Pop music, or more specifically bubblegum pop is renowned for its surface level lyrical content. Aggressively delightful, air-headed whimsy that fits better to the melody than it does to the real life of anyone listening. But this of course is not shared by all genres. Country music is renowned for being one of the most cheerless genres out there.
Often full of heartbreak and the bleak, lonely existence of people who live on ranches in the middle of nowhere – its easy to see where it gets its reputation. But have these American western sob stories run out of steam?
Smart-thinker and celebrated writer Malcolm Gladwell thinks not. In an episode of his podcast Revisionist History titled ‘The King Of Tears’, he examines why country music makes us cry. He believes country trumps the comparative rock and roll of its time, not because of the morose delivery (although that clearly helps), but because of the details. He digs deep into discovering the background to the song ‘He stopped loving her today’ by George Jones, in which a man who was in love with his wife dies. Not exactly an exceptional tale, but Gladwell chases up the origin of the hit song to find the basis for each line in real life. “We cry when melancholy collides with specificity.” He says, adamant that a song written with a very narrow basis is more likely to make people weep. But is this really true?
The immediate argument is that maybe country musicians simply do not understand metaphors. The problem with the shallow tales of pop songs is that they don’t mean anything – because they were never written to. In genres that treat lyricism as a craft and don’t simply put words to a beat, there is more at play. Is an ambiguous tragedy not capable of bringing people to tears? Surely a song only focused on a horse dying has little relevance to a person who has never owned one, or possibly even lives in a culture that consumes its meat daily. Yet anyone who sincerely beckons “Black Hole Sun, won’t you come and wash away the rain.” – is striving for change, despite the imagery being more abstract. Pain can be portrayed in countless ways, none of which have to relate to anything in particular.
If the only time you ever cried was when you lost your tan cowboy hat, this could support the idea that everyone needs explicit details in songs. If this were true, the writers of this ‘tragedy’ would have to hope that there were millions of other like-minded hat-mourners out there in order to sell a record – but of course this is not how it works. We get upset at a multitude of things and for different reasons throughout life. Thus, a well written ‘sad’ song is one that is relatable through every struggle, not just one experienced by a single man, at a single time, during a single event. Opaque lyrics leave space for the listener to insert their own troubles, sometimes even a pair of words can be enough to get people in the right headspace. For example, “Mad World”.