Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The 40 Saddest Songs in the Universe

York, 2006

The two-week summer language programme always ends with a disco, and the teenagers always end up crying. I'm walking around watching them blub into each other's shoulders. It's fun. But there's one Italian girl who isn't crying. It annoys me. I take her aside and ask what her problem is.
"I no feel so sad," she says in rubbish English. She hasn't learned English, and she isn't crying. Well, there's only one of those things I can fix right now.
"I know what you need," I reply.
"No," she says, seeing my intention.
I take a deep breath and do my sad face. "Bright eyes," I sing. "Burning like fire." Her lip wobbles. "Bright eyes, how can you close and fail?" I see there's a lump in her throat. "How can the light that burned so brightly suddenly turn so pale?" She's weeping now. "Bright eyes," I add, unnecessarily.
I doubt she's understood many of the words, but it doesn't matter.
Bright Eyes is the saddest song in the universe and its power transcends language.

Zurich, 2011

Cecile is in a total mood, which is amazingly annoying. Isn't it her boyfriend's job to put up with that? What's in it for me? I decide to make the most of the situation and see what songs make her cry.
Naturally, I start with Bright Eyes. It doesn't work, because somehow she's worked out what I'm trying to do. So I turn to plan B - Somewhere over the Rainbow by Israel Kamakawiwo╩╗ole.
"It's not working," she says, although I can see tears streaming down her face. "My eyes are crying, that's all."
"Yes, but your eyes are connected to you. You haven't outsourced your eyes and tear ducts. Anyway, it's okay to cry. First, it's healthy. You get better blood pressure and stuff. Also, no woman can resist crying at those songs. They're infinitely sad."
"They aren't that sad. I know sadder," she sniffs, wiping away tears from the eyes that are crying for their own reasons.

Later, in a better mood, she asks me if I want her collection of songs that made her cry.
"Yes," I say, with as much calm as I can muster. "Yes, I do." My head is already spinning with the possibilities. They're bound to be lame! I can make fun of them on my blog! Don't show too much enthusiasm or she'll suspect!
She leaves a USB stick with 40 songs on it in my locker. It also has instructions for use: run a bath, light candles, etc. She's such a sweet, thoughtful person that I almost feel bad about making fun of her.

(ANDREW iN A BATH) SAD + crying

The 40 Saddest Songs in the Universe

By coincidence, I'd planned to have a bath that night anyway. So I started the playlist and got in.

It started pretty well, with Wish You Were Here by Pink Floyd. It starts with slow guitar plucking, which certainly sets the mood. Then a husky voice comes in and wonders, 'So you think you can tell Heaven from Hell; blue skies from pain?' The logical side of my brain quickly said, 'yes, I can tell the difference' but it didn't make me less sad, because the emotional side of my brain had fixated on the word 'pain' and all the many kinds of pain I've experienced in my life.

Next up was Wind of Change by The Scorpions. It starts with a haunting whistle, like the ghost of a worker, which is quickly followed by a husky voice. This voice sings some of the saddest lyrics of the modern era. They praise David Hasselhoff for defeating Communism, but warn us never to forget that socialism leads to oppression and suffering and sad babies. "They've never had bananas," croons the main Scorpion, "Until now. And that's a good change of the Wind of Change." A poignant guitar solo reminds us that while capitalism has its faults, it's better than the alternatives.

The next song, If You See Her, Say Hello came on (link takes you to Hurricane because there are few original Dylan recordings on Youtube and I liked that movie. It's by a million miles the best Dylan song, anyway). Husky-voiced Bob Dylan starts singing. I'm starting to think that husky voices are inherently sad. "If you see her, say hello," he warbles. So far, so sad. It's obviously going to be a song about lost love. Everyone can relate to that. It's a genius opening line, in fact. I've already got my line ready for the blog - HE HAD ME AT HELLO. But there's more to the song. "If you see her, say hello. She might be in Tangiers." Huh? Tangiers? Why is she there? That's weird, isn't it? Why does she want to go there? How does he know she's there? Why does he say might? She might be in Tangiers. Is that based on her credit card activity? Did she have family in Morocco? He could have said, 'she might be in Africa'. That'd be more likely, statistically. So what's all this uncertain specificity? Perplexity dried up my tears.

The next song was Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm by the Crash Test Dummies. It's easy to see how people are affected by the song. It's deep and dark and the lyrics are at once staggeringly specific yet movingly universal. "Once there was this kid who got into an accident and couldn't come to school. But when he finally came back, his hair had turned from black into bright white." Has any other lyric ever made us more aware of the immediacy of our own deaths?

I wasn't crying - it was just the bath bubbles stinging my eye. Many other songs came and went. Most were legitimately emotional: I Just Can't Get You Out of My Head, I Kissed a Girl, Smile, Hollaback Girl, Reading a Book, and every Bob Dylan song ever released in France.

But then came the sucker punch: NSYNC's Bye Bye Bye. At the start, keyboards swell for just a moment, but then it's BAM! Right into the beat. Right into the words. "I loved you endlessly when you weren't there for me, so now it's time to leave and make it alone." My tears dropped into the wispy foam of my peach-scented bath bubbles. Why was I crying? What did this song stir inside me? Obviously, like Cecile, I'd had to walk away from dysfunctional relationships before, and it's always sad. But not sad enough to make me cry, surely? Then it hit me - this was the song that presaged Justin Timberlake's departure from NSYNC and his focus on a solo career. "Time to leave and make it alone." For me and Cecile, hardcore NSYNC fans, truly the day the music died.

"Don't really wanna make it tough
I just wanna tell you that I had enough
Might sound crazy but it ain't no lie
Bye bye bye."


  1. Anonymous7:30 AM

    When I found out that 'Bright Eyes' was about rabbits dying of myxamatosis I just about jumped in front of a train - as if it wasn't sad enough already.

  2. It's one of the saddest ways rabbits can die, that's true...


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