I am forever intrigued by the way art (music, stories, film, physical media, etc.) becomes engrained in our subconscious, by the way we come to obsess over what we enjoy. I’ve written about how Kpop models that obsession in popular music videos. I’ve written about the inability of brain chemistry to explain our obsessions. I’ve even written about how our obsession with the single hurts Kpop in the long run. Today I’m continuing that journey. But this time I’m exploring our obsession with something we can’t possibly enjoy: sadness.
It seems counterintuitive. Why would we want to obsess over something that produces a negative emotion? Why would we lay ourselves down and press repeat on a playlist that makes us nothing but sad. And yet we’ve all done it. We’ve all created an unbearably sad playlist after a bad breakup. We’ve all loaded up our favorite tear-jerker on a bad day and belted out the lyrics. And this makes sense: when we feel sad, we listen to sad music. But why, I want to ask, would we enjoy a sad song at any other time? If we only ever listened to music that matched our mood, why would we have so many sad songs in our music libraries? Why would so many of the classics be so sad?
For today’s exploration, I’ve created a three-song playlist of wildly different Kpop heartbreakers. I can’t find a single connection between these three songs, aside from theme. There’s a haunting ballad, a steady EDM hit, and a devastating rap. All they share is sadness. More specifically: the sadness of hopeless love. Go ahead, listen along with me to Jimin Park’s “Hopeless Love,” miss A’s “Love Alone,” and Mad Clown’s “Fire,” and tell me what you think. Are you obsessed with sad songs? Why?
Jimin Park’s “Hopeless Love” is a gorgeous ballad. Her vocals are unbelievable good, just as they are unbelievably sad. Describing a hopeless love, Park sings, “It knocks on my heart endlessly / But I am tightly shutting the door.” She tries to protect herself, to avoid the sadness, but it is an impossible task. “It hurts,” she sings, “but why can’t I turn away?” Why can’t we all turn away from the sadness to experience only joy?
Hansjörg Schertenleib’s novella, “A Happy Man,” was written as an attempt to create an engaging story based on a character who does not experience an ounce of sadness in his life. The experiment was largely a failure. Not in terms of the writing, but in terms of the attempt at avoiding all sadness. Sadness crept into Schertenleib’s writing almost immediately in the form of nostalgia, missed opportunities, and the adjacent sadness of loved ones. It’s simply not possible to produce an engaging story without sadness, depression, and despair. Schertenleib’s experiment owes a lot to Naguib Mahfouz’s “The Happy Man,” a 1988 story with a similar premise. A man wakes up happy, which Mahfouz describes as “most strange.” The strangeness of being so happy for such a long period of time makes the man so uncomfortable that his happiness becomes a kind of despair. The thing is, joy isn’t possible without sadness. It lacks context. Try to think of the last movie you saw in which nothing bad happened. Give up?
“Love Alone” is maybe the least obviously sad of the three songs on my playlist. Falling in love is never sad. Right? Not so fast. The love described in this song never drifts far from being unrequited: “I don’t wanna be in love alone / See me falling yeah but I can’t be the only one.” There’s a desperate need in “Love Alone,” a constant call to a love without a response. It’s unbearably sad to hear miss A repeat, again and again, “If it’s an illusion / I need you to tell me now,” without ever receiving confirmation. A hopeless love.
Sadness and joy can be thought of not only as opposites, but as opposite reactions. Newton’s third law states that any action must be met by an equal and opposite reaction. It’s a kind of call and response. Could it be that sadness works this way? Could it be that experiencing sadness produces an opposite internal reaction of joy? Or, to put it another way: does sadness beget joy? Oh, it’s not as clean as all that.
Mad Clown’s “Fire” is notable for the intense uncertainty that comes across in the song. This isn’t just a hopeless love, it’s a confusing and uncertain love. Even the two voices of Mad Clown and Jinsil are at odds with one another. The song recounts a failed relationship that neither party is fully able to back away from. “Am I the crazy one? Are you the crazy one? Am I the crazy one for not being able to leave the crazy you?” It’s messy.
It would be wrong to claim that sadness automatically brings joy. Life is never so simple, so certain. But I do think that sadness is a necessary experience. Just as absence makes the heart grow fonder, just as you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone, sadness reminds me how to feel joy. Sadness makes each positive emotion that much better. Each time sadness echoes in the empty chambers of my heart, joy has an opportunity to fill the void. Which is why, as crazy as it sounds, I think an obsession with sadness is a necessary thing. Listen to all the bangers you want; if your playlist lacks heartbreak, you’re not experiencing joy to its fullest.
Zander Stachniak is a southern-born, Chicago-based writer who first discovered Kpop through ShoutCast Radio. His biases are f(x) and Block B.