It is New Year’s Eve, and I am at Langkawi Island. It is a sunny day outside. Beautiful even. Most probably a lot of people are having fun outdoors, talking about happy things to their cheerful companions. Meanwhile, here I am, in my room, air-conditioner blasting at a constant 18 Celcius degrees, headphones cupped firmly over both ears, blasting black metal or goth rock or hardcore punk at a deafening volume, listening to songs with lyrics like:
“An army of the golems is stalking, now, the heart’s lands
Eating all reality, Producing only dust and sand
Nothing hurts them, Nothing gets under their stone skin
And when their earthen mouths will open up,
And just what words should come out but,
“We wish we were dead”. ”
– Have a Nice Life, “Earthmover”
Or, you know, this:
“I hurt myself today
To see if I still feel
I focus on the pain
The only thing that’s real”
– Nine Inch Nails, “Hurt”
At this point, I felt like defending myself. No, I was not deliberately trying to be edgy or cool or pretentious and just being plain old artsy fartsy, though there is a phase of me doing that back then. I am already way past that, and to be honest, I just simply enjoy these kinds of songs, songs that are depressive and dark, challenging, or graphic in content and form. Why?
Some time ago, while I was driving my friend to work, I put on a song by shoegaze / slowcore band, Greet Death from Michigan. The song’s title is “Strange Days”, and throughout its runtime, walls of guitar riffs meld and pan out in a veil of noise and feedback, while the singer detailed the aftermath of a painful break-up, the punishing sense of regret and anguish, and the twisted yearning to end it all. The song ends with a long coda, while a refrain with the words, “And now all we seem to love is the darkness,” repeats itself till the end.
Throughout the song, the two of us were silent, seemingly hypnotized by its dark allure, and it was at this point when the refrain’s words pummeled us with each repetition, that he turned to ask me, “Dude, every time I sat in your car, you seemed to be playing songs that are dark like this. Why do you like this stuff?”
And I struggled to answer the question then and there. I think I mumbled some banal answers like, “I think it was cathartic to listen to songs that make you sad or angry”, something along those lines. Because to tell the truth, I never seriously considered the reasons for why I actually am interested, and you could even say obsessed, with art that explored the darker parts of our psyche. And while the catharsis element is true, after some recent reflections on my part, I think I found out why I am truly interested in this kind of stuff, and why I think that it is, to some small extent, applicable to all.
Art as Playground
One can always argue that art is just for show, that it is a synthesis of both fiction and the real subjective experience of the creator, exaggerated for drama and to induce heightened and intense emotions on the part of the viewer, audience, or consumer. That is why art that is subjectively powerful and honest to us can appear to be transcendent, as if embodying a whole new experience that is previously unbeknownst to us.
This is why we read fiction, like Sherlock Holmes, because we love the thrill of the chase, of all the evidence coming together. That’s why we love comic books or superhero movies. Conversely, that’s why some of us enjoy art that dwells on the darkest parts of humanity. For example, novels that depict victims of trauma, or fiction that uses the perspective of murderers, serial killers, womanizers, as its unreliable narrators. This is because this type of fiction allows us to partially partake in the taboo or the criminal, to temporarily suspend all disbelief and become the other, or the grotesque.
For me, most engagements with art are not passive, such engagements are performative, and requires focus through active participation. And similarly, I listen to depressing music with such intent. I imagine most of us have imagined scenarios of us killing ourselves or hurting ourselves. I imagine that most of us have been through experiences where we are so enraged by others that we can just barely control ourselves not to punch the other person or stab them to death. And some of us have been through relationship or familial troubles so devastating, that we feel like from here on out, nothing will ever matter to us anymore. All of us have gone through and felt such emotions at some points in our lives, so to listen to songs that reflect and portray us at our darkest is not only cathartic but enlightening.
Building Blocks of Empathy
Of course, I am not saying that listening to such sad songs is enough to act as the foundation of knowledge into people with depression or who are suicidal. It is never enough, no matter how much detail these singer-songwriters, performers, or writers pour into their stories and narratives, it can never be enough.
Some experiences have to be lived to be believed, to be real to us bystanders. But a glimpse into the other side is often what we need, so that we can truly relate to those who are in pain. No art is without human merit, even those that we deem banal or too commercialized for their own good. It is always a mirror to another’s inner life. And it can act as the building blocks of empathy, and a looking glass into a life that is often heard of, but never really seen with our own eyes.
The sad and the dejected are as vital to us as the vibrant and the joyful. I love happy music as much as anyone else (FYI, I also listen to pop music as well, so I am not THAT edgy and pretentious yet). But I often listen to depressing music, even when it is sunny outside, even when it sometimes annoyed my friends or put us all in an awkward situation.
I listen to it because I like how it reminds me that there is more to life than a constant pursuit of happiness, and that on other paths, down different avenues, there is another life, a life totally unlike mine, and that through something as abstract as music or literature, we are able to converse, one lyric at a time, one sentence at a time, that there is common ground between us, and there, we can build from building blocks of empathy into a tower of understanding.
With you, MY Psychology.
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