What happens when sad artists get happy?
Lorde is the latest of music’s sad girls club to debut a hesitantly happy record, but, for some fans, positivity and growth feels like betrayal.
If you’ve spent most of this grey British summer stuck in a dark room in Zone 3, Lorde’s sunny anthems about dancing on beaches probably feel miles away from your day-to-day reality. The confessional singer, who held our hands through frustrated teen angst, first heartbreaks and crying in bathrooms at “scummy house parties”, dropped her third album to a mixed reception from fans and critics alike. “This feels like a shedding of Lorde’s melancholy as a defining trait of her new music,” wrote i-D’s Douglas Greenwood in his review of Solar Power. It begs the question; what happens when our favourite sad musicians stop writing music to cry to and start singing about dancing in the sun, self-assured confidence and feeling happier than ever?
Sad music is like a comfort blanket. And when a musician changes the mood of their songs it can feel like that comfort blanket has been abruptly ripped away, even though their old music still exists. It’s no surprise then that some fans feel let down when their fave starts channelling happier emotions instead. One fan’s viral tweet compared the singer’s current iteration to her Pure Heroine era, saying, “i feel like 2014 lorde would have hated 2021 lorde”, to which a quote tweet replied, “honestly me before therapy and medication would have despised me with therapy and medication, let happy people be happy ok!!” The original tweet reveals an online discourse which treats artists who trade melancholy for euphoria as superficial or ‘selling out’. It revealed an expectation amongst some fans for artists to stick to the same mood — and sound — throughout their entire career, even though we know that we all experience a spectrum of emotions, even though the most authentic art is capable of capturing them all.
This year going blonde has signalled pop stars’ entrance into a new era, one defined more by light than by dark. Lorde went blonde along with fellow former goth kid Billie Eilish, who soon after announced she was releasing an album titled Happier Than Ever. While the title was misleading — Billie’s latest release is filled with as much existential melancholy as her first — the title and her emo teen turned Hollywood Glam look, indicated she is no longer interested in being seen exclusively as a ‘sad girl’.
Of course, it’s unfair and over-simplistic to say that an artist has ever moved cleanly from happy to sad. A deeper listen on Solar Power reveals Lorde’s happiness as wistful and hesitant, simply dipped in melancholy rather than drenched in it. And a musician who consistently releases sad music throughout their career isn’t necessarily sad all the time. It doesn’t mean they have never experienced joy or growth or recovery. “I think that most creative industries have been guilty of glamorising the tortured artist cliché at some point,” says musician Rosie Carney. “Even I have been described in a way that would suggest I am just someone who suffers, but I feel that as stigmas are broken, we are starting to see the lighter and almost comedic side of things, to admit that yes, everyone is scared of everything and that’s okay.”
When sad girl high priestess of the Tumblr generation, Lana Del Rey, famously told The Guardian in 2014, “I wish I was dead already,” her predominantly teen fanbase revelled in it. But then, like Lorde, Lana traded misery and gloom for a celebration of growth and progression on Lust For Life, singing “They say only the good die young/that just ain’t right/’cause we’re having too much fun.” Two years later, on 2019’s Norman Fucking Rockwell she sings of experiencing hope and happiness albeit with her signature melancholy undertones.
Music critic Lucy Harbron, who gave Lorde’s Solar Power a 9/10 review in CLASH, suggests Spotify is to blame for our desire to easily define an album’s mood. “We categorise artists so much now,” she notes. “With Spotify, so much of our music consumption is playlisted based on vibes so we want it all neat and cohesive rather than listening to an album start to finish and going through a range of emotions on it. Branding and marketing is hugely important too. Take an artist like Keaton Henson, for example. His entire brand is built around depression, anxiety and being a recluse. If he suddenly turned round and was writing happy songs, his team would be at a loss. Fans and the industry seem to demand artists like this remain tortured.”
Art is often used to channel these more uncomfortable and troubling emotions to cope with them and reach out to others who might feel the same. There is some truth to the tortured artist archetype, but often it’s overemphasised and romanticised to the detriment of fans of artists alike. Given the number of high-profile musicians who have been lost to suicide and addiction, perhaps we should be celebrating when our favourite artists write from a happier place, despite the timing or the intention, because not all of them had the chance to get there. Increasingly, as audiences, we seem to look for authenticity in art but recoil when artists are authentically happy.
We are all guilty — as fans and as people — of projecting our own emotions onto people we have never met. We over-identify with their emotions, especially, as in the case of Lorde and Lana, when we have grown up with their music. Loneliness is a common companion to mental illness and sometimes it can feel like the artist who puts how we’re feeling into words is the only one who really understands. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; being able to feel less alone and see ourselves reflected through art is one of the most beautiful things about it. However, it’s important to accept that musicians are capable of drawing from a rich tapestry of emotions, including joy and happiness. Artists have done so for all of time. From William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience to Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now to Lorde’s Solar Power, happiness and sadness have always coexisted harmoniously in art, enriching one another.
Still, for some, it’s natural to feel left behind in your sadness when your favourite artist changes their tune. Twitter stans jokingly proclaimed that Lorde (new Lorde that is) has ended depression. Others aren’t so sure. But perhaps there’s something in it, maybe it’s time we started romanticising happiness for a change. It’s important to remember that recovery and mental wellness is possible and aspirational, but being happy and well-adjusted doesn’t mean you will never experience sadness or depression again. And, when you do, your old favourite music will still be there to comfort you.