Sunday, April 25, 2010

Day 22: A song I listen to when I'm sad

This could go one of two ways.

What sort of music I listen to when I'm sad really depends on what kind of sad I'm feeling. Sometimes, if I'm just a bit down in the dumps, I want cheering up, so I'll go for something cheerful. There are songs which it's impossible to listen to without smiling - I wrote about one of them back on Day 3 of this project, in fact. But when I'm really cripplingly, my-puppy-just-died-and-my-wife-done-gone-left-me, capital-S Sad, then all I really want to do is wallow in it. And for that, I need a really heartbreaking soundtrack.

To be honest, the album I'm most likely to turn to under such unfortunate circumstances would be the Manic Street Preachers' 1994 masterpiece of pain and self-loathing, The Holy Bible. But I'll be writing about the Manics, and my longstanding - if troubled - relationship with them in a later entry, and I decided when I first started this project that I wasn't going to duplicate any bands across multiple posts. Besides, while it may be my first port of call, THB is far from the only such record in my collection. Sometimes, too, instead of dragging out the spectre of my inner tortured adolescent, I like to indulge in something a little more...well...classy.

It's hardly a fresh observation that a large number of African-American musicians, particularly in the first half of the 20th Century, were able to distill the desperation and pain of generations of abuse into magnificent, heart-rendingly powerful music. And this song is, perhaps, the ultimate expression of that - still one of the most brutal, devastating pieces of protest music ever produced. I must admit to finding something uncomfortable, almost obscene, about my ability to appropriate that agony as a way of indulging my own, rather less significant misery, but that's one of the reasons it's such a remarkable song - while the themes it addresses are very specific to their time and context, the emotions underpinning them still resonate powerfully completely devoid of that context.

Billie Holiday is, quite clearly, one of the greatest singers of the century. Her range may have been limited, her voice untrained and occasionally-thin, but the weight of emotion she could put into the words she sang remains unequalled. Given the sad story of her life, it's impossible not to read a strong autobiographical element into the frail, trembling vulnerability of her vocals - 'Strange Fruit' is the best-known, and possibly the best, example of this, taking the deeply-personal and spinning it into something universal. There's a rawness to her singing which bypasses any melodic weaknesses in the performance, and even after all these years, I still find it hard to hear without crying.

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