Happiest sad songs
Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? E-mail us at email@example.com.
Our own Claire Zulkey asks: I was listening to ABBA’s “Super Trouper” the other day and thinking about how in spite of the happy, xylophone-laden tune, the lyrics reveal a song about loneliness (“I was sick and tired of everything when I called you last night from Glasgow / All I do is eat and sleep and sing / Wishin’ every show was the last show”). John Lennon was also great at writing pleasant-sounding songs that revealed depressive, even violent lyrics: “Help,” “I’m A Loser,” “I’ll Cry Instead,” “Run For Your Life.” In some ways, I prefer the complexity of a cheerful-sounding unhappy song to the mopiness of a sad ballad. What are some of your favorite uptempo songs with dark lyrics?
We covered a handful of our favorites in our 2010 inventory of cheerful songs about murder, death, and the apocalypse, but that one only took on a narrow sector of grim topics. For instance, my all-time favorite happy song about sadness doesn’t fit that list, but fits this one: Elvis Costello’s “Veronica,” an upbeat, bouncy number about a senile old woman who can’t even remember her own name most of the time. The song, co-written with Paul McCartney, is a racing, zippy number, especially on the album version, with its super-perky production. But the lyrics imply that Veronica is either lost to the world in a dream of her energetic, ambitious youth, or that it’s all gone away, leaving her surrounded by strangers who can’t even get her name right. Sixty-five years of living has turned a beautiful woman into an empty but enduring shell. It has to be one of the grimmest sing-along-worthy songs of all time.
The list is virtually endless, but allow me to submit a personal favorite: Heavenly’s “Modestic.” A violent kiss-off to a soon-to-be ex-lover, the song is positively ebullient in its mixture of self-assertion and self-loathing. The singer (Amelia Fletcher, now of Tender Trap) sounds positively giddy as she shoves her boyfriend out the door, warning, “Brace yourself for a big surprise: There’s malicious intent in your eyes.” But the song is thick with regret as well, looking back on a dwindling relationship and the slow transformation of love to hate. Having given in to one last sleepover (and perhaps a farewell fuck), she’s sick at her own weakness, but enlivened by the chance to put a definite, dramatic end to it, and him. Rarely has breaking up sounded like so much fun.
Bruce Springsteen’s most misunderstood song might be “Born in The U.S.A.”, but the song that features the greatest juxtaposition between the song’s feel and its actual message just might be “Glory Days.” A single from the same album as the misunderstood titular track, “Glory Days” is an anthem to days gone by, wrapped in what sounds like modern-day triumph. But the lyrics reveal just how much bravado goes into the melody in order to mask the bitter resentment barely lurking underneath. This isn’t about how great life used to be. It’s about how piss-poor it is now. It’s a mockery of baby boomers who had life by the throat and let it slip away over the course of time. Springsteen sings about athletes who never turned pro, the pretty girl in school now working through a divorce, and the protagonist trying to drink himself into the past. He snarls, “Well, time slips away and leaves you with nothing, mister / but boring stories of glory days.” Meanwhile, the organ plays a melody that wouldn’t be out of place at a county fair. It’s a perfect summation of a life that seems perfect on the surface, yet rotten on the inside, the American dream gone sour. And yet somehow, people gravitate to this song all the time as a way to recapture their own glory. (It doesn’t help that the performance in the video is downright ebullient.) Do they know what the song is really saying? And is it better or worse if they stay ignorant?
Falling somewhere between The Turtles and The Beach Boys—as bubbly as the former and as harmonically accomplished as the latter—The Zombies’ “Care Of Cell 44” is a syrup-drenched slice of ’60s pop. Only it’s about jail. Specifically, singer Colin Blunstone is sketching out an epistolary scenario in which he awaits the release of a lover from a long incarceration. Blunstone’s tragic supposition is that he and his intended will be able to pick up their relationship exactly where it left off. But he clearly doesn’t believe it, and he’s content instead to delude himself and dwell in the past, when “the laughter played around your eyes.” There’s a slight edge of humor to that narrative tension, but it’s curdled around the edges, and overwhelmingly, the song underpins its feathery touch with a bottomless melancholy. Repetitions of a dreamy, Pet Sounds-esque break are interrupted by a minor-key middle-eight that falls like a shadow around the two-minute mark. It’s like sunshine filtered through the gray bars of a prison window. That dynamic is reiterated throughout Odessey And Oracle, the 1968 Zombies masterpiece that the song introduces. But “Care Of Cell 44” establishes that conflicted, subversive tone in a breathtaking way.
I’m gonna go OG on this one, y’all: “You Are My Sunshine.” It’s a cliché to use it in a movie or TV show, where a new parent sings it to a baby as a lullaby, but have you actually listened to that song? The refrain “You are my sunshine” isn’t a chipper profession of devotion, but a desperate plea. No kind of lullaby has the lyrics “You have shattered all of my dreams.” That’s way down in the third verse, but “You Are My Sunshine” sets the tone right away: The song opens with the narrator dreaming he was holding his beloved, then waking to finding himself alone, so he hangs his head and cries. It only gets sadder as it progresses, and the final verse closes with this couplet: “So when you come back and make me happy / I’ll forgive you dear, I’ll take all the blame.” “You Are My Sunshine” is a bleak song about co-dependence disguised as a happy little ditty. Please, don’t sing it to your baby!
I didn’t have an immediate answer to this question, but as if the hand of fate was guiding me, I decided on a whim to give Stoned Soul Picnic: The Best Of Laura Nyro a spin this weekend, and I was struck like a bolt out of the blue by the lyrics to “And When I Die.” With a song title like that, it’s hard not to do a double-take when it turns out to be a soaring gospel-infused number that all but demands listeners clap along with Laura Nyro as she sings about her preferences for the disposal of her earthly remains (“When dyin’ time is here / Just bundle up my coffin / ’Cause it’s cold way down there”) and her lack of conviction in anything approximating an afterlife (“I swear there ain’t no heaven and pray there ain’t no hell”). If it gave Nyro comfort to theorize that the only effect her death would have on the world would be that “there’ll be one child born and a world to carry on,” then fair enough, but I’ve always found it to be a terribly depressing sentiment. Sure is a foot-stomper of a song, though.
The first time I ever heard the Boomtown Rats’ “I Don’t Like Mondays” was on a Tori Amos album. Her version of the song (heard on the West Wing episode “20 Hours In America”) is predictably melancholy, haunting, and piano-heavy; when I mentioned to a friend of mine that I liked it, he scoffed and said, “She must have Tori Amos’ed it up,” which is undeniably true. But while I still like the cover quite a bit, it’s hard to argue with the original version. The song was inspired by an a 1979 shooting in San Diego; a 16-year-old girl opened fire at an elementary school, killing two adults and injuring some kids and a cop. When someone asked her why, she said, “I don’t like Mondays. This livens up the day.” While the violence has faded from memory at this point, the song itself remains potent, upbeat, and gratifyingly bizarre. The chipper, zippy tune is arguably more haunting (and less obvious) than Amos’s more measured interpretation, because it presents an awful event without attempting to explain what happened or provide listeners with anything remotely resembling catharsis. It’s as catchy as a killing spree, and it’s easy to sing along.
General Public’s “Tenderness” offers such an immediately fantastic pop sugar rush that I always forget how acidic the lyrics are, even when I’m singing along to stuff like “I don’t know where I am, but I know I don’t like it.” It’s a story about a man who let the unrequited love he feels for a woman reduce him to “whistling in the graveyard” while insisting that “she’s the only thing that ever made you feel like a man, man, madman, madman.” It seems like the dude is having a really hard time and maybe acting like a dick because of it, but who cares about how “words are so cheap but they can turn out expensive” when the music is so obviously telling you to dance?
For the last three and a half decades, whenever Billy Joel played the opening piano notes to “Scenes From An Italian Restaurant” in concert, the entire audience—whether it was at a theater, arena, or football stadium—would explode with joy. It’s one of Billy’s early “epics,” a long story-song about a teenage romance ruined by the harsh realities of adult life. If you read the lyrics, especially in the bouncy middle section about “Brenda and Eddie,” it’s plaintive and depressing; it paints a picture of a young couple full of hope and romantic ideals ripped apart by trying to figure out how to live in a world where you need an office job and “a couple of paintings from Sears” to furnish a middle-class apartment like a grown-up, something they didn’t bet on having to do. By the end of that part of the song, Brenda and Eddie’s money has run out, they’ve gotten a divorce, tried to recapture their youth at their teenage hangout spot, and then finally faded from the storyteller’s memory. “That’s all I heard about Brenda and Eddie / Can’t tell you more than I told you already / And here we are waving Brenda and Eddie goodbye.” Yet people sing along with the romantic beginning and end and bouncy middle as if there is a positive message to the song. All these years later, even as I sing along to it, I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if poor Brenda and Eddie hadn’t gotten married so damned young.
Elvis Costello’s “The Other Side Of Summer” certainly sounds like a quintessential upbeat summer anthem, a breezy, Beach Boys-style romp through the sunniest of seasons. But as the title suggests, “The Other Side Of Summer” isn’t about the side of summer that involves happy summer flings under a life-giving sun, surfing, or ecstatic joyrides with friends. “There’s magic and there’s malice in every season,” Costello sings early in the song, but being Elvis Costello, he understandably chooses to focus monomaniacally on the malice rather than the magic of the season, crooning with sinister glee about the “foaming breakers of the poisonous surf” and the “burning forests in the hills of astroturf.” Costello’s take on summer is dystopian rather than utopian, focusing on insanity, massive societal iniquities, tragic legacies, and death. Costello isn’t afraid to slaughter sacred cows either, like when he impishly wonders of the sainted John Lennon, “Was it a millionaire who said imagine no possessions?” (It sure was.) It’s easy to overlook how grim and sad “The Other Side Of Summer” is because it’s so hilarious and catchy.
Morrissey is kinda the king of the sad-happy song, especially during his Smiths days, when Johnny Marr’s jangly guitar provided shiny music to accompany lyrics about girlfriends in comas and shy bald Buddhist mass murderers. There are a dozen examples of Smiths songs that fall into this category, but I’ll choose “Bigmouth Strikes Again,” which begins, “Sweetness, I was only joking when I said / I’d like to smash every tooth in your head.” (He wasn’t joking, btw.) But the song itself is so sunny and chugging, you can’t help but want to bludgeon “Sweetness,” too. So, umm, great job, Morrissey!