Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The United States Of Sad Bastards

I think I'm like most critics–and indeed, most consumers of pop culture–in that I find it much, much harder to describe the things that I like than the things that I hate. Maybe that's because when I'm trying to put into words why a certain band, film, book, or other work of art pleases me, it usually feels like I'm trying to convince others to feel the way I do, and so it naturally puts me on the defensive: A lot of bullshit appeals for common ground and preemptive dismissals of naysayers get tied up in what is, by definition, a subjective appraisal. Once I've decided I like something, I feel this urge to protect it, to take it under my wing and nuzzle it, feed it by regurgitating platitudes, and squawk menacingly at hawks who might be swooping in to hurt it. Often when people tell me they dislike a thing that I love, it feels personal, like they just told me that my kid is ugly or something. (Judging by some of the heated back-and-forths I've seen in the comments here, I'm guessing I'm not alone in that.)

But when it comes to something I hate, well, that's when I'm at my silver-tongued best. Poking things with my rapier wit has always been my most marketable skill (thank god for The Onion, because few places would agree), so lucky for me the ratio of things I like to dislike is usually 1:2. Personally, I've accepted that, though I've often been accused by friends and loved ones of being "too critical." ("But I'm a paid critic!" I usually respond.) Despite what they may think, however, I'm far more open-minded than I'm typically given credit for…It's just that when it comes to art, I know what I hate. And for me, what I hate can usually be summed up thusly: I hate things that are happy.

"Fun," "feel-good," "buoyant," "effervescent," "bubbly," and the most dreaded of all, "cute"–if I see any of these words or their synonyms listed in a band's press release, a book jacket, or the description of a film or TV show, I know one thing right away: I will fucking hate it. And I swear, it's not like I'm some grumbling, obstinate ogre–get to know me, and you'll see I'm actually quite friendly, generous, and willing to go with the flow (most of the time). It's just that there's something about schmaltz, forced joy, and other forms of telegraphed cheer that causes the bile to rise and spew forth in acid-y chunks, not unlike how a fly consumes a pile of dog shit. Like most petty psychological quirks, I'm thinking maybe it's my mother's fault. After all, she's an inordinately happy camper, and I spent most of my life attending the various overblown musicals and British sex farces she worked on as a stage manager, listening to her Bette Midler CDs in the car, and even enduring several Nora Ephron movies in her company before I finally reached my angst-ridden teens and learned to say, "Hell no." With my mom, the words "cute" and "fun" are the most frequently used words in her critical arsenal, so it's probably no wonder that I grew up favoring the dark side just to be contrary.

Of course, I'm not really into extremes either, so outside of my high-school dalliances with being "really into" goth and industrial music, death metal, hardcore punk, and the like, I also don't solely listen to music that's pissed-off or brooding. But I would say that my record collection is unusually weighted toward, for lack of a better term, "depressing" music–artists and songs that, while not cartoonishly morbid, you definitely wouldn't put on in the background of a nice dinner party unless you're trying to bum everybody out. I'm also (okay, this is admittedly morbid) somewhat obsessed with crafting my funeral playlist, which I have clearly labeled in my iTunes just in case I get hit by a car tomorrow. For the curious, and because I'm a comment whore and am hoping that this will spark a lot of discussion and show Steve Hyden what's up, here it is:

1. "Walkin' With Jesus," Spacemen 3

2. "My Death," Scott Walker

3. "Hey, That's No Way To Say Goodbye," Leonard Cohen

4. "Atmosphere," Joy Division (Yeah, yeah…I know this one is a cliché. But trust me, it would bring the house down among those who know me.)

5. "Birds," Neil Young

6. "Knockin' On Heaven's Door," Antony & The Johnsons version (See my "Atmosphere" note above.)

Anyway, I always thought I was mostly alone in feeling like this, outside of a few gothic types and crusty punks whom I've had the pleasure (?) of running with over the years. Most of my friends strike an enviable balance between the two, appreciating the sad songs but loving a good party jam even more. (And just for the record, I've got nothing against a good party jam, just as long as it doesn't sound like it was targeted squarely at teenaged girls. However, I see nothing redeeming in the sort of rainbows-and-unicorns pop favored by bands of the Kindercore/Elephant 6 ilk like The Apples In Stereo. Sorry, Erin.) And from my perspective, lately it seems like everybody's just out to feel good, with bands like Vampire Weekend and any number of neon-clad, Casio-driven synth-poppers who dress in outlandish costumes and advertise their shows as "part dance party, part motivational speech" all the rage among even supposedly cynical hipsters. Then, of course, there's the Billboard charts, where mindless shit like "I Kissed A Girl" rules (Because it's totally fun! Doy!) and the closest any song ever gets to gravitas is Nickelback whining about how hard it is to be a rock star, or maybe another one of Chris Martin's yuppie laments.

So imagine my surprise upon receiving a press release from the Peter Gabriel-fronted "entertainment recommendation" site The Filter that says that depressing tunes are more popular than ever, with folks seeking solace in these economically turbulent times in the maudlin strains of groups like The Smiths and Radiohead. In the statement, CEO David Maher-Roberts says, "We're seeing more of our users than ever before rating depressing or slightly miserable tracks more highly than happier types of music. It's logical to assume that this is a reflection of what's happening in the economy." According to the site's metrics, these are apparently the most popular songs in the world (or, at least, among those who even know what The Filter is):

1. Sia — "Breathe Me"?

2. Coldplay — "Fix You"?

3. The Smiths — "Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now"?

4. Radiohead — "How to Disappear Completely"?

5. Eminem — "Stan"?

6. Evanescence — "My Immortal"?

7. Annie Lennox — "Why"?

8. Pink Floyd — "Comfortably Numb"?

9. Jeff Buckley — "Hallelujah"?

10. Bruce Springsteen — "Secret Garden"


Granted, these kinds of "snapshots" that purport to take the pulse of the populace are usually full of all kinds of statistical flaws. (Chief among them: The Filter? Whoza whatzit?) But still, it got me wondering whether this was really true, if people are indeed more likely to turn to depressing music in hard times. Because, well, every other bit of evidence in popular culture would seem to point to the contrary. After all, the box office is surfeited on pure escapism right now, and it seems like (gross generalization ahoy) nearly every "serious" movie that's come down the pipeline lately has performed rather poorly–especially those that attempt to tackle current events, like Rendition, Stop-Loss, War Inc., et al. And as always, if you want to see how far America has its head stuffed up its own ass, look no further than television, where bread and circuses reign in the form of feel-good talent competitions and reality shows about privileged debutantes who eat apathy and fart ignorance. So can it really be that music is the one place that we're still capable of, and not averse to actually feeling something? Given the evidence, that can't possibly be true, right?

Anyway, normally this is the kind of conversation I would have with myself, or maybe with a stoned and indulgent friend, but since I have a public forum at my disposal (Wheee! I'm a blogger! Lookit me!), I thought I'd throw it out to you, because I'm genuinely curious: Have you found yourself listening to more mopey music than normal lately? Has the recession and the ongoing war really made it harder to appreciate the sort of plastic cheerfulness offered by upbeat pop songs? (And if that's the case, what's up with the popularity of Katy Perry? Seriously.) Or is The Filter just reaching for free publicity here, and I've played right into their hands by parroting the worst kind of statistical data?

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