Olivia Rodrigo’s debut album Sour brings breakup music to a fresh-faced audience.
In a world where adults scorn teenage relationships as shallow and impermanent, Gen-Z has embraced her pithy angst with enthusiasm.
Her hit single “good 4 u” was met with adoration from young people all over the country, singing to the tune of Rodrigo’s heartbreak.
Rodrigo was able to voice the younger generation’s pain in a way that many connected with, and her sales numbers prove the resonance of her voice.
But why are so many people drawn to breakup songs, music that reminds us of our own heartbreak? At moments in our lives when we’re feeling at our worst, wouldn’t it make sense to listen to happier music to cheer ourselves up?
Turns out, it’s helpful to dwell on negative emotions instead of trying to suppress them.
The first step to healing a wound is acknowledging that it exists
The first step to healing a wound is acknowledging that it exists, and music can be a great way to facilitate that emotional processing.
The listener experiences vicarious sorrow through a performer’s sad song, and by using this music as a mediary, they can release some of their own sadness.
This purging is also called catharsis, the purposeful indulgence of repressed emotions as a means of finding relief.
Catharsis through sad music
The benefits of catharsis through music can be traced all the way back to Ancient Greece: Greek philosopher Aristotle believed in catharsis through dramatic art.
He argued that full, intense immersion in the tragic forms of art would allow one to let personal emotions go.
Considering Olivia Rodrigo’s legions of fans, that claim still holds true today.
But why does it help so much to hear someone else’s woes put to music, instead of directly acknowledging our own? Has the business of entertainment turned us all into voyeurs?
To find an answer, we should consider the sadness baked into the foundations of American music: the blues.
Blues music was one of the earliest and most influential genres to take shape in America, giving rise to jazz, R&B, soul, and funk later on.
It was a genre so synonymous with suffering that the ‘the blues’ was a shorthand phrase for someone feeling down, or catching a ‘case of the blues’.
For the African-American communities who invented it, expression through music was a way for them to give voice to their pain, and share it with sympathetic ears.
The blues ethos was a tough-as-nails spirit, a desire to sing at the times most people would be crying.
Live performances of blues music happened in juke joints, popular gathering places for black sharecroppers barred from white establishments, which set the tone for many of the songs performed there.
It would have felt disingenuous to sing about sunshine and rainbows considering the social circumstances of the black community, so blues singers headed forwards with unflinching honesty about life.
These performances acted as a joint catharsis: the performer let loose their feelings through music, and if the song was any good, the listener was overwhelmed with their own emotions.
These musicians transformed sorrow into collective experiences of music and joy, connecting the community through shared pain and the desire to keep singing in the face of everything.
Sad music is honest about life’s ugliness
This honesty about life’s ugliness is a large part of what made blues music so appealing.
At grocery stores, restaurants, and shopping malls today, loudspeakers pump out danceable music about our big, beautiful world, full of possibilities.
Chirpy auto-tuned voices sing about loving yourself and loving others, while our phones are beaming a constant stream of Ukrainian refugees, mass shootings, and pandemic deaths. When we’re struggling through rough patches, this happy music can feel hollow instead of comforting.
No one wants to hear songs about how everything is wonderful when they see the world burning around them. Hearing sad music at these times can be like a breath of relief: relief that someone is feeling the same way as you.
The magic of sad music is how it transforms sorrow and human suffering into a beautiful piece of art, worthy of appreciation.
It appeals to the unavoidable nature of sadness, or at the very least gives us the sense that someone else understands our pain.
Through sad music, we can acknowledge that negative emotions aren’t evil. They’re another part of the human experience, and something that we all must reckon with.