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Everyone has their favorite sad song, but have you ever thought about the sad song as a whole category of music? Well, Adam Brent Houghtaling has, and he set down theories, profiles and a catalog of songs in the new book, "This Will End in Tears: The Miserabilist Guide to Music."
I spoke to him earlier this week in the video above.
You can listen to Adam Brent Houghtaling's Top 100 Sad Songs on Spotify (If you don't have Spotify, you can sign up for free here.):
A transcript of our conversation is after the jump.
JEFFREY BROWN: Welcome again to Art Beat, I'm Jeffrey Brown. Everyone has their favorite sad song, but have you ever thought about the sad song as a whole category of music? Well, Adam Brent Houghtaling has, and he set down theories, profiles and a catalog of songs in the new book, "This Will End in Tears: The Miserabilist Guide to Music." Adam Brent Houghtaling joins us from Brooklyn, N.Y. Welcome to you.
ADAM BRENT HOUGHTALING: Thank you.
JEFFREY BROWN: So why don't you tell us first: What is a miserabilist?
ADAM BRENT HOUGHTALING: My approach to it was just somebody who kind of enjoys being steeped in a little bit of the dark side of life, a little bit of melancholy, a little gray cloud cover, and somebody who kind of takes some joy from those experiences, likes sad songs.
JEFFREY BROWN: You write at the beginning about how this came about because you started thinking about the songs that you listened to most or that mean the most to you and realized that there was a sort of common theme -- they were sad?
ADAM BRENT HOUGHTALING: Yeah, it was noticing all the artists that were in my IPod at the time. They all had this connection to sad material, and the thing that really -- that was the first thing I noticed -- but the thing that really kind of brought it all together and made me think that there was something more there was the fact that all these artists kind of crossed a wide range of genres. John Dowland is in there and Radiohead is in there, and that was kind of really interesting to me. So that's kind of what really drew me toward thinking about making it a book.
JEFFREY BROWN: You talk in the book about the difference between depression and melancholy. Explain that for us.
ADAM BRENT HOUGHTALING: Obviously depression is something that is considered a disease, and melancholy I think it's something that's more -- it's kind of a prolonged state of rumination, is not necessarily depression. It's something less than depression and more than a bad mood.
JEFFREY BROWN: But how does that play into music? When you think about sad songs, where are they coming from, what's the impetus for them?
ADAM BRENT HOUGHTALING: One thing that kind of tied a lot of the artists together was kind of a streak of either melancholy or just outright depression, and that's one of the reasons why I bothered to talk about depression in the book, because I wanted to treat it with some sense of gravity. A lot of the artists unfortunately took their own lives and dealt with a lot of dark stuff. There has always historically been this popularly held notion that being melancholic or depressive leads to some kind of creative genius. Actually a really good example of that is Bruce Springsteen's recent revelation that he went through a period of depression in the early '80s, when he was nearly suicidal and from that came "Nebraska," which is about as dark an album I think he'll ever make. So there does seem to be some kind of connection there.
JEFFREY BROWN: Another thing that you look at here is the sort of emerging science of the brain, about what attracts us to music, where music comes from. So what did you learn about or what struck you about the science of sadness or the science of sad music, if you will.
ADAM BRENT HOUGHTALING: Emotionally charged music in general tends to affect us in rather profound ways, very similar to sex and drugs and chocolate cake. It kind of lights up our reward sensor, and sad music is very emotionally charged. I think one thing that I hadn't really thought of before, but I think is very interesting is -- and this is specifically about sad music as opposed to other music -- is there really is this intimate connection with it. You're not listening to it when you're at the beach with your friends or during a dinner party. You're usually alone, and I think that creates something really personal. Another thing that I've been thinking about is how you really are able to put yourself into sad music specifically, into narrative forms of sad music, just like you're able to root yourself into a novel. You kind of fill in the gaps with your own heartbreaks and your own miseries, and I think that makes the connection really personal.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right, so give us some examples or maybe two or three of your favorite sad songs of all time?
ADAM BRENT HOUGHTALING: Oh, my favorites? I'm a really big fan of "Lush Life," which I write a song essay about that in the book. I think the poetry is just amazing in it. I love the version from John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman. I'm a big fan of both of them. There is a song called "Our Song" by Joe Henry that the first time I heard it, it just leveled me. I was in tears.
JEFFREY BROWN: Does that happen to you a lot, Adam?
ADAM BRENT HOUGHTALING: Crying?
JEFFREY BROWN: Listening to music and crying?
ADAM BRENT HOUGHTALING: You know, it happens every once in awhile sure. Probably, yeah. I would probably guess more than the average music fan, just because I am drawn to this music and I do connect with it so personally. So yeah, it happens.
JEFFREY BROWN: Well, you end the book with a list. You know, we all love lists. The hundred saddest songs. I don't want to give away the list here, but number one -- Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings." A lot of people will know that, but was that hard to put together a list?
ADAM BRENT HOUGHTALING: Absolutely. I labored over it. There are a lot of playlists in the book. There are playlists after every essay, there are playlists after most of the artist profiles and then there is the top 100 list at the end. And I labored over every single list. I could easily spend an hour asking myself, 'You know, is this song number 10 or number 8? I don't know.' And choosing "Adagio for Strings," that would probably be, no matter how many times I went back to the list, that would probably end up at the top, because not only is it a beautiful piece of music, there are a lot of historical aspects of the song. I did straw polls, I did a lot of collecting of other polls and other opinions that I found across the Internet and in other books and media. I tried to bring all of this stuff along with my own personal opinions about the songs together, to kind of weigh exactly where they fall on the list. But yeah, all the lists were definitely laborious labors of love.
JEFFREY BROWN: And just before I let you go, just so I'm clear, do you also listen to upbeat happy music as well or is this it?
ADAM BRENT HOUGHTALING: No, you know what, my favorite forms of music are sad music and like, really saccharin bubblegum 60's pop.
JEFFREY BROWN: I knew it, I knew you had that side to you.
ADAM BRENT HOUGHTALING: Absolutely. The Monkees, the Archies, the list goes on and on. It's really interesting that those are the two. It's almost like a manic-depressive aspect of listening to music or approach to music in a way.
JEFFREY BROWN: OK, well this book about sad songs is titled "This Will End in Tears." Adam Brent Houghtaling, nice to talk to you.
ADAM BRENT HOUGHTALING: Thank you so much.
JEFFREY BROWN: And thank you for joining us again on Art Beat. I'm Jeffrey Brown.
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