The Art of the Sad Playlist

 Artwork by Max Kolomatsky

Artwork by Max Kolomatsky

by Erin Christie

As so many others can likely say, it feels weird to me not to have my headphones in and Spotify open on my phone almost everywhere I go. It’s not that I’m unwilling to listen to the world around me, it’s just that listening to Charli XCX’s “1999” as I walk to class is a lot more chipper than the symphonic sounds of Boston road rage. With that in mind, since I downloaded Spotify during one of my earlier years in high school, I’ve carefully been crafting playlist after playlist, each corresponding to different genres, artists, and even to certain activities I would be doing whilst listening to them. My sad playlists, unfortunately, have been getting a heavy amount of rotation throughout the years.

As I have grown and matured throughout the years, I’ve noticed changes in my playlists holistically, depending on the artists I’ve been preferring, albums I’ve discovered, emotions I’ve been feeling. In some cases, though, there are certain constants.

Most people know the Arctic Monkeys Track, “Piledriver Waltz” as the ninth addition to their 2011 record, Suck It and See. However, the most prevalent version to me is Turner’s soft rendition that he recorded for the film Submarine (2011). The film, based on a novel of the same name by Joe Dunthorne, details the struggles of a young Oliver Tate who can’t seem to cope with the normal throes of adolescence (alongside dealing with the fact that his parents’ marriage is falling apart and that his “tiny heart” has been broken into pieces by his first love). “You look like you’ve been for breakfast at the heartbreak hotel,” Alex Turner purrs, accompanying a scene during which Oliver curls up on his bed as it floats out to sea.

Listening to this song and the Submarine soundtrack soon became as much a part of my daily routine as brushing my teeth and washing my face. Even now, no matter which version of my “sad” playlist I’m listening to, “Piledriver Waltz” finds its home among the other entries.

What makes that song worthy of my playlists dedicated to being played when “a homie is really going thru it?” and what even is a sad playlist? Is it comprised of songs that are sad, or songs that might make us sad (even if not intentionally)?

Thinking about how many different versions of these “sad” playlists I’ve made over the years, I began to wonder if there was a common trend, or simply a habit that I had gotten myself into. Sure enough, in reaching out to friends and peers, I found enough people who engage in this practice that I no longer felt so alone.

“Literally every playlist I make gets infiltrated by sad music eventually,” recalled one friend of mine, Alexis Carel (20, New York). Regardless of how high-tempo and “danceable” a song can be, upon further inspection of the lyrics, it’s impossible to miss indications of loneliness, betrayal, longing, and sadness buried in the margins. A perfect example of this can be found in Miski’s discography a New York-grown singer-songwriter who has crafted her career out of her timeless depictions of the melancholy. One of the very first singles off of her latest album, Be the Cowboy (2018), “Nobody,” is a “banger” (for lack of a better term). Even so, it’s a heartfelt anthem to the lonely hearts club, a means by which to express her desire for love but her difficulty in finding it. While jamming out, we might not notice that some of our favorite artists are expressing their hurt in the songs we find ourselves bobbing our heads along to.

“[I usually listen to sad playlists] when I’m having a bad depression day to block out everything else,” laments Charis Huling (19, New York). For a lot of fans, music can be an escape from reality, a means by which you can completely empty your mind of the stress and otherwise darker thoughts that might be enveloping them. “It’s hard to do anything else when so many thoughts are racing so I like songs,” she continued, “they calm me and reaffirm my feelings even if they make me [sadder].” In a lot of cases, music can allow the listener to live vicariously through the speaker and when considering the saddening circumstances that are described in some pieces of music, listening to “sad” music might make you even sadder. That practice, though initially appearing self-destructive, is sometimes the only answer.  Having a good cry and being able to delve into music that means a lot to you might be the cure to whatever is ailing you at the time.

A dear friend of mine, Emma O. (17, New York) shared her personal essay regarding “sad” music with me, and it truly brought tears to my eyes. “Slow songs filled to the brim with emotion,” she said, are powerfully evocative to her when considering their masterful production combined with emotive vocals.  In the same vein, songs that are filled with hope bring about similar emotions, especially “when written/sang by artists with a public/painful past,” she detailed: “I think it’s incredible to hear songs that reveal there’s something beyond the bubble I’ve trapped myself in and the emotions I am constantly drowning in.” Similar to how writing or other forms of artistic expression can be cathartic, a lot of our favorite artists use their music as a means to release their own emotions, inner turmoil, and triumphs. In sharing such intimate parts of their hearts, the artists allow for an intimate relationship with fans, one where those lyrics scrawled out on napkins turn into best-selling records that the world can collectively cry to and empathize with.

By contrast, sometimes our “sad” playlists serve as a means to get out of a funk, as in, to feel better when we’re at our lowest. When we’re feeling blue, putting on a session of our most cheerful, empowering mixes—ranging from KC & the Sunshine Band’s “That’s the Way (I Like It)” to Dua Lipa’s “New Rules.” For a lot of my life, music has been one of the only things that made me happy—whether in regards to attending live shows or staying up until midnight to hear my favorite artists’ new releases right as they dropped—and a lot of people close to me have shared the same feeling. “It [is] what connected me to the world that I otherwise felt completely detached from,” Emma further described. “I feel [sad songs] give me a new opportunity to live through my emotions from the time fully,” she said, noting the cathartic process in which sad music can allow her to disconnect from her own sadness, analyze it, and move on.

Regardless of our intention in listening to “sad” playlists—whether comprised of music that is a slow, depressing lull or an upbeat pop track preaching loss and love—it can certainly be said that so many of us share that one thing in common. Music, in a general sense, is something that brings people together—it can be like a warm, comforting hug in times when we feel our worst.  

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