A Study of Sadness Through '80s Pop
It’s probably safe to say that I was born with at least two things in my blood: exhaustion and melancholy.
I’ve always been a good sleeper. I’ve always been able to fall asleep fairly quickly, whether it’s nap time or bed time. Once I’m asleep, I can sleep through tornado sirens, typhoons, neighbor noises, M’s snoring, you name it. If allowed, I will always be able to sleep for at least 10 hours. In a perfect world, I would be able to wake up on my own around 11am, no matter how early I went to bed the night before. If you ask me how I’m doing, my answer will probably always be some version of “I’m tired/exhausted,” whether I’m obvious about it or not.
These things have been true for as long as I can remember.
I’m not here to write about perpetual exhaustion though. Not today.
Today, I’m writing about melancholy.
Merriam-Webster (yes, I’m doing it. I’m looking up words in the damn dictionary for this.) defines melancholy as simply, “a depression of spirits” and “a pensive mood.”
That seems like an understatement, but an accurate one, for this thing I’ve lived with my whole life.
When I was thinking about writing this essay, I mulled over the word that would most accurately express this feeling.
I thought about depression. When I was in grad school, I remember watching a commercial for some kind of anti-depressant, where they listed off some symptoms of depression. I was only half-listening, but when I heard, “Have you lost interest in the things that used to excite you?” something clicked. I thought, hey, that’s me. I can’t remember the other things in the commercial that I identified with, but the mirror that 30 seconds held up to me was important. It was important for me to be able to name this wild, sad thing that was living in my body. It was important for me to be able to recognize why I felt so out of control, that juggling the pressures of grad school and being thrown into an academic teaching life and just life in general were taking a toll on me.
Looking back on it, I should have seen a therapist in grad school. But I didn’t. Instead, I thought, Okay. So maybe I’m a little bit depressed. Now I know. And I adjusted. And I got to a better place. Was that the best way to deal with what I was going through? Probably not, but that's what I did.
More recently, I read Chrissy Teigen’s essay in Glamour about having postpartum depression. It’s a fantastic read. It’s well-written, funny, and so, so real. I clearly do not have postpartum depression, and postpartum depression deserves its own platform and its own conversation. But I found myself resonating with so much of what she was describing that I thought, oh shit. It’s happening again. I’m depressed. Why didn’t I see it before? Of course I’m depressed. Why wouldn’t I be?
I still have a lot to figure out when it comes to my depression. Do I have a functional depression? Do I have Depression Lite (TM)? Does everyone have some degree of depression? Wouldn’t it be weird if I didn’t have some degree of depression with all the shit happening in the world and in my life?
But depression is not the feeling that I’ve lived with my whole life that I’m trying to write about.
Then I thought about ennui.
When I first heard the concept of ennui in my British Literature After 1800 class in undergrad, I was elated. I finally had a name for that feeling I’d had for 19 years that was a lethal combo of restlessness and boredom.
For those who aren’t familiar, ennui is a French term that means “a feeling of weariness and dissatisfaction.” Our English word “annoy” comes from ennui. It’s a word associated with the general attitude in the aftermath of the French revolution. It’s associated with youth and a sense of world weariness and jadedness. It can also be associated with a boredom and weariness that comes from living a life of privilege and “ease.” (Think Ryan Philippe’s character in Cruel Intentions — he’s the pinnacle of ennui. See also: any character in a Jean-Luc Godard film. See also: Monica Vitti’s character in L’Avventura.)
Of course I would feel ennui as a teenager. How could I not? I lived in a small town where there was nothing to do on a Friday night except go hang out at Wal-Mart or spend an hour in Blockbuster trying to figure out what movie to watch. Of course I would feel restless and bored and a relentless itch to do something or be anywhere else.
However, that feeling has evolved in me. I still get restless, and I still get that relentless itch to do something or be anywhere else. But I would no longer call it ennui.
Though I love ennui, and I love art that’s imbued with it, it is not the feeling I’ve lived with my whole life.
And then I considered nostalgia. The longing for a past time, for the “good old days" (as if good old days ever existed, especially for anyone who is not white, not cisgender, not heterosexual, etc.).
My preferred aesthetic, fashion-wise and music-wise and film-wise, is the ‘80s. I was only alive for half that decade, but god, do I love it. When I was a DJ for my college radio station, I would turn up my favorite ‘80s jams, sit in that tiny room, and wish so hard that music still sounded like that.
It seems like we’re experiencing some kind of cultural nostalgia. We’re remaking movies that should never be remade, but not because they’re bad movies. Movies like The Karate Kid are so good because they tell good stories, but they’re also good because they are of their time. Karate Kid couldn’t be made in any other era. Just like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Just like The Crow. Just like Footloose. You can’t remake these movies successfully.
Except Footloose. That remake was fun.
Just kidding. That remake was pretty terrible.
Nostalgia, though, is wistful. It’s yearning for a time that we remember fondly, that we think of without remembering the dark edges and the pain. (Not to mention the racism, the sexism, the xenophobia, the invisibility of queer and trans folks.)
It’s wishing to go back to a time that never existed.
And then, because I have a George Michael Pandora station, and it is basically the only thing I listen to these days, this song popped up:
Weird ponytails and mullets aside, this song was my #1 favorite song of all time. (This was back when I had only experienced about 20 years of life, and could still maintain Top 5 lists with earnest and accuracy.)
That song could remain at that #1 spot, if I still kept Top 5 lists.
Hearing “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” that day awakened the melancholy. A depression of spirits. A pensive mood. It felt like coming home after a long day and curling up in bed with all my fluffiest pillows and blankets.
Feeling that was a relief. Or a release. Or both.
It’s strange to think that melancholy is this to me — something resembling home. That a feeling could be so comforting.
When I was in undergrad, I was obscenely busy, but I would stay up until the wee hours of the morning, listening to bands like The Smiths and writing and sometimes crying. What did I write? Who knows. (It was before I had fully accepted that I was a writer, so I probably wrote long journal entries and love letters that never got sent to boys who weren't worth the attention.)
What I do know was that when I listened to the music, it felt like there was finally a home for all the sadness that lived in me. When I first heard “How Soon Is Now?” by The Smiths, it felt like climbing into the coziest bed I could ever imagine, in a room that understood me without even needing to ask what was wrong.
When I got to grad school, I gradually turned off my melancholy. I couldn’t afford to keep it around because I needed to get things done. I needed to be an adult — I had to teach, grade papers, write papers, write poems, write lesson plans, etc. There was no time to curl up in the cozy bed in the room that melancholy laid out for me.
And even though I was in a creative writing program, there was no room for feelings. (Ironically.) There was no room for me and all my stuff in this new life, and so, to survive, I eventually stopped listening to the songs that felt like home.
I should say that my comfort only comes when it’s coupled with the music. Melancholy on its own is unsatisfying. It’s wholly unhomey. Melancholy experienced through music and film and art is the comfort.
When art triggers something lonely in you. Triggers the loneliness in you. Connects to your lonely self.
That is comfort.
Maybe the relief also comes from feeling something other than panic, rage, stress, exhaustion. To feel anything else other than those things feels like a luxury these days.
In “High Fidelity,” Nick Hornby writes, “Which came first — the music or the misery?” Are we miserable because we listen to sad music? Or does the sad music come because we are miserable? When I first read “High Fidelity,” I envisioned the answer was a mobius strip of sadness and music, one inextricable from the other.
But now, when I think about melancholy and its containers, I think I actually have an answer. The sad, good music doesn’t come unless there is melancholy — or misery, as Nick Hornby says.
I can’t just sit around and be pensive. It has to come out somehow. It has to express itself, whether it’s through the things that I actually write, or the things that I listen to.
Music is kind of like fashion. We put on a particular outfit and we do our make-up in a particular way because it’s a way to express ourselves. Similarly, if we listen to music because we love it, we listen to the music that says all the things that we wish we could say, or didn’t know that we needed to say until now.
That’s why mix tapes and mix CDs are such labors of love — each song is carefully chosen, the order is thought out. Every time someone gets a mix tape, they’re getting a little piece of the giver. The mix tape says all the things we’re too shy to say. They tell a story we didn’t know we wanted to tell until we started putting all the pieces together.
(I once had a relationship where we expressed all our feelings and serious thoughts about “us” through song lyrics only. It was like we never spoke to each other — we only spoke to the music. It was wildly unhealthy and I don’t recommend it. If you must communicate your feelings in song lyrics, I advise that you do so with moderation. Try to use your own words in addition to the music. Use the music as a supplement, not the main vehicle. You'll be much better off.)
When I first started this essay a couple weeks ago, it felt so necessary. I wrote and re-wrote everything up until this point with urgency and laser focus. I accumulated a list of my favorite ‘80s songs that awakened the melancholy within. It felt so important that I parse out the things I felt, to name them and distinguish them from the other.
And then I left it for an entire week. I didn’t look at it. It was more than the regular letting-a-piece-breathe break. I straight up avoided it. When I thought of how urgently I wrote this, I felt a little embarrassed. I worried that, when I re-opened the document, all of this would just amount to nothing. I worried that everything I wrote would be another Cones of Dunshire situation. I thought, god, is this even anything worth reading?
I don’t know if it’s anything worth reading, but I do know this now: it is worth writing.
Maybe it’s all a spectrum. The depression, the nostalgia, the ennui, the melancholy. All different shades of sadness.
(In my Googling, I found this article, which opens up a whole new vocabulary and can of worms, so I’m not even going to talk about it. But if you’re still reading at this point, and you're interested, you should click on the link.)
Maybe what I was really born with is exhaustion and Sadness. (Yes, with a capital letter.) Some days it’s ennui. Some days it’s nostalgia. Some days it’s melancholy. Some days it’s depression.
I don’t have any answers.
What I do have, though, is music.