Cry-Dancing: The Sublime Catharsis of Tragic Pop

“Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?”
Nick Hornby, High Fidelity

The pop-dance-track rife with lyrical morbidity is possibly the most accurate reflection of the contemporary youth sensibility in popular art. My personal favorite examples of this genre include: Gone by Charli XCX, So Hot You’re Hurting My Feelings by Caroline Polachek, Stay High by Tove Lo, and practically the entire early discography of Billie Eilish and certain cuts by Dua Lipa.

Sadness performed, sadness wallowed within, sadness made into more-than-sadness allows one's sadness to feel purposeful, greater-than, part of something larger. The realistic, kitchen-sink, and detailed sadness of a lo-fi or bandcamp-adjacent artist is too real, and an end within itself; the depression of the pop star propels the listener always towards the possibility of there being an end in sight.

Pop songs paradoxically both allow us to ridicule our sadness while imbuing them with artistic importance. We’re dancing, it’s silly, but it’s beautiful, and it’s so fake it’s real. Manipulated to epic proportions by the emotional intelligence of pop chord progression and production, one's emotions become an event with a beginning, middle, and end. One’s feelings are rendered important for their own merit, worthy of the largest synths and the hardest snare.

While this phenomenon of dark-dance-pop might be seen as something relatively new, emerging from the growing inventiveness of avant-garde pop and the dark sense of humor pervading internet discourse, I see it as existing with the tradition of ritual melodrama, stretching from the Greek Chorus to Opera to Screamo to today. Music’s function is to express emotions beyond the realm of language, to sing when talking is not enough to communicate an urgent need. What these melodramatic musical genres do is exaggerate this function, inflating the scale of our feelings to a fever pitch. Furthermore, it allows us to enjoy the saccharine treats of pop musical structure while still feeling like we are participating in a work of artistic merit — provided we so often equate a work’s artistic merit with the depths of suffering which it pummels.

Yet why do I still feel that sad pop, the sad pop banger, is a particularly important popular art?

Because the tragic pop banger is a product of the contemporary moment, and a representation of the sensibilities of my generation, a generation raised on the internet and steeped in irony. Unable to escape contradiction, excess, and paradox, we thrive in it. Subcultures no longer exist; we are a generation defined by a selection of untethered and somewhat unrelated passions. Music genre is obsolete. Absolutely nothing is sacred. In fact, subjects which ‘should’ be taken seriously (global conflicts, mental illness, trauma, etc.) are almost exclusively addressed through humor in online mediums. The constant misaligning of tone with event, of context with content, is characteristic of youth discourse. There is no form which suits this better, and feels more relatable, than a pop song of tragedy.

Additionally, there is the simple fact that pop music’s explosion of emotion (what a critic might call exaggeration or pastiche) breaks down the psychological barriers of sadness. The listener does not have to observe closely subtle lyrical wordplay, such as in a Julien Baker or Phoebe Bridgers (RIP) song, or struggle with the honesty and rawness found with indie musicians like Car Seat Headrest. Through pop, one can allow the ‘pastiche’ of sadness to replace real, devastating melancholy — a phenomenon which romanticizes it, minimizes it into a narrative, and makes it vanquishable.

I don’t necessarily believe that pop songs are inherently more suited for tragic subject matter than other genres. But I do believe it to be supremely well-suited for a modern youth sensibility. More specifically, I find it supremely well-suited for myself and those like me; those who question the legitimacy of their feelings, perhaps analyzing or pathologizing their problems (as our hyper-aware-of-mental-health generation often does), and feel as though authenticity of emotion is unrealistic through the thick fog of everything being a joke. For this listener, this hypothetical listener with whom I share a kinship, I dare to argue that the danceable pop song with devastating lyrical content is one of the most timely and personal artifacts of popular culture we have.