We begin with a news story and a reference to it by the Friar:
Dutch neuroscientist Jacob Jolij offers a good argument that while there may be an equation for everything, not everything is an equation.
Meeri Kim wrote a Washington Post story about Jolij's research into what kinds of songs make people feel good and why they do. According to Jolij, it has to do with positive references in the lyrics, the tempo and the key. He used a survey of the most popular "feel-good" songs of the last 50 or so years to try to sort out these characteristics and see which ones correlated with listener response, and then built a formula that would describe which songs were more "feel-good" than others.
Of course, I took this as a challenge, and about an hour and a half later, I had my own personal list of Feel-Bad Songs, tracks that all by themselves can bring me down and, were I so foolish as to run through an entire playlist of them, would probably have me calling Suicide Prevention. (Who then, of course, would put me on Hold, because that's the kind of mood I was in.)
For lack of a better methodology, these ten tracks are listed chronologically. We accept no responsibility for what they might do to your sense of well-being.
- Arthur Alexander, "Anna" (1962)
It's upbeat, even jaunty; just the same, you can hear poor Arthur's heart shattering in every single syllable, because he's been there before. "Every girl I've ever had / Breaks my heart and leaves me sad" — what is he supposed to do, anyway? John Lennon tried this one, and he got the tone right, but he missed the pain by a mile.
- The Shangri-Las, "Past, Present and Future" (1966)
The loss of her love at first brought denial: "I mean, it felt like love. There were moments when — well, there were moments when." And today, it's brought her ambivalence ("Don't try to touch me"); tomorrow, she expects nothing.
- Mitch Ryder, "What Now My Love" (1967)
This classic by Gilbert Bécaud has been recorded scores of times, none more eccentrically than this, Mitch's first post-Detroit Wheels single for Bob Crewe, overproduced beyond measure, emotional to the edge of insanity. Hard to imagine, say, Herb Alpert's Tijuana Brass doing the same song.
- King Crimson, "Epitaph" (1969)
Exceeds the daily recommended allowance of existential dread by a factor that can barely be imagined, let alone estimated. "If we make it, we can all sit back and laugh / But I fear tomorrow I'll be crying." The inexorable funeral-march beat carries us to our tearful graves.
- The Stylistics, "You Are Everything" (1971)
This is the depth to which he's sunk: everyone and everything reminds him of the one he loved and lost. "As she turned the corner / I called out your name / I felt so ashamed / When it wasn't you." There is no escape.
- Art Garfunkel, "All I Know" (1973)
Jimmy Webb's love songs range from the sublime ("Wichita Lineman") to the inexplicable ("MacArthur Park") to this one, simply abject: "I bruise you, you bruise me / We both bruise too easily", and Garfunkel's choirboy piety makes him sound black and blue, swaddled in purest white. As Taylor Swift could have told him, they are never ever getting back together.
- Crowded House, "Don't Dream It's Over" (1986)
The sound of a man who's trying — and failing — to be reassuring. "They come, they come / To build a wall between us / We know they won't win." But by the outro, he's changed it: "Don't let them win." A loss of faith, and maybe of something more.
- Fort Minor, "Where'd You Go" (2005)
This is sort of an update to John Sebastian's "Darling Be Home Soon," in which the singer admits that he hates it that his darling companion is on the road and how long can this go on, anyway? "Seems like it's been forever that you've been gone," and even as he swears he's had enough, the female voice continues to cry: "Please come back home." Because he knows he's not leaving.
- Lights, "Second Go" (2010)
Forget the frivolous-looking video for the moment. Our heroine here feels utterly undeserving of what she's asking for: "How can you love me / When I am ugly?" And everything she tries pushes her farther and farther away.
- Taylor Swift, "Back to December" (2011)
We're so used to Tay-Tay denouncing the perfidy of those she's loved that hearing her take responsibility for screwing up a relationship is almost overwhelming: "You gave me all your love and all I gave you was goodbye." As always with Swift, there's one line that hurts more than the rest: "If the chain is on your door, I understand."
You may, of course, find any or all of these uplifting, even perky. But as it says in the fine print: "Your mileage may vary."
1 November 2015