiences or emotions.
It turns out that many cultures consider the expression of sadness through art to be a sign of emotional maturity. With the passage of time, the ebullient chaos of youth tends to be tempered by tragic events. As the younger generation seeks to model their elders and reap the perceived freedom of maturity, they learn to appreciate the somber side of art. Remember when you couldn’t wait to grow up, get a job, and move out? Adulting is widely associated with a more somber comportment. (“Stop acting like a child.”)
Group consumption and discussion of sad songs and movies also acts as a sociological “tie sign.” Tie signs take the form of physical proximity and contact, shared facial expressions, postures, and expressed emotion. They can reflect the closeness of relationships and the “tying together" of like groups. If you have ever witnessed a group of 13 year-old girls all crying together over one girl’s misfortune, you have seen the power of this phenomenon.
Dark situations famously bring groups of people together. Witness the immediate aftermath of 9/11 or the bonding of a community following a mass casualty event. Sad art - in any medium - can have the same sociological effect.
Sad art has a considerable effect upon the individual psyche as well.
There is a certain catharsis that comes with an experience of tragic art. Since art is removed from our actual life experience, we can experience intense emotions in a safe context. This allows us to purge otherwise negative feelings. When we engage with sad music and movies we practice emotional release and regulation. It's a way to experience and understand complex feelings in a controlled environment.
The “Paradox of Tragic Pleasure” is a psychological phenomenon that describes the experience of pleasure from sadness in art. While it might seem counterintuitive, sadness in art can evoke deep emotional responses that are intrinsically rewarding.
We sometimes gravitate towards sad media when we ourselves feel down. This experience can reflect and validate our own emotional state and is known as mood congruence. As a result, we feel comforted and understood.
And there appears to be a neurochemical aspect of our attraction to the dark side of art. Research in neuroscience indicates that when we listen to sad music, we release prolactin, a hormone associated with emotional healing. The effect is that of the catharsis of “having a good cry.”
The Art of Darkness
(See what I did there? The ‘art of darkness? Nevermind.)
Separate from their emotive content, sad songs, movies and other forms of art tend to be high in artistic quality. This is a result of their narrative depth, lyrical complexity, and emotive performances.
I believe this is the genesis of the “guitar face.” Not to give any trade secrets away; we guitarists can play the exact same notes without the gyration and grimacing. But which would you rather watch: the expressionlessness performance of Bill Wyman or the blood, sweat and tears of Stevie Ray Vaughn?
There's a certain depth to sadness that is aesthetically appealing. Our emotions are stimulated when we engage in the complexity of emotions and the intricacy of a good sad story.
You be the judge: Which of these passages more captures your attention:
Spoil me in Prada / I'm worth every dolla’.
They say you basic / I flooded the Rollie with diamonds.
Remember when we held on in the rain / The night we almost lost it
I haven't been the same / Since that cold November day we said we needed space
The Bright Side of the Dark Side
Of course, not every work of art has to be sad. There is a time and a place for mindless expression of happiness, for sure. There is enough real sadness in the world without art itself expressing depression, right?
But that’s the paradox: sad art actually makes us feel better.
I am not a proponent of so-called “toxic positivity.” Happiness and positive emotions are of paramount importance to our well-being. Gratitude and positive meditation should have the lion’s share of your emotional attention, every day.
But sometimes things go sideways.
When that happens, you - as a creator - have a choice. You can ignore the reality of suffering in the world and write “silly love songs,” or you can acknowledge that life can be unbearably tragic. My personal opinion is that your audience needs both!
Feel free to exuberate over the glory of a good day, a goal realized, a friend saved. Everybody wants to sing along with “Don’t Stop Believing.”
Tell an interesting (and Grammy-winning, number-one Billboard tune) story about the Church of Satan camping out in a hotel in San Fransisco (nah, that’s probably just misinterpretation). Or maybe pen one about a lonely cowboy who needs to fall in love.
Both Hotel California and Desperado are songwriting masterpieces and have millions upon millions of listens. Same band, same genre. Suffice to say that The Eagles found artistic and commercial success in a number of emotional dialects, but weren’t afraid to tell stories from the perspective of the dark side.
The point is this: It’s perfectly acceptable to write about a range of emotions. We humans can resonate with an astounding range of artistic content. But don’t be afraid to express what you feel when things are less than happy. Life isn’t always a party.
Sad songs: they say so much.
I am a creator (musician, writer, live-streamer and podcaster), entrepreneur, counselor and professor. To learn more about how to use these concepts or to inquire about working with me, you can contact me through my website, the comments section on my Substack or Medium accounts or The Authentic Life Blog page. If you have found value in this article, consider following my Instagram and Twitter (X) accounts. To support this community, you can even Buy Me A Coffee or donate through my Patreon account. Subscribe to my River of Creation podcast - The Podcast for Creators, and my associated YouTube channel, coming in 2024, wherever you download your podcasts.
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