The best songs hurt. They bring us into heightened awareness of our own pain. They strip away the sugar coating and lay bare the hard truths of life – love often ends, youth fades, and death awaits us all. Yet we keep listening because as John Mellencamp sang, it hurts so good.
Why do we like sad songs? Why are despair, loss, horror, and all manner of violence our staple form of entertainment? What primal, unconscious need fills the theater every time the next end of the world apocalyptic movie comes out? Why do we love seeing it all torn down?
Aristotle wrote that the purpose of tragedy in art is catharsis, a purging. In other words, as we identify with the protagonist in a song, film, book, or play, and as we witness them suffer through trials and tribulations, we vicariously suffer along with them and undergo an emotional emptying out. In some way this is psychologically beneficial, just as vomiting allows the body to expel toxic material. No one likes vomiting – but you always feel a little better afterwards. Same with a good cry. If we kept all this emotional pain bottled up inside the toxicity would overwhelm us. That’s why sad songs make us feel better. Tragic art, Aristotle argued, serves an essential purpose – it keeps us from going crazy.
The sad fact is that life is predicated on the taking of other life. To survive we must constantly consume other living things – plants, animals, fungus – and all of that at once in a mushroom and shallot omelet. Our existence inexorably causes suffering for other life forms. None of us chose this, yet here we are. We must participate in it just as all of the rest of nature does. In many ways, art, myth, and religion help us cope with the horrible fact of this ceaseless killing. They help us contextualize and navigate through what would otherwise be paralyzing guilt.
And lurking behind the curtain is this one last disconcerting fact – we too are food. We may have eliminated many of our natural predators – here in California the only grizzly bear left is the one on the flag – but death still flags our every step. Sharks ply the waters, cougars stalk the backcountry, and the most dangerous predator of all, man, well, they’re everywhere, and commonly armed. And then there’s this – our cells turn cancerous. Sometimes your heart just stops for no reason. All of this impermanence weighs heavily on our minds, and we know that these forms are fleeting. But we have to go on. We’re going to swim in the ocean anyway, and hike these trails, and mingle with other people everywhere we go. We try to stay healthy, but only the most deluded among us believes that they’re in control. In the end, we have to be ready to let go of all of it without a moment’s notice.
That’s why art is so important. It helps us celebrate the beauties of being alive, and it helps us practice the fine art of letting go.
Art administers to the instrument of empathy. By flexing and strengthening our imaginations through engagement with art we become better able to empathize with the suffering of others. As we identify with characters in stories or songs from other times and places – people very different from us – we learn to look past surface differences and realize our underlying unity.
Art even has the power to ameliorate the unavoidable conflicts that naturally arise in our relationships with difficult people. By helping us imaginatively stand in the shoes of our nemeses, art deconstructs the machinery of hatred and violence. As Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote, “If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.” Art opens up and makes alive those secret histories and suddenly we see our so-called enemies as wounded, frightened, desperate people employing unskillful means. We realize their hostility has nothing to do with us and the door to compassion, forgiveness, and healing begins to crack open just a little bit. Art wrests hope from the jaws of despair.
Art is a lot of things. It’s entertainment. It’s titillation. It’s preaching and pedantry. It’s aesthetic rapture. It’s play. It’s remembrance and commemoration. It’s all of that and more. And the best art accomplishes nearly all of those goals in one fell swoop. Art that merely preaches is condescending and ineffective. Art that merely entertains is hollow and manipulative. Art that merely commemorates is tired and boring. Art that pointlessly wallows in the horror of existence is juvenile and jaded.
For any of the various messages or purposes of art to successfully transmit from artists to perceivers it must have one over-arching quality – the power to redeem. There’s a reason we often hear the phrase in art criticism – that book, that song, that film has “no redeeming qualities.” It’s the ultimate dismissal.
For art to be redeeming it must bring us from disease to wellness, from chaos to order, from disintegration to integration, from dysfunction to function – in other words, it must heal us. In this sense then good art is transactional. It draws us into an unwitting exchange – our suffering for art’s transformative power. Drawn into aesthetic ecstasy, our private torment is universalized and our isolation is shattered. By some mysterious transference we are made right with the world, and with ourselves. Art pays the ransom and frees us from our chains. Art saves.
The best songs awaken us to our higher purpose by breaking through our carefully cultivated façade and disrupting our well-practiced routine. Especially sad songs. They unmask us. They remind us what love is. They embolden our sacrifice. They enliven our courage. They soften our fixation. They celebrate our humanity. They call us to our best selves.
We are a story telling species. Since the dawn of humankind we have used language, melody, rhythm, dance, painting and sculpture, to weave narratives out of our imaginations, mythologizing the forces of nature, personifying the animal beings around us, and casting our own likeness in the epic tales of the hero. As we live through our heroes we face every monster, conquer every foe, overcome every obstacle, and survive every test. It is through our art that we practice living our lives. Art is a test-run where we take on terror, play at savagery, explore the boundaries of our rapacious appetites, and learn where the traps are – the traps that lay low the arrogant warrior too proud and too in love with his own visage.
If you make art – if you write songs or poems or plays or stories, if you make films or photographs or sculptures or paintings, if you choreograph dance – stay true to your ancient calling. Let art lead us toward a bolder, more authentic life. Warn us of the pitfalls. Celebrate the beauties. And never let us forget that we are here for one reason – to thrive and serve and fully surrender to the rapture of being alive. The characters in the films, books, and songs we love are mirrors held up to our own agonizing questions, and they show us that there is a way forward out of the fog of our confusion and into healing, wholeness, and the sense that it’s going to be OK, no matter what.