Sad music makes for happy girls: Why sad music is cathartic

The Miscellany News.

On Sept. 29, 2023, my friends and I embarked on an adventure to Washington, D.C. for the “All Things Go” music festival. Normally, I would not call a mere six-hour drive an adventure, but the pouring rain, car engine issues, creepy Uber drivers, delayed trains, and a small detour to Yonkers convinced me otherwise––not to mention our highly questionable plan of driving back through the night after the festival to make it to our Monday classes. But we did it. All to listen to sad music live. 

To the credit of the “All Things Go” team, they did have a wide array of indie artists, many of whom would not fall into the category of artists I cry to. But the people I made the journey for are undoubtedly the background score to my long contemplative walks: Lizzy McAlpine, Suki Waterhouse, Maggie Rogers, Ethel Cain, boygenius and, of course, the Sunday headliner, Lana Del Rey. It was life-changing in the best possible way. 

My roommate frequently tells me that the sad music I listen to often keeps me sad about certain events for longer than I would be if I just listened to upbeat songs instead. She even sent me her “hot girl shiiiiiit” playlist to listen to, promising me that it would help me get over things faster than Faye Webster does. And she may have a point. But as I looked around the crowd at the Merriweather Post Pavilion on Sunday night when boygenius took the stage, I saw through my own watery eyes something in the tears streaming down other people’s faces; I am not the only one.

I listen to sad music because it is a reminder that there are people who experience the same feelings I do. Beyond sharing the same experience as me, these artists are bold enough to write and produce songs about them. They turned emotional experiences that are devastating into art, which serves as a reminder of how negative emotions can be felt, survived, and turned into something beautiful. In no way am I saying pain is a precursor for meaningful art, but it can be processed in a healthy way by making art, or in my case, identifying with art. Millions of people go through their day hurting. You could be getting over an ex, experiencing the loss of a loved one, or feeling academically stressed. Not everyone is having a good day all the time, and we do not need to force ourselves to try. Sad music is cathartic. It is not about dwelling and sulking, although those practices may play a role. It is about feeling your way through sadness. Sad music provides lyrics and notes that can help you contextualize and comprehend events and feelings that might otherwise be hard to put into words. A song or two into my “CryingIsStillFeeling” playlist, and I am comforted enough to make my bed or make plans to have dinner with my friends. I find hope in art that is emblematic of turmoil and pain because it is proof that there is a way to tell the story in hindsight. In sad music, there is an after-the-fact. Not everything is the end of the world. It is just a bad day that makes a few Noah Kahan songs relatable. 

When I told one of my friends the lineup for “All Things Go” the day before the festival, he asked me hesitantly, “Dude, are you okay?” I assured him, “No. And that might be amplified by this weekend. But it will be worth it!” Five minutes into the festival, I realized I was wrong. It felt great to stand among so many people who clearly rely on sad music the way I do. Standing in the crowd gave me the resounding proof that we are not overdramatic or alone in our emotional responses to life. My throat and feet hurt from screaming and dancing to songs usually whispered over slow beats because hearing them live was a completely different experience. It was joyous to see myself in so many different people. I identified with a community of strangers only by knowing that they relate to the same art as I do, which was like I said, worth it. 

There is undoubtedly a place for Megan Thee Stallion, Dua Lipa and Dayglow in my heart, but it is Mac Miller, Lorde and SZA who I turn to when I feel alone and overwhelmed. It is second-best only to calling my mom and having her reassure me that all my decisions and choices are beyond reproach. So to the people who walk around campus with sad music blasting in their headphones, if you are anything like me, you are just trying to work through the baggage that is weighing you down. It does not make you a “buzzkill.” It helps you become the best version of yourself. In a weird way, it makes me happy. And after that transformative early fall weekend, I feel like I did enough field research to affirm this is true for many people. Sad music makes for happy girls.

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