In Defense of Sad Songs

About a year ago, I was at the theatre with Andrew and a couple of friends waiting for Cabaret to begin. I was the only one in our group who had seen the show before, and I was pumped; I adore Cabaret. Given the content and what I knew of our friends’ preferences, I warned everyone that it was a sad show, and a tad dark. 

My friend turned to me, her smile evaporating into a grave expression. “Sadder than Les Mis?”

I laughed for a long time, and tried to imagine a sadness scale that peaked at a musical infused with the hope of redemption; I couldn’t begin to fathom such a perspective, but was absolutely delighted for her. 

“Yes, sadder than Les Mis,” I choked out. “A lot sadder than Les Mis.”

More conversation ensued, and at some point my friend asked, “Why do you like Cabaret if it’s so sad?”

“I like a lot of sad shows, and sad songs in general.”

She wrinkled her nose. “Really? Why?”

Why indeed? It wasn’t the first time someone had raised an eyebrow over my preference for sad songs, but it was the first time someone directly asked my why. At the time, I had no idea how to answer her. I stumbled through a piece-meal explanation, and ultimately, I came up empty-handed. But the question lingered in my mind, and has buzzed around my brain ever since. This is my attempt at unearthing a thorough—albeit belated—response.

——

My friend was not completely off-base when she said Les Mis is sad.

If I have it right, I was eight or nine years old when I saw Les Miserables on stage for the first time. Our family had a deep-rooted obsession with the story, particularly on my dad’s side of the family, so taking an eight-year-old to see a production with prostitutes in it was perfectly rational. After all, we already played the soundtrack on repeat at home, and regularly wore out the VHS of the 10th Anniversary concert edition. 

So I went to the Murat Theatre in Indianapolis, and sat perched in my seat with my feet tucked up under me for a better view. I hardly dared to breathe lest I interrupt the story unfolding on stage. When it was over, rumor has it that I turned to my mom and asked, “Can we watch it again?” As if it was a VHS tape with a rewind function. 

Even before I was old enough to understand the complicated adult themes explored in Les Miserables, I was drawn to the music, and specifically to Eponine and Fantine. Something about those women and their pain sent an arrow of truth into my tiny, innocent little heart. I felt understood, known, and heard, even though I had no idea why. Their ballads full of longing and sadness confirmed something inside me, a question buried in myself that I couldn’t quite pinpoint. All I knew is that the affirmation felt good, and thus I clung to the music of Les Mis as if it were a part of my very self.

— — 

As a child of the 90s, I was caught up in the boy band fever that characterized the decade. Later on, I claimed allegiance to the Backstreet Boys, but my first boy band crush was Taylor, the middle brother of Hanson. What a devoted fan I was! I saw Hanson in concert, wore out VHS tapes that catalogued their musical journey, and listened to the CDs religiously. And you know what? I stand by that preference as a solid one. How often do pop singers write their own music AND play their own instruments?

There was something more compelling about Hanson than the cute boys and upbeat tunes. Yes, “Mmbop” was catchy as hell, but it wasn’t my favorite of Hanson’s songs. Instead, alone in my room, I played “Weird” on repeat. Looking at the lyrics now, it’s astonishing how much truth was packed into lyrics written by teenage boys:

Isn't it hard
Standing in the rain?
You're on the verge of going crazy and your heart's in pain
No one can hear, but you're screaming so loud
You feel like you're all alone in a faceless crowd
Isn't it strange how we all get a little bit weird sometimes?

Sitting on the side
Waiting for a sign
Hoping that my luck will change
Reaching for a hand that can understand
Someone who feels the same

When you live in a cookie-cutter world, being different is a sin
So you don't stand out
But you don't fit in
Weird, whoa, oh

Yes, the lyrics are drenched in teenage angst. But they also speak to the common human experience of longing to connect, to be seen and accepted as we are. That is a desire that lives in hearts of all ages, regardless of musical preference, whether we are willing to acknowledge it or not. 

At age 10, I couldn’t name that hole in my heart. But I knew Hanson’s lyrics were calling out to the empty space, and for that, they earned my undying devotion until I moved on to my next phase.

—— 

Music and theatre were natural outlets for me as an emotional, over-achieving adolescent. I auditioned for roles in community theatre productions as well as school shows, and I committed myself fully to every cast and role. I felt known in the theatre scene, delighted to be a part of a zany family that shared a common passion. We pretended to be someone else on stage together, and conveyed stories that ranged from absurd to frivolous to heartfelt.

One summer in high school, I attended a theatre camp at Indiana University. For a week, we had workshops in acting, movement, and musical theatre led by students and faculty at IU. We slept in the campus dorms, rehearsed in the common areas in our spare time, and gushed about our dream roles. My memories of that week are fond, brimming with energy, drama, and junk food. 

Our final performance capped off the weel with a series of scenes and presentations for our friends and family. There were comedic and dramatic scenes, monologues, and musical theatre excerpts. Hell, they cast me as Elphaba in a scene from Wicked! You might expect that to have been my crowning moment, but it wasn’t. Instead, I relished the movement presentation, a choreographed routine set to “Evaporated” by Ben Folds Five. It wasn’t a dance, per se. It was more an opportunity to immerse oneself in the heart of a song, to enhance the message of the lyrics through movement and acting.

Here I stand, sad and free
I can't cry, I can't see
What I've done
Oh, God, what have I done?

Don't you know I'm numb, man? No I can't feel a thing at all
'Cause it's all smiles and business these days and I'm indifferent to the loss

And I've faith that there’s a soul somewhere that's leading me around
I wonder if she knows which way is down

Here I stand, sad and free
And I can't cry and I can't see
What I've done
Oh, God, what have I done?

And I poured my heart out
I poured my heart out
It evaporated, see

Blind man on a canyon's edge of a panoramic scene
Or maybe I'm a kite that's flying high and random dangling a string
Or slumped over in a vacant room, head on a stranger's knee
I'm sure back home they think I've lost my mind

Here I stand, sad and free
I can't cry and I can't see
What I've done
Oh, God, what have I done?

We rehearsed that movement routine over, and over, and over leading up to the final presentation, and I never tired of it. I never tired of the song, of pouring my experiences and emotions out into the world with a freaking fantastic, heart-wrenching song as the medium. I savored the moments in rehearsal or on stage with my fellow actors, relishing the unity as their emotions mingled with my own, and knowing that we were connected in our longing. It was pure magic, and if I could step into a rehearsal room with them right now and do it again, I would be able to recall every step. 

— — 

My junior year of high school was one of my best, but as it came to a close, I wrestled with the reality that I would be left behind. Almost all of my friends were seniors, and I was being abandoned, restrained from the growth and freedom I so desired, only to be held back in a juvenile prison, a waiting room for my future to begin. My friends were off to college in various states. My boyfriend was graduating and moving out of town with the rest of them. Half of my choir friends would be gone, and I feared all of these friends would leave without knowing the full measure of my love for them. The ache felt trapped in my chest, and I finally released it through a reliable channel: I wrote. In that case, I wrote a song.

The first draft of the song poured out of me in one sitting, like a dam bursting. I fine-tuned the details for weeks, but it was mostly finished from the moment it hit the page. The compulsion to communicate how desperately I wanted to go with them, to honor their relational impact on my life…it was too strong to resist. The emotions could not be contained by my body, so the music was born.

The song wasn’t an award-winner, but it served its purpose. I invited the seniors to my open mic performance at the end of the school year and made sure they knew it was important they attend. I sang my song, and I cried through the end of it:

I know that you must go, my friends
Your time here is running out
Soon, you’ll start on a great journey
Go the distance on an unknown route
And though I’ll thank God for each one of you every waking day
It’s so hard to say…goodbye.

Though in time you will be gone, and I will remain
Here you’ll always stay, yes you’ll always stay inside.

I remember one friend’s response in particular. Her eyes were wide as she hugged me, surprised and awed that someone felt that much for her. She was astonished by the depth of sadness I expressed, and the high value I placed on our friendship. She cried. I cried. We connected at a level that I had no other way to facilitate, and I felt a sweet catharsis in the confidence that my friends knew. They would leave, yes, but they would leave having seen me, and having known me fully, with my heart open wide for them to read. 

— — 

My undergraduate years were a low point in my life, a period of darkness and confusion that I hesitate to recollect. I was lost, depressed, dealing with undiagnosed anxiety, and I was a slave to my own foolish decisions. There were many times when I felt so lonely and lost that I couldn’t begin to find a way to ask for help. I couldn’t find the energy, the words, or even a general direction to crawl in.

I would wander the campus at night, find a secluded spot to sit, and cry. I didn’t know who I wanted to find me; I only knew that I desperately needed to be found. With a heavy heart, I sat on shadowy benches or at the top of a fire escape, and I waited for a nameless someone who never came. The lyrics of “Grey Street” by Dave Matthews Band were my only companion, the voice that spoke into my pain and said, Yes, I know. It wasn’t enough to make everything better, but it was better than feeling utter hopelessness and anonymity.

There's an emptiness inside her
And she'd do anything to fill it in
And though it's red blood bleeding from her now
It’s more like cold blue ice in her heart
She feels like kicking out all the windows
And setting fire to this life
She would change everything about her
Using colors bold and bright
But all the colors mix together
To grey
And it breaks her heart
It breaks her heart
To grey

——

My longest dating relationship pre-husband ended in my junior year of college. We’d dated for several years, spanning crucial formative years for me as a teen becoming a young adult. I had no idea who I was without that young man in my life, or how to move forward and find myself in his absence. 

After we broke up, I spent the next summer working as a tour guide at my college. The Admissions office was located in a large building, down the hall from an auditorium. That auditorium sat several hundred people, but was rarely in use during the day, especially during the summer. And there was a grand piano on the stage.

On my lunch break, or even on a longer bathroom break when the day was dragging, I would creep into the shadowy auditorium. Soft light filtered in through stained glass windows along the sides of the room. I crept down the center aisle, just far enough to crane my neck out and see if the light was on in the balcony sound booth. If I saw the light on, I retreated immediately, my heart racing in fear of being caught. But more often than not, the light was off, and the auditorium was vacant and welcoming.

The grand piano on the stage called to me without ceasing. As soon as I knew I was alone, I raced down the aisle and up the steps to the stage. To this day, I still have no idea if I was breaking any rules by playing that piano. They didn’t lock the key cover, and they could have. Other pianos on campus had locks like that. The absence of a lock was the only permission I needed. 

Now that I think about it, I’ve never claimed to be stealthy or subtle. The room wasn’t sound proof, and thus the music must have poured into the hallway. The light booth guy probably caught me in there on multiple occasions, and let me stay and play my song out of quiet heroism. Maybe he listened to me sing. Maybe he’d lost someone, too.

I don’t remember learning the song, the lyrics, or the chords. All I remember is sneaking into the auditorium and sending my voice out into the empty space. Daily, for an entire summer, I sang the same song without variation.

I don't know if our fate's already sealed
This day's a spinning circus on a wheel
And I'm ill with the thought of your kiss
Coffee-laced, intoxicating on her lips

Shut it out
I've got no claim on you now
I’m not allowed
To wear your freedom down, no

Is there a chance, a fragment of light
At the end of the tunnel, a reason to fight?
Is there a chance you may change your mind
Or are we ashes and wine?

And I'll tear myself away
If that’s what you need
Then there’s nothing left to say

But… is there a chance, a fragment of light
At the end of the tunnel, a reason to fight?
Is there a chance you may change your mind
Or are we ashes…
Reduced to ashes…
Are we just ashes…?

I never wanted to stop singing that song, even though it was painful to do so. At some point it got easier to sit down and release the words, a ritual. Eventually, much farther along than I’d care to admit, I was surprised to realize that I’d stopped sneaking into the auditorium. One day, I woke up and didn’t need the song anymore. Lyrics carried me through a summer, and then released me into the next part of my journey with well wishes and a healed heart. 

—— 

Andrew snuck into my life like a ninja; neither one of us remembers meeting the other. We got to know one another from a distance for quite awhile, and then started dating. After a few months, I broke up with him because I wasn’t ready for him yet. A few months later, we were friends, and then we became good friends. About a year after our first round of dating, I humbled myself and told him I changed my mind. I asked him to give us another shot. By the grace of God, he said yes.

One of the defining moments in my relationship with Andrew happened that second time around in our dating journey. We were sitting on the couch in his condo, just talking. He’d asked me a question about physical intimacy, about whether or not there were any triggers from my past that he might not anticipate, any otherwise-innocent words or actions he should avoid to protect my heart. What a man I have! 

In response, I laughed. “You couldn’t sink low enough, you’re too good a person. Just don’t, I don’t know…don’t lock me in a bathroom and make me do anything I don’t want to do. We should be good, then!” 

I laughed again.

His face fell, and his eyes widened. “Someone did that to you?”

My brow furrowed, but I nodded. 

Tears filled his eyes. 

Andrew is not a crier. I can easily recall the few occasions when he has cried, but none of those moments touched my heart as this one did. He cried over a passing mention of my sexual abuse history, a detail that was minor to me and easy to dismiss. He communicated anger that someone would treat me that way, of course, but mostly he shared a profound experience of grief. His sadness mirrored mine, and nobody had ever responded that way before. I looked at him and saw someone who knew me, a kind, gentle man who understood and cared for my heart. In a way, he sang a sad song, one I thought nobody knew the lyrics for except me. He saw how much my past hurt me, and his heart said “Yes, beloved, I know.” 

— — 

Our first year of marriage was hijacked by some really awful external crap; everything but our marriage blew up in our faces. The biggest bomb that was dropped in our lives was a friendship that turned manipulative, and then spiritually abusive. We were submerged in that toxicity for about a year. Afterwards, we tried to pick up the pieces, but we didn’t have the energy. We were in survival mode, and it was miserable.

Because someone had used the beautiful, perfect Word of God as a weapon against me, going to church was hard. We tried going anyway. I sat in the service while people sang songs of praise, clapping their hands and dancing for joy. Particularly at that church, I did not belong. There was little if no emphasis on the broken people in the room, or opportunities for lament built into the structure of the service. It was deeply isolating, being heartbroken and wounded in a sea of smiling people. Being there wasn’t helpful. Sometimes I cried through the entire service, so we stopped attending altogether.

Outside of church, left to my own devices, I found the song I was hungering for. ”Jesus I My Cross Have Taken” became my daily plea. On a regular impulse, I would grab my guitar and choke out the hymn through tears, a groaning prayer that I knew the Spirit would complete on my behalf. It was all I could do to push through the first verses, acknowledge the promise of suffering for followers of Christ, and look ahead to the restoration and healing that I knew God would deliver some day. 

Jesus, I my cross have taken, 
All to leave and follow Thee. 
Destitute, despised, forsaken, 
Thou from hence my all shall be. 
Perish every fond ambition, 
All I’ve sought or hoped or known. 
Yet how rich is my condition! 
God and heaven are still my own.

Let the world despise and leave me, 
They have left my Savior, too. 
Human hearts and looks deceive me; 
Thou art not, like them, untrue. 
O while Thou dost smile upon me, 
God of wisdom, love, and might, 
Foes may hate and friends disown me, 
Show Thy face and all is bright.

Man may trouble and distress me, 
’will but drive me to Thy breast. 
Life with trials hard may press me; 
Heaven will bring me sweeter rest. 
Oh, ’is not in grief to harm me
While Thy love is left to me; 
Oh, ’were not in joy to charm me, 
Were that joy unmixed with Thee.

Go, then, earthly fame and treasure, 
Come disaster, scorn and pain
In Thy service, pain is pleasure, 
With Thy favor, loss is gain
I have called Thee Abba Father, 
I have stayed my heart on Thee
Storms may howl, and clouds may gather; 
All must work for good to me.

Soul, then know thy full salvation
Rise o’er sin and fear and care
Joy to find in every station, 
Something still to do or bear. 
Think what Spirit dwells within thee, 
Think what Father’s smiles are thine, 
Think that Jesus died to win thee, 
Child of heaven, canst thou repine?

Haste thee on from grace to glory, 
Armed by faith, and winged by prayer. 
Heaven’’ eternal days before thee, 
God’’ own hand shall guide us there. 
Soon shall close thy earthly mission, 
Soon shall pass thy pilgrim days, 
Hope shall change to glad fruition, 
Faith to sight, and prayer to praise.

In the midst of brokenness, confusion, anger, complex-PTSD, and spiritual doubt, I found the joy that only the Lord can give. God gifted that joy to me in a way He knew I would be able to receive, even when I was so pissed at Him that I refused to pray or even “let him in the door.” For almost a year, God let me be. He kept a respectful distance and sent a gift by mail, a sad hymn that He knew I needed. I clung to the song, and it carried me through.

— — 

I like sad songs because they are honest. There is something unifying and right in collectively acknowledging our pain, our sadness, our longing and our disappointments. I defend sad songs because I am hungry for the acceptance of emotional honesty in our world, and especially in our church.

There is a poisonous trend in our culture that has influenced the culture of the church;  that trend suggests we must be happy, and anything other than happiness and plastered-on gratitude is wrong. Psychologist Susan David describes this as a cultural value of relentless positivity. Her Ted Talk titled “The Gift and Power of Emotional Courage” is fifteen minutes of gut-punching truth about how toxic our rigid approach to emotion truly is. We’ve characterized valid, normal emotions like sadness and grief as bad! It’s one thing for the secular culture to promote this lie, that we must be happy or we are bad. It is another thing entirely to see that lie infecting the church. 

The Christian Church is a body of individuals who follow Jesus and claim Him as Savior. The Bible is the Word of God, and the compass of the church. And what does that Bible tell us? Jesus suffered. Jesus wept. Jesus blessed those who mourn. The Psalms are full of longing and heartache, danger and profound pain. I mean, there is an entire book of the Bible called Lamentations, people! As in lament, “a passionate expression of grief or sorrow.” We are promised that as Christians, we will experience pain and suffering, that we will bear the cross of Christ in this lifetime. Why is the church not leading the way in creating space for people to lament? Why are there so few songs about fear, sadness, pain, loss, regret, anger, and doubt? Why do hurting people feel isolated and exposed when they step in the door of a church?

I mean no offense to any of my friends, or any particular churches I’ve attended. There are good steps being taken in the right direction toward emotional honesty and courageous vulnerability. But it is simply not enough, and it is still too rare for someone to answer “How are you?” with a truthful response on a Sunday morning. 

As Susan David mentions in her talk, I’m not anti-happiness!  I celebrate the sunny days and laugh with my loved ones. I praise God for the innumerable blessings in my life, and the joy that cannot be taken from me. But enjoying happiness isn’t a reason to negate the valid and important moments of weeping, aching, and grieving. 

Musicians and songwriters have poured their hearts out so that people like me can find consolation when nobody else knows what to say, or how to help. I defend sad songs because they honor the life-giving connection that is established when we share the heaviness of our pain with one another, through our art, our friendship, or our wordless, comforting presence. In today’s world, I will accept that gift of togetherness in the midst of pain, and I will cherish it openly, no matter how unfashionable that may be.