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When I Realized My Favorite 'Sad' Songs Aren’t Telling the Whole Story

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I’m the type of guy whose heart is particularly affected when it comes to art; the type of person you might catch with misty eyes during his morning workout if he takes a gamble by listening to something new in public. I’ve always loved music, and as a child of the digital music revolution, I’ve been exposed to — and have found some sort of sanctuary — in pretty much every genre there is (with the exception of, to the chagrin of my girlfriend, country).

As someone who actively advocates for those impacted by mental illness — and as someone with more than a few demons himself — I view music, and other forms of art, through a critical and curious lens. I see the communities that spring up at concerts, clubs and in fandoms, and I ask a lot of questions about why certain tracks hit so deep and are embraced so widely. What is the artist saying? Who is the artist speaking up for? Why does this track tug at something in me?

I was talking with a buddy recently and he pointed out the positive track record I have with people — the several handfuls of friendships I have that have weathered a lot of life’s storms and many of which have been thriving for close to a decade. His kind words didn’t sit well with me — something in my subconscious was rejecting his optimism — and my mind lobbied a Lorde lyric as a rebuttal.

“I am a toy that people enjoy ‘till all of the tricks don’t work anymore and then they are bored of me//so they pull back, make other plans.”

The words came from one of my favorite songs by one of my favorite artists on one of my top albums of 2017. That song had met me in some deep insecurity, some nagging wound, some lonely place made far less lonely. But, in this moment, they were a cold response to some of the warmest words I’d received recently. Because I had made that song, “Liability,” my anthem.

I chewed on the interaction for a while, a knot in my chest caused by a tension that went deeper than the music I gravitate towards. But as that deeper wrinkle was ironed out, I thought more about the way I had perhaps over-embraced the songs that voiced some deep hurt, using them as a filter through which I viewed my entire life — so relieved not to be alone in my pain that I went global with my pain.

I was still mulling this over as I drove to the gym hours later. I put on Gnash’s angry, frail track “i hate u, i love u.” I sang louder as the second verse began, “Always missing people that I shouldn’t be missing,” I spat the words, for all the lines that followed, until he got to a pretty bitter conclusion, “Everyone I do right does me wrong.” I stopped short.

Because that line wasn’t true. But I’d embraced that song for so long, as one wholly indicative of the reality I live in. And while there were parts of the writer’s life that mirrored mine, to embrace it all played into an unhealthy pattern my friend Kelsey once pointed out: “We convince ourselves that what is true of people who hurt us is also true of people who haven’t yet. And the irony is that the lie destroys us. It does exactly what we don’t want it to do.” I realized I had taken this self-fulfilling prophecy and cemented it with a soundtrack.

It’s not about redacting my pain. It’s not about staying away from music that meets me in the hard places. There is room for that, there is value in art like that — but artists have albums, their entire lives never summed up by one song, one tone, one narrative category.

The music had had a beautiful affect — some serious baggage had been made lighter, a broken boy empowered by these lyrics — but that broken boy had believed those words spoke of his whole story, rather than the tragic aberrations.

Because the people who love me deserve more than to be lumped in with those who have messed me up.

Those who have maimed me don’t deserve all my songs.

They don’t deserve the broad brush I’ve given them.

I have a better track record than the ones who failed to love me.

And I deserve better anthems.

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Thinkstock photo via Maximkostenko

Originally published: August 21, 2017
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