The Origin of the Modern Day Sad Boy
by Mica Kendall
Amongst the music spectrum of top hits, themes of falling in love and experiencing heartbreak from a past relationship are concepts most common in the music we hear from major artists and on the radio today. The superfluous fluff of being all too consumed in love at first sight or how the world stops spinning when you are with a significant other is primarily dependent upon the notion that one has to be with someone. Though, this criticism sounds like something a curmudgeon would say it cannot be helped that some music listeners would want to divert from the norm of pop’s top hits and look for music encompassing a sense of realism. Realism can be found in the human emotions that we all experience or go through including loneliness, self-doubt, anxiety, existentialism, and more. Even though all forms of music can be considered to contain realism, with lyrics conveying personal real-life experiences or telling a narrative about someone else there’s something emotionally deeper beneath the surface when negative feelings are conveyed in music. I personally find realism in music to be found in the type of music that digs into the subconscious of the listener.
The subconscious part of our brains is arguably the most personalized feature in human beings that fosters our emotions and how we act. For specific songs and music, in general, to be able to have the power and capability to tap into our subconscious and make one feel a sense of relatability with our emotions is why music is so powerful, and impressive in nature with how a nonhuman force can infiltrate a human’s headspace. Yes, fluffy earworm music like Taylor Swift’s signature “You Belong With Me” or Katy Perry’s infectious classic “Teenage Dream” that can get stuck in our heads with their vocal talent but lyrically doesn’t contain a sense of raw catharsis. When you think on an introspective level about popular music as a whole you may realize how uncommon the emotion of loneliness is in popular music. In fact, I had to stop listening to the radio in order to delve into artists that were rising amidst the industry but not on a commercialized basis.
However, as uncommon as the portrayal of loneliness is in mainstream music it was prevalent in some of the most iconic musicians from the 70’s and 80’s. These musicians integrated elements of personal solitude, desolation, and sorrow in their music including The Smiths, John Lennon, Elliot Smith, Daniel Johnston, and several more. Essentially, these artists laid out a foundation for artists of the present to follow in how to lyrically convey an emotion as hard as loneliness that is able to resonate and coincide within the hearts of listeners. Seen in songs like “Asleep” by The Smiths and “Some Things Last A Long Time” by Daniel Johnston, these songs create a sense of pause and re-evaluation when one listens to them and opens up an auditory experience of self-reflection on our everyday lives. With Johnston’s soft harmonies repeating “Your picture is still on my wall” accompanied by a slow steady piano ballad, similar to the ballad in “Asleep” with Morrissey tenderly crooning “sing me to sleep”, these songs offer something emotionally beyond just a catchy guitar riff and rhyme scheme chorus. These songs offer a sense of self-reflectivity and can cause one to emotionally open to past memories we may be trying to forget or push to the side.
If you think about the routine you follow in your daily life just to get by, whether it be running through the motions of going to school, or work, and returning back home to sleep and repeat the process all over again, you may realize we may not have much time for a pause in our everyday lives to truly reflect on ourselves as individuals. This act of pausing while listening to a song and opening up one’s brain to our introverted emotions is a powerful form of therapeutic relief and a sense of understanding that we as humans are not alone when it comes to negative connotated feelings of being alone, questioning the purpose of life, and self-loathing. These feelings are frequently overshadowed by music that makes life seem like an untainted, picture perfect, fantasy. It is the reason why we need more artists like The Smiths, Daniel Johnston, Elliott Smith, and John Lennon to create music containing a more diversified emotional spectrum of meaning. Thus, the philosophy of all art deriving from other art is more than applicable when it comes to the musicians of modern day who we may or may not realize sample and draw inspiration from the iconic staple artists of the past.
Typically, when it comes to classifying who the modern day king of indie music is 28-year old, Mac Demarco comes to mind with his trademark gap tooth smile and fashion taste that has inspired millennials to cuff their pants and invest in a windbreaker from Goodwill. But how has Mac Demarco had such an impact in making a name for himself and his music? What catalyzed Mac Demarco’s name to encompass an entire sound of music and form of fashion? Demarco’s biggest hit, additionally the hit that really distinguished his uniquity as an artist was his 2014, 57 million Spotify streams, song “Chamber of Reflection.” As cliche as it sounds, the emotional potency that this track contains is one that will linger iconically for the rest of Demarco’s music career. What one may not realize though is “Chamber of Reflection” is actually a sample from Japanese artist, Shiego Sekito’s famous song from the 70’s “The Word II.” Sekito’s song instrumentally holds a more optimistic and light-hearted tone to it with the keyboard instrumentation giving off a jazzy feel to it. Whereas, Demarco was able to repurpose Sekito’s instrumental track and slow down the instrumentation and add a heavier focus on the synth to make the song less cheery in tone and give it a darker undertone. Even if you lyrically do not find “Chamber of Reflection” to be showstopping considering how the song is made up of only 2 verses and a chorus, with the instrumentation dominating the song, the minimalist usage of lyrics with just Demarco repeating “alone again” followed by the simple synth melody gives the song such a strong sense of sadness and loneliness. It’s hard to comprehend how instrumentation can hold the effect of exemplifying human emotion, but “Chamber of Reflection” is definitely a track that succeeds with tapping into the hearts of those who have ever felt that they are alone in the world. The personal impact this song has for many listeners of Demarco was proven to me last year when I attended Demarco’s debut show at Radio City Music Hall, and during “Chamber of Reflection” the entire venue was encompassed with light emitting from the crowd’s iPhone’s and lighters.
Additionally, artists like Archy Marshall of King Krule are famously known for their discographies containing a thematic consistency of loneliness in both an upbeat and slow beat context. When you think about being sad or lonely you may not think of upbeat music being the best exemplifier for the emotion, but at a King Krule show the crowd basically moshes to every song which lyrically contains some of the saddest lyrics of all time. Best portrayed in tracks like “Baby Blue”, “Czech One”, “Border Lines”, and “Lonely Blue”, Krule’s discographies are foundational upon his raw gritty vocals and the strong lyrical craftsmanship he puts into his metaphoric lyrics.
Lastly with a more recent album, Mitski’s latest and critically reviewed, chart-topping album, “Be The Cowboy,” completely disregards romantic cliches, and instead revolves around the psychological perspective of feeling lonely, while acknowledging yearning for a sense of romantic belonging. “Be The Cowboy” is correlative to a form of poetry, with Mitski’s lyrics containing a heavy usage of allusion and metaphor in telling a narrative throughout the entire album. Her most popular track on the album “Nobody” garnering her millions of streams and a spotlight of attention towards her as an artist is essentially one of the most upbeat, catchiest, dance-worthy bops to come out of 2018. In all honesty, “Nobody” could compete with “Chamber of Reflection” for millennial dominance in being the national anthem of loneliness. Overall, “Be the Cowboy” conveys an impressive and clever form of storytelling throughout the entire album, with Mitski acknowledging feelings of self-deprecation, while simultaneously conveying how much she wants a kiss throughout the entire album. Honestly, the contrast duality Mitski provides when it comes to daydreaming and the harshness of reality gives the album an honest and heartbreaking sense of relatability.
The artists and bands that dare to take risks beyond what could be considered the recycled usage of bubblegum pop or catchy Zumba music just to make it to the top pop charts to be played on the radio station are the types of artists that deserve more recognition and press coverage. Music that is able to empathically resonate with the listener that makes one feel like it's okay to feel the way that they feel, even if what they’re feeling is negative transforms music into the form of a comfort mechanism. Sometimes we need to acknowledge and listen to realism in the form of music to be able to move on from the past or to find solace in not feeling like one is alone when clearly the artist lyrically understands how you may feel. Though the iconic figures of the past have set a foundation of real sad boy hour music like The Smiths and Elliot Smith, there is still hope in the representation of artists in the alternative, indie, and DIY music scene of the present.