Saturday, July 5, 2008

Viva La Sadness

WB just downloaded Viva La Vida, the latest release from Coldplay. To be fair, we've only made it part way through and it isn't bad. For example, "Viva La Vida" has a catchy string section and the lyrics are interesting. Still, we can't help but notice that this CD is no A Rush of Blood to the Head, arguably Coldplay's best work. This started our brains working: why is it that so many artists start to tank after they become successful? Some may call it selling out to please the masses but we have a different theory: pain and suffering create better art than happiness and success.

Granted, this theory is based solely on anecdotal evidence but there seems to be quite a bit of it. Obviously, Coldplay serves as the first example. Chris Martin clearly had much turmoil in his life when he wrote this album (apparently, a rather yucky break-up). Then he met Gwynneth Paltrow, had a baby and !BAM! he's happy. What do we get? Speed of Sound, which sounds like anticipation and expectations being crushed.

Coldplay isn't alone. We saw this same phenomenon with Alanis Morissette: Jagged Little Pill totally ROCKED! Every ounce of venom, anger and vengeance came spewing out of her like sugar-coated battery acid. But then she found inner peace, said thank you to India (and clarity, consequence and disillusionment) and put out a less than spectacular follow-up. However, we are somewhat eager to check out her latest because we heard she just went through a painful breakup. Sad for her, but hopeful for another stunning album.

Sarah McLachlan provides yet another sad=brilliant example. Fumbling Towards Ecstasy tells either a long tale of a woman's journey through painful dependence on others to a self-fulfilling independence OR several short stories about stalking, death and freedom. Either way you listen to it, it's hard to deny what a cohesive album it. But then Sarah got married, became a mommy and focused on being happy instead of producing gut wrenching songs. Again, great news for McLachlan and kudos from WB, but none of her albums have had quite the same impact.

These examples are just a few in a sea of now happy-go-lucky artists who have yet to live up to their previous dirges. What is the connection between art and pain? Can you imagine a happy, sane Van Gogh? Can you picture The Smiths or The Cure opening for Jack Johnson on a comeback tour or putting out a children's CD? What would Edgar Allen Poe read like if he had a happy marriage with children? Prozac and therapy can be wonderful, but let's hope some of us don't get too numb in the future.


pollyanna said...

Misery is overrated. VvG's brilliant output was tragically cut short by too much misery. If only he'd been appreciated, recognized in his time, he'd have lived longer and made more paintings. Madness made the legend and keeps prices high today.

Would a teaspoon of sanity have turned Kurt Cobain into a mediocre nobody, still alive today? Maybe, but I can't buy the trope that great art arises only (or mostly) from suffering, even if I can't produce an empirical study on the spot.

Surely it's possible to be somewhat well-adjusted and still produce great art. Does success and/or happiness necessarily lead to ho-hum art?

I resist the narrative. Dave Groehl survived Cobain's suicide machine; Foo Fighters is NOT Nirvana, but it's a terrific band. Eddie Vedder by himself might not be the same thing as Pearl Jam, but he's lost none of his fierce greatness as he settles into middle age, family.

The tortured artist is a reliably romantic figure, and one that has appealed to me too at various times. But now I hope very much to hear an Amy Winehouse album that reeks of contentedness and good health. I don't want to "consume" the "products" of her disease and self-destruction, no matter how good.

Then there's my musical warhorse, exemplar of tropes I *do* buy into, The Boss. Springsteen still takes his joyfest around the world pretty regularly, though he expressed a desire to quit touring at least 20 years ago. His catalog expands with forays into various genres—evidence of his restlessness and growth as a musician. His catalog includes plenty of shadows/ darkness/gloom. (Factoid: Springsteen co-wrote "Because the Night" with Patti Smith; live video available on

Live, he and the E. Street
Band are giant sparkplugs of so much electricity and joy it replaces the oxygen in the lungs of thousands of people.

Joy + Great Music = ECSTACY

Litchik1203 said...

Perhaps it has something to do with the idea that these musical acts started in a sort of confessional genre (much like Plath and Sexton in poetry) and then moved out of it. This move could signal growth, a new direction or something else entirely, but comparisons will always be made.

From a comparative perspective, confessional art tends to be more appealing to some people (apparently, myself included). I don't think this is the only good art and I do concede there are plenty of artists who are happy, sane and talented. There's just something about that sadness.......