I’ve always been moved by music, literature, and film that some people dismiss as “depressing”. But bittersweet art brings the world to life – and if we allow it to speak to us it can be a source of comfort.
If you’re drawn to “sad” music you’re not alone.
In this week’s podcast, I unpack what Susan Cain describes as bittersweet melancholy, and ask what is it about “sad songs and rainy days” that moves so many people. It’s no accident that human beings have always found ways to navigate life’s bittersweet edges through our creativity. But why?
Even as a child, I enjoyed revisiting art that had previously made me cry. I knew the risk, but was drawn to the yearning ache I felt so deeply. It’s a fascination that has always been there for me. As a maker and consumer of the arts. To be moved is to feel alive. It’s to become aware of the weight – and significance – of life as a fleeting gift.
Table of contents
- Bittersweet Longing | 0:34
- Why We Love “Sad” Music | 15:19
- Are You Homesick and Yearning For A Place That Doesn’t Exist? | 26:14
- Our Life’s Work and Creative Offering | 51:54
- Further Exploration
Bittersweet Longing | 0:34
Longing is a beautiful word that fills the space in between life’s lines. It keeps us moving and yearning with grief for the world around us. We long for the things we have but can’t fully grasp. We long for the things we don’t yet have but dream to possess. And we long for the things we once had but lost.
Art is an expression of such longing. It comes from that place within its creator. A painting, song, or poem, is always an attempt to express the ungraspable. We can dance with such things, but we can never fully conjure or define the object we long for. We might get close but we will never quite articulate what we long to say. There is always something missing.
It’s this gap that brings us back. Creating, listening, watching. Observing and honing our craft. It’s a liberating frustration or perhaps a frustrating liberation.
What Does Yearning Feel Like? | 3:47
Yearning is a particular type of longing. I like to think of it as a beautiful ache to hold something that is impossible to fully grasp. To yearn is to be aware that we can never acquire the missing thing even if the thing is in our hands.
I remember yearning – during the experience – for a sunset. I was in the Australian outback and it blew my mind. But while I was able to deeply appreciate what I saw, I could also feel something unusual happening inside me. An emotion I can only describe as yearning, that was underpinned by the fleeting nature of the moment. I wanted to capture, consume, bottle, have this experience. But it wasn’t mine to possess. And what’s more, its value CAME from its scarcity.
I wonder if yearning happens when we connect to things – memories, people, art – we want to possess but can’t.
Fleeting Moments of Bittersweet Beauty | 5:00
Have you ever witnessed something so beautiful it was painful? Do you recognise what it means to yearn in this way?
This is the “bittersweet” that Susan Cain talks about. It’s inside the bitter that the sweet belongs. They are not two sides of a coin. They are an interweaving web that cannot be seperated.
The things that matter are not precious despite their fragility. They are important BECAUSE they are fragile.
The Snowman Will Melt | 8:04
I was five or six when I first watched The Snowman. In case you don’t know, it is a notoriously heartwrenching short animated film that is shown every Christmas in the UK.
When it finished I didn’t know what had hit me. And my parents wondered about the damage they had done.
But the following Christmas I wanted to watch it again. Despite THEIR protestations I convinced them to pop it on. Remember last time? Yes. What if the same happens again this year?
I remembered how it felt. I hadn’t forgotten the pain and the tears. And yet something in me wanted to re-live the experience. The same did happen. Of course it did. And I was relieved. It hurt so good.
Why We Love “Sad” Music | 15:19
Susan Cain describes “bittersweet” as longing, poignancy, and joyful sorrow. It’s not just a feeling. It’s wrapped in the awareness of time passing. .
The English language fails to capture the essential emotions that music creates. We describe songs as “happy” and “sad”. We don’t mean it but that’s all we have. I think terms like bittersweet, yearning, melancholic, longing, poignant, and moving, are better. But there’s still a way to go.
Bittersweet Art Doesn’t Create Emotion | 21:45
Everybody Hurts by REM was voted “the saddest song of all time” in a 2022 survey of music lovers conducted by OnePoll.
When your day is long– Everybody Hurts (REM)
And the night, the night is yours alone
When you’re sure you’ve had enough
Of this life, well hang on
Don’t let yourself go
‘Cause everybody cries
Everybody hurts sometimes
Sometimes everything is wrong
It’s a reassuring, comforting, and compassionate lullaby. The lyrics speak a simple and universal truth that we can all identify with.
It’s moving, it’s emotional, and it might jerks tears. Not because it’s sad, but rather because it’s safe. It speaks to the human condition and the experience of life. EVERYBODY hurts sometimes, regardless of who you are, where you’re from, or what you have. It’s an emotionally cleansing experience.
Art is moving when it gives expression to something inside us. If you’ve ever felt stirred by music you’ll know how it gives our feelings somewhere to find form.
What if “sad” songs don’t really MAKE us feel sad, but rather they ALLOW us to feel the messy mix of emotions that need to be processed?
Are You Homesick and Yearning For A Place That Doesn’t Exist? | 26:14
A lot of people have felt a homesickness for somewhere they’ve never been. Perhaps even a place or time that doesn’t exist.
Many philosophical and religious traditions talk about the pain of separation. This underpins human subjectivity, where we experience a feeling of exile and a deep desire to get home.
This drive has given rise to the most wonderful human accomplishments, discoveries, and artistic creations. As well as some of the more dreadful, violent, and destructive projects. At its worst, we seek to overcome the pain of separation with utopian scapegoating (things will be pure when we eradicate a group or idea). At its best, we embrace and channel our homesickness into creative endeavours that speak of our shared yearning as a species.
Anemoia, Vellichor, and Mono No Aware | 29:12
Anemoia, Vellichor, and Mono no aware are all familiar. Like art, they are words that help connect with something we feel but maybe struggle to articulate.
We Don’t Want What We Think We Want | 34:21
Toxic positivity is a problem in modern culture. It’s a symptom of what Susan Cain calls our fear of the dark. We think we want to eradicate the pain, but what we need is to accept and integrate it. Our favourite stories show us how pain, longing, joy, and meaning are all intimately connected. And our deep yearning is often “the reason we play moonlight sonatas and build rockets to Mars”.
The Magic Happens In The Gap
Waiting is not just good for us. It is necessary for true enjoyment to occur. It’s the space between the notes that give music meaning. It’s the space around the page that give words their definition.
When Twin Peaks: The Return was released in 2017, it was the most painfully beautiful experience for me. With one episode per week between May and September, it went against the new norm of binge consumption that had developed over the previous five or six years.
There was a beautiful pain in longing to know what happened next. A yearning for completion alongside the joy of not knowing.
It’s the same pain as not yet knowing who the killer is in a murder mystery. And not knowing how a magic trick is done. It gives rise to a painful yearning. A desperate desire to know.
But the discovery never truly fills the hole. It never makes us whole. Because the joy is in not knowing. And that kind of joy is impossible to bottle.
The Inconsolable Longing For We Know Not What | 42:30
The object we desire might give a moment’s satisfaction but it won’t complete us. And that’s OK. Because life is all about making peace with the gap between the lines, the silence between the notes, and the space between the brush strokes.
Our Life’s Work and Creative Offering | 51:54
We often use objects, people, labels, events, relationships, and other peoples’ creative work as surrogates for our own question of longing. Our life’s work begins to grow once we identify where we have offset our personal longing into external things.
“Whatever pain you can’t get rid of, make it your creative offering”
What if “we transcend grief only when we realize how connected we are with all the other humans who struggle to transcend theirs?”
The creative offering that emerges not despite the pain, but THROUGH it.
Patreon | 55:55
In this week’s Extended Play I go deeper into my own relationship with bittersweet melancholia. Why I am completely unable to finish writing “happy songs”. And yet why don’t I have a block when it comes to writing “comedy” songs?
Listen here: https://patreon.com/andymort
The Haven | 58:07
Join me to go deeper in exploring how to build healthier, happier rhythms in life.
Learn more here: https://the-haven.co