Adele’s Music Is So Successful Because Sad Music Is Actually Good For Us
The year is 2011 and I’m lying in my scruffy student bedroom, mouthing along to the then newly released Someone Like You by the one-and-only Adele.
The song ends, and I play it again – and again – gripping my iPod Touch in my hand like a microphone, scrunching my face up theatrically with every soaring note, every yearning, embittered declaration.
At this stage in my life, I hadn’t experienced the sort of seismic heartbreaks that Adele Adkins sings about, hadn’t turned up to anyone’s house ‘out of the blue, uninvited’ or lamented that ‘we could have had it all’. But it still felt strangely therapeutic to lose myself in Adele’s mournful reminisces.
That Adele is the undisputed queen of the break-up anthem goes without saying, and there are those of us whose adult lives run almost in parallel to her three gloriously sorrowful albums, with 19, 21 and 25 maturing and sharpening alongside her fans.
Many of us in our late twenties can track our entire romantic histories back through Adele’s oeuvre. We’ve warbled along to Make You Feel My Love while realising we’ve caught feelings for someone, and we’ve cried along to First Love after things didn’t quite end up working out.
By the time 25 came out five years ago today – can you believe it? – Adele’s voice and lyrics had already long left an indelible imprint in our lives and loves, the first opening bars of some tracks being enough to pull us down into the tearful, wistful realm of the retrospective.
That swooping, majestic mezzo-soprano has, for so many of us, become forever intertwined with first dates and anniversaries and times when we’ve found ourselves stopping dead in Superdrug because a certain song suddenly takes us back to said first dates and anniversaries.
I’ve personally ended up becoming zoned out in various pub after getting caught unawares by one of Adele’s more mournful tracks, suddenly ripped back to some defining crack or tear in the otherwise quiet continuum of my rather ordinary life.
And yet I seek Adele out time and again, turn to her in times when I want to – need to – eke out some of the less pleasant residues of my heart in a theatrical explosion of snot and hiccups.
I’ve always been drawn to sad music, which, for me, offers instantaneous imaginative transportation to my very own dramatic ’80s music video, all oversized hair and oversized declarations, and preferably a fair amount of gothic candles a la Celine Dion in the It’s All Coming Back To Me vid.
Reflecting on the particularly wail-worthy nature of Adele’s back catalogue, Nordoff Robbins music therapist Lou Gregg said:
So take the iconic Hello off 25 for example, that song feels exposed and tender and vulnerable, especially in parts where it’s just Adele’s voice and the piano but the song also has big expansive strings and production that makes it feel massive and like it sort of swallows you up.
When you throw in the big drum sounds and of course that flawless vocal with loads of stretched out long notes you get this feeling of a cathartic, heart wrenching cry but one that feels strong and powerful not weak and pathetic.
Now, it’s easy to poke fun at ourselves for weeping over an Adele album, for plonking it on Spotify after a hard week as we reach for an ocean deep glass of white wine, and many a so-called chick-flick will rely upon such moments to reveal the protagonist’s thoughts in a comedic fashion.
However, it would be far too simplistic to just gently tut at ourselves for such tendencies, to imagine that we could just as easily pop on some more uplifting music and dance around and transport ourselves into some sunny, musical fantasy land which offers hope on every corner.
The truth is, sometimes we just want to wallow in our past hurts like a deep, sudsy bath; stewing in the tangled knots of old sadness which surprise you with their achy, stingy presence every time. If Lush could bottle this intoxicating concoction, there’d be queues around the block.
Within reason of course, floating off into the sea of ‘sad bangers’ for a bit can be beneficial for our overall well-being, giving us a minute to digest and recognise the complex and often downright perplexing contents of our own personal wells of gloominess.
I spoke with Clare Maddocks from the British Association for Music Therapy (BAMT), about why exactly we humans love to drag ourselves through musical anguish, when the most logical solution would surely be eschew weepy ballads altogether.
Maddocks explained that human beings are usually drawn to sad songs which are ‘a bit slower in tempo’ and a bit ‘slower in speed’:
We often like things that we refer to as minor, so if you’re not familiar with music, minor refers to that kind of sad sound and different combination of different notes together. That kind of feeling.
In terms of what makes a stonkingly good sad song, Maddocks believes it really is all about the ‘the delivery and the singer’, with Adele’s ‘passion’ coming through clearly in both her live performances and her recordings:
I think there’s something about the human voice that we just relate to so much, but particularly when we’re in a mood and that piece really matches the mood.
Adele is one of these just naturally phenomenal emoters, and she really can – not just with the words but with the delivery – put across her passion and the real feeling of music.
Like all gorgeously sad songs, Adele’s tracks tell a story where we can see fragments of our own personal histories, touching on the sort of huge, universal feelings many of us struggle to keep contained in our everyday lives.
Remarking on the phenomenally heart-splintering delivery of Hello – the most famous, beloved track on 25 – Gregg said:
The contrast between those big moments and sudden shifts towards it being more stripped back again all help to encapsulate the throws of how we all feel when we feel sad.
And that’s all before you start to unpack the lyrical content and how we connect to that! Adele uses all of these elements brilliantly, crafting the ultimate, powerful, sad songs.
That’s a very long way of saying that I think we are drawn to quality sad songs because it connects to the complexity of the energy that we feel as humans and gives us permission to let it all out.
According to Maddocks, our brains do ‘a hell of a lot’ when we’re listening to a familiar piece of music, and this really does go someway to explain why I and so many others turn to the same downbeat tracks over and over. The musical equivalent of a cup of tea or favoured shoe brand.
What happens here is that our our brains actually ‘get used to the patterns of the music’ and as Maddocks explained to UNILAD, ‘our brains absolutely love repeated patterns’:
It’s how we learn everything, and how our brain kind of works in terms of memory as well, so when we become familiar with a piece of music, our brain knows that point where the beat drops, or it knows when the chorus is going to come in.
But what also happens is that as you become familiar with a piece of music, our brain also assigns feelings or a memory so it’s kind of that experience of when you hear a song in the car you’ve not heard since you were 14 , and you’re suddenly transported back to singing at a pal’s house.
So our brains create really strong links between music, memory and emotion. And the thing is that, when we are sad, and what kind of draws us to to the music, it’s really kind of a way for us to externalise what’s going on inside.
It’s been near impossible to live on this planet in 2020 without – at the absolute least – experiencing some additional feelings of sadness, unease or fear.
The pandemic has taken its toll emotionally, the effects of the virus gnawing away in a million and one human ways across countless homes, lives, families and relationships.
Many of us are now spending more time at home than ever before, alone with our thoughts and our playlists, perhaps seething over events which we’ve only just had the time to fully comprehend. No doubt many a sad banger has been blasted out during a dull and pensive lockdown evening alone.
That one out of five people reached out to exes during lockdown, as per findings from Indiana University’s Kinsey Institute, really doesn’t surprise me one iota. We are all Adele now, and we all ‘couldn’t stay away, couldn’t fight it’.
In such times, sad bangers are there for you. Letting you know that others out there have also felt lonely and frightened, have also fixated on conversations which should have long been forgotten. You are human, such songs say, and your human-ness will result in some chips and scratches along the way.
Scientifically speaking sad bangers can also make you feel happy, within reason, as per a 2016 study from Durham University and the University of Jyväskylä musicologists.
This study found that downbeat music can in fact elicit feelings of comfort and enjoyment, with the majority of the 2,436 surveyed reporting their moods had improved after having listened to sad music.
If you’ve not been able to externalise what’s been going on for you, if you’ve not being able to have that conversation with someone and be supported, then music is actually a really great way to get out some of what’s going on for you.
Gregg told UNILAD:
I keep thinking about the classic metaphor of ‘sweeping something under the carpet’ and how there’s only so much we can internalise and ignore before it starts causing problems and we start tripping over the stuff that we’ve hidden away.
I think listening to sad music helps get some of that stuff out. It helps to give us a safe space to acknowledge those feelings and experiences, generally without needing to use words.
That gets even more releasing when we sing along! It also helps us to feel connected, not just to what’s going on in ourselves but also to other people; hearing someone else singing about something sad helps us remember that we’re not alone.
I don’t think we’re kidding ourselves, I genuinely think that letting that happen leaves us feeling lighter and brighter.
Of course, like chocolate, gin and all good things, sad banger binging should taken into consideration and you do need to look after yourself first and foremost.
For example, participants in the aforementioned study also reported having painful experiences associated with sad music, relating to deep personal losses such as bereavement or divorce. Such emotional weight needs to be handled carefully, with balance.
According to Maddocks, the importance of keeping a ‘healthy balance’ with our listening habits is particularly true amongst those with mental health difficulties, with sad music serving to perpetuate ‘a depression or a really negative feeling’.
In such cases, Maddocks would advise actually speaking with a mental health professional, and working through what it is about that song that has such an emotional impact for you.
If you’re looking towards practicing a bit of self-care in this area, Maddocks recommends listening to a ‘range of songs’, and to ‘really kind of notice what’s going on within yourself’, noting that ‘our body can have quite a strong reaction’ to music.
Because our brain automatically assigns these emotions and assigns these memories, we can get quite a physiological response, so our heart rate can increase, our blood pressure can lower.
Maddocks advises grabbing a notebook and pen, and scribbling down what you really feel when listening to certain pieces of music, identifying that you ‘need some space to be sad’, and finding the songs which will allow you to ‘hold your emotions and help you process’.
This could involve creating and listening to a playlist before taking a break from it and going for a walk. Or, depending on how you feel, you could make a playlist to help ease you out of your place of sadness, having identified songs which will help alter your mood and help you feel ‘more upbeat’.
By making different playlists, Maddocks explained, a person can have a ‘really useful, powerful tool’ at their disposal. However, she has urged those who feel they are ‘getting stuck’ to reach out for support if needed.
Today, of course, marks the fifth anniversary of 25, and many of us will no doubt be kicking off the weekend by blasting out the Queen of sad bangers herself, content to let the great songstress croon to us as we try to identify something resembling clothes for our respective Zoom parties.
Music has an overwhelmingly powerful effect on the senses under certain conditions, and you should look for little ways to give yourself a – safe and socially distanced – boost if you’ve felt a particular song a little too deeply tonight.
However, please do not feel ashamed if you end up locked in a cycle of sad bangers before the evening is through, stirring-spoon-mic in hand and a much-needed tear in the corner of your eye. Believe me, I’m right there with you.
If you’re experiencing distressing thoughts and feelings, the Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) is there to support you. They’re open from 5pm–midnight, 365 days a year. Their national number is 0800 58 58 58 and they also have a webchat service if you’re not comfortable talking on the phone.