This is a partially formed thought, and I'm going to do my best right now to get it down somewhat clearly but I want to emphasize that I'm still working through this metaphor. I think that one of the major functions of art, and maybe music in particular, is to serve as an emotional regulator.
Like -- I know that art makes people feel emotions. That's pretty close to being something everyone agrees about in a field with basically no common definitions. And I know that everybody or nearly everybody makes decisions about what art to consume based on how they want to feel. I think it could be useful to understand that function as an emotional regulation mechanism, the way sweating is a physiological regulation mechanism.
I've been thinking about this because I recently saw a post on Tumblr, suggesting having a set of personal playlists set up in advance, for a bunch of different purposes: getting pumped up, calming down, focusing, etc., and I started to think about the fact that a lot of my own musical choices seem, to some extent, counter-productive.
Like, I listened to the Smiths a lot in high school. That was probably a bad idea altogether, but in particular one of the lines that still
haunts me gets stuck in my head all the time is:
"I know I'm unlovable, / You don't have to tell me, because / Message received, loud and clear, loud and clear."
I can't remember what song that's from and I'm not going to look it up.
Here are some other chunks of songs that get stuck in my head all the time:
"I fell off the sidelines, long ago / I have no occupation, I'm just wasted for the weekend scene / so don't ask me out, don't make me try / 'Cause I'm just gonna let you, / I'm just gonna let you down"
"Betty, it's so hard to relate / to the whole human race, / I don't know where to begin, / I don't know where to begin / If we could both find a way / to do the things that we say, / we might not sit in our rooms / and waste our daydreams away."
I don't think sad songs, or depressing or nihilistic songs, are necessarily bad. I mean, they make up a lot of my favorite music. But they definitely help reinforce and reproduce a kind of headspace that isn't always necessarily healthy.
If music is a semi-conscious self-regulatory system, then there can be a kind of self-destructive behavior in listening to depressing songs when you're already depressed. Not all the time -- there's a lot of good that can come from it. Knowing other people have been through or are going through what you're going through makes a huge difference. So does acquiring a language with which to think about your experience, and being validated in the realness and legitimacy of your feelings.
But it's also possible to use those same tools to keep yourself in a place that you are actually capable of working your way out of. In a way I'm having trouble articulating, it's like your musical tastes can manifest as an auto-immune disease against your emotional well-being.
I've written before about being kind of no good at music -- I was always too embarrassed to admit to liking anything musical in high school, for fear of being accused of being a hipster or a goth or an emo or too mainstream or too fringe or just liking things because my friends like them or just liking things for attention. (Basically I was terrified of people noticing me because I couldn't imagine it being a good thing.)
One of the consequences of that, I think, is that I have no intuitive sense of how to use music as a system of emotional self-regulation. Sometimes I decide I want to listen to music, and I put on an album, and I end up making myself sick with worry and anxiety and fear. I remind myself of all those feelings of being unlovable, useless, unconscionably unmotivated and small.
And I've tried to build playlists to get me out of that space, but every time I do I just seem to discover that even bigger segments of the music I like have incredibly sad and upsetting themes that I just hadn't noticed in contrast to the even sadder, more upsetting music I listen to when I'm not trying to cheer myself up.
So, I don't have any music to get pumped up or calmed down, and I just use a sound generating app to block out the rest of the world when I need to focus. (It's got like six different kinds of rain tracks, city noises, wind chimes and an oscillating fan playing. I paid for the Plus version of the app.)