Crying in the club is never chic. And yet, it’s one of the most romanticised concepts in pop music. Streamed mascara and snotty tears are not the correct components to ignite a disco inferno, so why do certain sad songs cause us to dance harder than some of the most upbeat bangers? Louise Bruton poses the question.[restrict]
When Lesley Gore sang the words “It’s my party, and I’ll cry if I want to” on her 1963 hit single It’s My Party, she was not the first and certainly not the last gal to project the image of the sad girl at a party in a pop song. Gore took a familiar feeling and instead of painting the horrors of public tears – a clogged up nose and a stammer to go with the sniffles – she shaved off the bad bits and presented a sadness that felt aspirational. Jumping to the present day, the leading lady in sad party songs is Robyn.
There is no dance floor that the Swedish pop mogul has not shed a tear on and thanks to Dancing On My Own and Call Your Girlfriend, two seismic songs taken from 2010’s Body Talk, she gives us the words to pour our own pent-up emotions into. When we cannot summon up the strength to spit spiteful words at the ones who deserve them, our pop stars give us cutting words to scream them at the top of our lungs.
Although recently butchered by a middle of the road man with a guitar, every line in Dancing On My Own hits like a sledgehammer to the heart. “Somebody said you got a new friend. Does she love you better than I can?” There’s power in that opening verse. There’s relatability. It hurts to see someone you love or even vaguely like move onto the next person but because it’s something we all go through at some point in our lives, our feelings aren’t always allowed to be expressed in full swing. But Robyn kindly does that for us. She gives our pain validation.
MAKE IT PHYSICAL
Releasing the paranoia and the jealousy that often imprisons us, she gives us the outlet we need from our own insecurities and as the song progresses, with punching drum machines driving us into dance mode, that release becomes physical. “I’m just gonna dance all night. I’m all messed up, I’m so out of line,” she sings, directing us to dance through the pain, even if it’s the one that thing that’s driving us.
In her final verse, the club lights switch on and the pace slows down to let the stark reality sink in. “So far away but still so near. The lights go on, the music dies,” she sings, letting each word hang for gutting effect, “but you don’t see me standing here, I just came to say goodbye…” And like that, the drum machines fill the silence and we are lifted to a new level of stoic survival. “I’m giving it my all,” she cries with a lifetime of hurt, “but I’m not the girl you’re taking home, oh I keep dancing on my own.”
On the reverse side of that, Call Your Girlfriend is the other woman’s viewpoint but instead of being a glory-drunk villain in this story, she has empathy and dishes out advice that we should all take on board. “You just tell her that the only way her heart will mend is when she learns to love again,” she suggests tenderly, “And it won’t make sense right now but you’re still her friend. And then you let her down easy…”
When your world has been turned upside down or you’re about to cause havoc in someone else’s life, Call Your Girlfriend is the manifesto on how to handle heartbreak.
Sometimes it is impossible to measure how deep our emotional wounds go. Tove Lo, another Swedish pop maestra, goes darker than most contemporary pop artists but over the course of her career, she has taken us on a journey of self-destruction, hedonism and unfiltered freedom. Her strength lies in demonstrating the numbness we use as a shield during troubling times, as seen on her breakthrough single 2013 single Habits (Stay High), where she takes drugs and goes to sex clubs to avoid getting lost in her thoughts. She knocks out pop music with a Berghain twist.
For every bad decision she makes, she provides a key change and a shower of glittering synths that lift us up and out of the gutter, even if the gutter is where we feel like we belong. Cool Girl, her single from her 2016 album Lady Wood, is a sexually-loaded song that’s dripping in irony and padded by swirling dancehall beats. The verses showcase the protagonist’s ability in shutting down her emotions for the sake of an open relationship but the repetition in the deadpan chorus reveals a girl who has shut off more than that: “I’m a cool girl, I’m a, I’m a cool girl. Ice cold, I roll my eyes at you, boy”.
As we wind and grind to her songs, we relive our own mistakes but find comfort that Lo – in all her disastrous glory – falls harder but bounces back stronger than before. Disco Tits, her ecstasy-riddled fuck song, is testament to that. Pure and unabashed carnal joy, she lives out our carefree fantasy that could read like a regret the following morning, but on the dance floor, the only thing we need to protect ourselves from is slipping on a spilled drink.
These sad songs, full of woe and reckless abandon, unlock something feral in us. It only takes a second to be rejected but sometimes rejection can attach itself to your personality for the rest of your life. No gal gets this better than SZA. All the way from St. Louis, Missouri, SZA’s 2017 debut album Ctrl works through the growing pains of a young woman who has yet to figure out her worth. Like Robyn, she has the ability to pull at a heartstring in one line.
Using sarcasm as a defence mechanism, the opening verse of Drew Barrymore conveys the jealousy, the denial and the hurt that comes from seeing the boy you like with another girl: “Why is it so hard to accept the party is over? You came with your new friends and her mom jeans and her new Vans and she’s perfect and I hate it. Oh, so glad you made it, I’m so glad you could come by”.
Even though you hoped that you’d never experience jealousy like this outside of your teen years, it’s reassuring to hear someone else verbalise their petty inner critic. Worried that she’s not ladylike enough for the object of her affections, she scrutinises her own perceived flaws as a means to justify his act of rejection. But the true satisfaction in SZA’s delivery is how every syllable fits so snugly into her jagged R&B bars: “’Cause it’s hard enough you got to treat me like this. Lonely enough to let you treat me like this. Do you really love me? Or just wanna love me down, down, down, down?”
By venting her own securities on songs like Normal Girl, she actually finds a way to love herself again so as we sing along, not only do we ruin our lives alongside her but we get to fix them too. She dips to her lowest peak, thinking that she only has value in the bedroom and isn’t good enough to meet her fella’s family or friends. Bittersweetly, she prophecies that in a year’s time, she’ll know that she was perfect all along and he was the one in the wrong: “This time next year I’ll be livin’ so good won’t remember no pain, I swear. Before that you figured out that I was just a normal girl…”
Whether we’re singing from the privacy of our own bedroom or under the speckled light of a disco ball, these sad pop songs are the therapy sessions that we can’t always afford elsewhere. If the words you need to find are forever stuck as a lump in your throat, these artists provide the hooks for you to wail like a banshee or if you’ve ever felt like your sadness isn’t warranted, these women have felt it hard enough to put into song. Your feelings, expressed or repressed, are of value and to set them free, sometimes all you have to do is hit play and dance.
Even if you are dancing on your own.
For more sad girl pop, Louise has created THIS playlist for you.