On the Subject of Misery and Music


(Above: John Cusack in High Fidelity.)

I have mentioned before that I occasionally start posts that never get finished. Those fragments sit in electronic limbo until I get them out, polish them up, and make them do. Two of them are below.

You may know about PostSecret, a web project that started in 2005 in which people share secrets anonymously. One of the schools I visited recently did something similar—a student told me everyone, students, faculty, and staff, was given a 3-by-5 card and urged to write a secret on it, anonymously. Several of them were then posted in the room where I happened to be teaching. Some were flippant (“I pee sitting down, and I’m a boy”); some were ordinary (“I’m in love with someone who doesn’t know I’m alive”); some hid more than they revealed (“I’m afraid of outer space”).

And some are still haunting me. One student wrote that when he was five, he was molested by a family member. One girl said she’d recently been raped, but when she told her parents, they blamed her for it and punished her. Another confessed to thoughts of suicide, but said she believed it wasn’t fair to make her friends and family suffer for her problems.

It’s taken as gospel that it’s harder growing up today than it used to be. Kids see more of the worst in the world a lot sooner than we did. They’re at the mercy of more predators—preying on their attention, their free time, their money, their naivete, their sexuality—than we ever had to deal with. They don’t necessarily need to bear the world’s worst by themselves, yet so many of them do just that.

And so do we.

Some of us, in the face of loneliness, isolation, and miscellaneous misery, find solace in music. But maybe the idea of solace is an illusion. Maybe misery is humanity’s default condition. Maybe it’s the way we’re supposed to be, only we don’t know it, and we multiply our misery by thinking it should be otherwise.

A better writer than I, novelist Nick Hornby, thinks we might bring it on ourselves, deliberately.

In the movie High Fidelity (and the novel from which it comes), John Cusack’s character wonders, “What came first, the music or the misery? People worry about kids playing with guns, or watching violent videos, that some sort of culture of violence will take them over. Nobody worries about kids listening to thousands, literally thousands of songs about heartbreak, rejection, pain, misery and loss. Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?”

Well might one wonder.

It’s said that examples from the movies were critical in teaching young people of the 30s and 40s how to move, talk, smoke, and pitch woo—they copied what they saw on the screen. It’s hard to believe that kids from the 60s on forward, many of whom grew up with a radio in their ear, or kids today, who grow up with earbuds, aren’t similarly affected. And yet one might wonder. Teenagers who mainline death metal don’t all become rage-soaked nihilists; those who absorb contemporary country’s endless dirt-road/pickup-truck stereotypes go to college and move to the city. And then there’s all those love songs. If, as the Buddha is supposed to have said, “What we think, we become,” it’s a miracle we don’t all become lovesick loons from an early age.

We do become some of what we think, or hear. There are songs that get inside of us, songs we turn to for solace or celebration, songs that speak what sounds like the truth to us, songs that tell us who we are. The weird thing is that we don’t always know what they are until they appear in a particular moment, or at a particular time. And if they become part of us in response to pain, they sometimes do not ease it as much as they turn it into something weirdly pleasurable, even as the hurt goes on.

Like schadenfreude, the German word for taking pleasure in the misfortune of others, and saudade, the Portuguese that describes a melancholy longing for love lost, we need a word for the pleasure we derive from the pain that is existence. Nostalgia, which literally means “the pain of returning home,” is closer, but not quite right either.

Maybe the word is masochism. Yeah, that’s it.

And maybe this post adds up to nothing. If these were really good ideas, they’d have been full posts, and you’d have read them already.

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