is pop music getting sadder?

A new study says that pop music is getting sadder. What's sparking this growing appetite for melancholia?

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Jun 1 2018, 11:26am

Pop music is getting sadder -- at least that’s what researchers from the University of California are saying. According to the study of 500,000 songs released over the last 30 years in the United Kingdom, in pop there’s been a reduction of descriptors like “happiness” or “brightness” and an uptake of descriptors like “sadness”. This is measured via a song’s acoustic timbre, its danceability, the mood that it conveys and its lyrical content. Given the proliferation of sadness as an aesthetic (hiya Lana Del Rey!), the fact that young people are more prone to anxiety and depression and an increased socio-political instability, music’s increased artistic expression of sadness is to be expected. But is that what people want?

“Usually, there's a correlation between people desiring happy songs in times of economic turmoil and political instability,” says Nate Sloan, a musicologist and the co-host of pop music podcast Switched on Pop . “If you look at The Great Depression, for instance, we have a shocking number of very happy songs. And vice versa, during times of economic prosperity and political stability, we have more of an appetite for sad songs. If you think, in America at least, of the 1990s, which were very prosperous, we were really interested in listening to angsty music like Nirvana and Alanis Morissette.”

In this case, the music that’s being produced by artists now should be happier, to meet public demand. But, as Nate says, “If the baseline of music is getting sadder, that introduces a wrinkle into that hypothesis.” The study by the University of California does suggest that, just because songs are getting sadder, that doesn’t mean those songs are the most popular. Happier songs -- it seems -- are still preferred by music fans, it's just that according to the study, there's just not as many of them being made.

For Emma Jay Marsh, an A&R consultant for Polydor Records and San Remo Music management, this shift towards sadness isn’t necessarily as binary as suggested. She puts forward a song like Ariana Grande’s exquisite No Tears Left to Cry, which inhabits both happiness and sadness. “That's a melancholic tune, but that’s because of what the song represents,” she says. “Equally, it's quite euphoric.”

This is something that Nate also acknowledges and something that he discusses in his podcast regularly: pop’s tonal shift. A favourite technique of pop producer and songwriting maestro Max Martin, pop now more often veers from traditionally happy keys (aka major keys) to sadder music keys (aka minor keys) recklessly. Describing the phenomenon to Vox , Ethan Hein, an adjunct professor of music and doctoral student at Montclair State and NYU said it made songs more “open-minded”. One song in particular that denies its listener a musical sense of home when it comes to tone is Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream. Writing for Slate , musician Owen Pallet said that the song’s success was down to its “sense of suspension” and the fact that it denies the listener the chord of the musical key in which the song is set. While Katy’s melody is grounded in the song’s home key, “the rest of the song is oscillating around her”.

Nate also put forward The Weeknd’s Can’t Feel My Face as an example of a song in which the verses are in a minor key, before a shift into a major for the chorus. Likewise, a song like Drake’s Started from the Bottom, he argues, inhabits a type of ambiguity that makes modern pop music hard to classify as explicitly happy or sad. “On the one hand, it seems to be a happy song in that it's celebrating this collective accomplishment and a rags-to-riches narrative,” he suggests. “On the other hand, it's got a very morose sound to it; it's in a minor key, its flow and spark might make you feel sad in a song. All of that lends the song an element of melancholy.”

You can see this ambiguity in many EDM songs, too, like Sia and David Guetta’s Titanium. Despite being the same song, when Sia performs the song acoustically, the track takes on a melancholic timbre that Guetta’s dance version misses. I like to call this genre "melancholic bangers", which includes deceptively upbeat pop magnificence like Robyn’s Dancing on My Own and Girls Aloud’s Call the Shots.

Indeed, the descriptors used by this study -- i.e. labelling something because of its “brightness” or “sadness” -- don’t necessarily feel conducive to scientific accuracy, especially as emotions and the sounds that trigger them are subjective to individuals. For example, there are songs that can make me cry on cue, even though I have no idea what, lyrically, they’re about, like Bell X1’s In Every Sunflower . While musically the song is languid and delivered softly, it could literally be about anything.

“Music has a profound relationship to our cognitive experience of the world,” Nate says. “So I think that it makes sense that in moments of heightened emotions, such as when we're feeling particularly sad, depressed or heartbroken, we will forge neurological links between a song and our personal state at that moment.”

It’s this that Emma says draws her to music that’s traditionally viewed as sad. “When you go through a shitty time, you sometimes want to connect to something,” she adds. “It's like, 'Oh my god, this is just how I feel.' You can feel quite isolated or alone if you're going through a bad spot. And the world is quite a shitty place at the moment. It's like cheap therapy, in a weird way.”

Claire Biddles, a writer and pop music fan also suggests that there’s an element of “self-indulgent enjoyment” when it comes to listening to music that makes us feel sad. “It’s a kind of sadness you can handle and that actually lifts you up in some way,” she posits. “There’s also a cathartic thrill in listening back to a song that you relied on during a break-up or whatever, and realising how far you have come, but also connecting with the part of yourself that went through that pain or heartache.”

Claire also argues that there’s been more appreciation for sadness in pop, both current and historical. “I think about the way that ABBA have been reframed as a sad pop group in the popular imagination relatively recently,” she says, referencing how modern readings of the Swedish pop group’s music have eschewed assumptions of Eurovision cheesiness and instead delved into how their music often meditates on death, the anguish of love lost and life when domesticity crumbles. “I think this is something to do with younger people being more comfortably-open about their emotions,” she continues, “and then either making music, and approaching the way they talk, write or tweet about the music they listen to, in a more emotionally open way.”

With this in mind, is the rise of sadness in pop music -- which, according to the study, is the reduction of “brightness” in music -- just because human beings, and therefore artists, are more in touch with their feelings and the world around us? It would make sense given how, historically, artists have catered to society’s apparent appetite for happiness in music. To say, however, that certain music is sad becomes difficult terrain to navigate, this recent tweet by producer, singer and songwriter James Blake recently showed. Sure, James Blake’s music sounds musically melancholic, but does boxing what he’s expressing as simply sadness, or labelling him a “sad boy”, negate the variety of emotional experiences that he’s trying to convey? It absolutely does because emotional expression is rarely so binary as just happy or sad.

That’s the thing with music, with sadness and how human beings interpret and encounter our emotions -- it’s all subjective. As Claire puts it to me, “Being hit with a song about mutual love or contentment when you’re feeling depressed or lovelorn is a sadness that you can’t prepare for, it’s more raw.” Something like the softness of Sufjan Stevens’ Call Me by Your Name soundtrack song, Mystery of Love, is embedded with sorrow thanks in part to Sufjan’s voice -- which exudes melancholy regardless of what he’s singing -- and its association to a heartbreaking storyline. Lorde’s Melodrama was an album that balances precariously on the verge of euphoria, wistfulness, devastation and contentedness; the song-meanings duplicitous and entirely dependent on who happens to be encountering them and what their frame of mind is at that moment.

I like the idea, then, that instead of music becoming sadder, artists and listeners are just becoming more attuned to their emotions. You can’t be happy all the time, just like sadness doesn’t always permeate a person’s existence. Instead, pop music and the people that love it are adapting to better understand and appreciate the multifaceted complexities of emotions. That can only be a good thing, even if it does mean that the songs on the radio might make us cry every so often. But who doesn’t love a good cry, eh?