The first truly “emotional” album I remember listening to was Death Cab for Cutie’s Transatlanticism. I was thirteen years old. I was also, for the first time ever, truly emotional. In other words: a teenager. I would come home from school and slam my hot pink bedroom door so I could spend the night contemplating just how sad and alone I was.
Years later, the “emo” genre is essentially dead, but I’m still stuck listening to what could be summed up as “sad times’’ music. Depressing lyrics and minor chords are what get me through the day. During a long Monday at work, I drown out the office with Cat Power’s low-energy hums. After a frustrating argument with a loved one, I’m 13 again, slamming my door and turning up Elliot Smith.
Since its rise in the early 2000s, emo music received a fair amount of criticism, and was often cited as a cause of adolescent depression. In 2008, when 13-year-old Hannah Bond committed suicide, headlines blamed My Chemical Romance. No one seemed to consider the possibility that maybe the effect of “depressing music” was comforting.
But there is also evidence that the relationship between music and mood maybe both more complex and more volitional. Researchers from The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Maya Tamir and Brett Ford conducted another study in which they asked people to prepare for a tense situation (actually a video game in which they might be eaten by dinosaurs) using music. It turned out that psychologically healthy people would choose fear-inducing music to prepare themselves emotionally for the task at hand. They were essentially choosing fear, as they believed it would enhance their alertness, and using music to get themselves there.
No one seemed to consider the possibility that maybe the effect of “depressing music” was comforting.
“Encouraging people to seek happiness and shun unhappiness irrespective of context may not necessarily be adaptive in the long run,” Tamir concluded. “These findings demonstrate that people who want to feel unpleasant emotions when they are useful may be happier overall.”
So perhaps we are using music to heighten or indulge particular emotional states. Sometimes, we are naturally inclined to feel sadness, and if we allow ourselves to accept negative emotions, to feel them intensely rather than shunning them, we might emerge from those feelings with a better sense of clarity and calmness.
And let’s not forget the companionship that music offers. For me the message of Transatlanticism was a paradoxical one: I was no longer alone in my alone-ness. Now I had emo music, and Ben Gibbard, and the line “You shouldn’t think what you’re feeling.” We empathise with the artists we love and, more importantly, they seem to empathise with us. Best of all, they’re there for us, emotionally available whenever we hit play. We might be alone, but at least we’re alone together.