In Defense of Sad Songs

Arthurdepression, Happiness, music 26 Comments

I was recently asked by someone dear to me to join the fray here at, and I looked forward to the challenge.  I must admit, due to my “distance” growing up from any major LDS hubs (I have mentioned elsewhere that I grew up in a small branch Western Kentucky), I have been somewhat insulated from some of the issues that effect the posters that post here, and never gave them much thought.  It wasn’t that these issues didn’t exist, but, being that I was one of three Latter-day Saints in my high school, when asked about the Church’s position about, say, same-sex marriage, I just said something off the top of my head, using my intuition and what I knew from the Scriptures, and assumed that was the Church’s position.  The Church was neither ubiquitous nor monolithic to me.  It was a small branch comprised of about three big families.  I am sometimes somewhat amused by the difference between the issues facing Latter-day Saints “Out West” and those for me.

I find myself more interested in matters of emotion, art, and music, then, and one point in particular has caught my attention at various times in my life.  That is, the relationship of the Church to sadness.  I had a crash course once I hit my teenage years (as many of those inclined towards the artistic things of life are) in sadness, and honestly, the Church didn’t seem to help.  I saw a huge grey swath between the concepts of The Spirit, depression, joy, sin, and righteousness.  Depression recently has found some attention in Church publications, but I found that there are still, just as there were when I was young, remnants of the idea out there that somehow depression is always caused by sin and righteous living always leads to joy, or the idea that if you are happy, this must come from the Spirit.  It seemed that, in the LDS world, we can tend to have quite a “perfection” complex, and sadness is seen as imperfection.  We can’t let anyone see our imperfections!  Why can’t we just be perfect like the Stake President’s family?  Yet any psychologist will tell you that repression of sadness (and none of us are immune to this at some point in our lives) leads to strange manifestations in other places in one’s life.  It was difficult for my young teenage mind to really center on one concept or the other (emotion vs. the Spirit), and it was especially troubling when I actually found catharsis in sad songs.

Luckily I’ve found in recent times that there are LDS artists who are focusing on, not praise music, or what you’d typically find on EFY CDs, but worldly forms of music:  rap, punk, heavy metal, folk, the list goes on.  It is LDS music that I’m interested in, but not necessarily “LDS Music.”  I’m more interested in musicians who happen to be LDS, whose faith seeps out from the seams of their work, rather than those who place the faith before the art.  In defense of sad songs, I’ve found that, rather than suppress our sadness, we learn about it, admit it to ourselves, and only then can we “fix” it.  This is what the artist does:  she holds a mirror to herself, paints a self-portrait, warts and all, and then shows the result to the listener, who finds relief in the discovery that they are not alone.  Thus Christlike bonds are formed between human beings.  No pretending to be perfect here.

Comments 26

  1. I think there is a vocabulary problem here. In french we have two words “déprimé” and “dépressif” the first one refers to the state we can be in when not doing what we know is right, the second refers to the disease you are talking about.
    I don’t know if you have two different words in english as well, I would like to know whether you do or not.
    It is like for the notion of pride. We also have two words: “fierté” and “orgueil”. You are “fier” of your son but it is when you are “orgueilleux” that you don’t want to repent because others are always wrong and you’re right.
    I am sure GAs are fully aware of the difference between the two but it would be nice if you had two words and if they’d use it.

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    There is no term similar to “depression” that refers to guilt, as far as I know. Depression simply means intense sadness, and the emotional illness or extended sadness, etc. It WOULD be rather nice if there were a different word, because sadness CAN come from not living properly.

  3. I am sooo – I’m trying to remember the nuances of French (it’s been a while). I believe déprimé is more like discouraged in English while dépressif is more like clinically depressed. The nice thing about fierté is the connection to the Latin root for “loyalty” whereas orgueil is more like the Pres. Benson “bad” pride – being arrogant and smug in superiority. There is no real English equivalent for “fierté” although fidelity and patriotism might be closer than “pride” in English.

  4. I,ve been exploring recently using the word sadness rather than depression.Sadness\unhappiness seems to me a perfectly functional state,whereas if we refer to the same set of feelings as depression they are really,by definition,dysfunctional.Freud referred to ‘ordinary human unhappiness’as being a functional state.We conflate the two ,quite diferent sets of feelings in English,and even fear that we may not be taking the experiences of others or ourselves sufficiently seriously should we refer to these feelings as something less than depression.My guess is that many who blog here are fighting for their right to be sad.We have pathologised sadness in our culture-everyone has to be happy in a world where we can have anything-to be otherwise is to be a memento mori.You don’t have to be a scriptorian to see that many in the scriptures were not happy about their experience of life,wether they were obedient or otherwise.Sadness is an ordinary part of the human condition and when we do not respect it as such we run the risk of truly becoming depressed-being stuck in sadness rather than being able to work it through.When we have been able to work through our own sadness and realise that it can be survived,we are more able to tolerate the sadness of others as a temporary and creative state.

  5. Just take our word if you want. Hawkgirl will teach you who to pronounce it
    French has 500 000 words English has 800 000 and this is because you don’t mind taking words from others when you need it which is ONE of the characteristic of a modern language (as opposed to dead languages such as Latin also called classical languages).

    Fierté is seldomly used in the context of patriotism in France and the reason is very simple. We are very orgueilleux when it comes to our culture but there is strictly no fierté in being french anymore.
    So although you’re right about the fierté and patriotism common ground I had a hard time seeing how it applied because it is just not ever used in this context. When we translate your sentence “proud to be an american” we say “Fier d’être américains” which refers to something positve.

    How about we suggest our GAs to have foreigners dictionnaries? I mean I am sure they could use vocabulary from Eastern Europe as well.

    Who is in favor please raise your hand.

  6. Interestingly enough, part of the definition of clinical depression is excessive guilt. This is part of the whole problem. Giving guilt to the depressed or even giving an excuse for their depressed selves to feel guilty will make the problem worse. I see your point about catharsis. I wonder though just how womeone who is clinically depressed is supposed to know they have
    I am sorry to hear that you has the experience you did with the church in the midst of depression, Arthur. Fortunately, my experience was a little different. As far as the perfectionism and prejudices you refer too, I agree they are there,But I would argue that those attitudes are as American as they are LDS. Myy clinical experience seems to bear this out. They are present in every religion and in a way a natural reaction to anyone who would infer that a religion that doesn’t cure depression has issues. Do you see the irony? For me the tricky part is, how do you fight perfectionism and stigma in a way that won’t cause retrenchment of the very same attitudes. I think fighting stigma and perfectionism is done better inside the gospel framework rather than condemning it. My understanding of Christ, the atonement, forgiveness, and self worth all matured in the process of recovering from depression. That said, I still indulge in a sad songs. I have to force myself to stay away from cynical ones however. There is a difference.

  7. I’m glad that I realized long ago that my degree of happiness has nothing to do with “church defined righteousness”. It must be arduous to believe that way.

    ps- Sad songs are just as wonderful as happy ones, IMO.

  8. Arthur – “I’m more interested in musicians who happen to be LDS” Like the guy in Killerz? Anyone else in specific?

    “In defense of sad songs, I’ve found that, rather than suppress our sadness, we learn about it, admit it to ourselves, and only then can we “fix” it.” This is so important. I often think testimony bearing is part spirit (20%?), part nerves (50%), and part suppressed emotion (30%?). Amounts vary. Usually shaken, but not always stirred.

  9. Arthur, good post. You mentioned the prevailing idea in LDS thought that “somehow depression is always caused by sin and righteous living always leads to joy, or the idea that if you are happy, this must come from the Spirit.” It reminded me of that circular that goes around every so often about having the Spirit. I googled it, and there it was!

    When You Have The Spirit

    1. You feel happy, calm, and clear-minded.
    2. You Feel Generous.
    3. Nobody can offend you.
    4. You wouldn’t mind everybody seeing what you are doing.
    5. You are eager to be with people and want to make them happy.
    6. You are glad when others succeed.
    7. You are glad to attend you meetings and participate in church activities.
    8. You feel like praying.
    9. You wish you could keep all the Lord’s commandments.
    10. You feel in control – you don’t overeat oversleep too much; you don’t feel uncontrollable passions or desires or lose your temper.
    11. You think about the Savior often and you want to know him better.

    When You Don’t Have The Spirit

    1. You feel unhappy, depressed, confused and frustrated.
    2. You’re positive, self centered, or resent demands made on you.
    3. You are easily offended.
    4. You become sensitive and evasive.
    5. You avoid people, especially members of your family; and you are critical of family members and church authorities.
    6. You envy or resent the success of others.
    7. You don’t want to go to Church, go home teaching, or take the sacrament; you wish you had another church job or no job at all.
    8. You don’t want to pray.
    9. You find the commandments bothersome, restricting, or senseless.
    10. You feel emotions and appetites sos trongly, that you fear you cannot control them – hate, jealousy, anger, lust, hunger, fatigue.
    11. You hardly ever think of the Savior, he seems irrelevant to your life, or worse part of a confusing system that seems to work against you.
    12. You get discouraged easily and wonder if life is really worth it.

    What does everyone think about this list?

  10. “depression is always caused by sin and righteous living always leads to joy, or the idea that if you are happy, this must come from the Spirit.”

    When I had my first bout of depression this is what I thought. I kept trying to figure out what I had done wrong to feel so bad. It really took time for me to adjust to the fact that it wasn’t because I was doing something wrong and I hadn’t “lost” the spirit. Now I wouldn’t trade that experience for the world. I grew so much from searching and trying to find answers and I have been able to help others when they have been hit with depression.

    “rather than suppress our sadness, we learn about it, admit it to ourselves, and only then can we “fix” it” I love this statement. It was easier for me to supress in the short term, but then I got to a point where it all came crashing down and it does feel better to face the sadness and admit it and begin the healing process.

  11. BiV –

    Wow! What a list. I think that list is dangerous. Many of the items under “When You Don’t Have the Spirit” come from clinical depression. People need to be educated about depression and the symptoms of it and be able to seek treatment for it instead of being made to feel like the problem stems from a lack of “The Spirit”.

  12. ”What does everyone think about this list?”

    Please clarify that you’re not inferring that people who suffer from mental illness simply lack “the spirit”?

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    Hawk- I have a blog online that features interviews I conduct of Latter-day Saint musicians. It is located at and I’m very proud of it so far. It has not been around for too long, and I’m rather picky about the music I feature, so I think I have five interviews so far. Perhaps I inherited my uncle’s love for interviews… 🙂

  14. Wow I’m really happy to discover your interview blog. It’s a great idea.

    Low is one of my favorite bands. I interviewed Alan once for but didn’t ask him about anything church-related. (I actually decided after that interviewing is not my thing. I’m way too awkward on the phone!) (And probably worse in person.)

  15. I think the link between our state of mind and our spirituality may go the other way-it’s our state of mind that affects our spiritual perception.This is an area I’d like to see explored by others,and may hopefully lead us to a less judgemental outlook.Our state of mind is the template through which we percieve the world,therefore it seems to me that whatever pathology we have affects how we use and apply gospel principals in our own life.

  16. Arthur – love this line on your interview blog: “After the blog we will be having refreshments.” Very interesting site!

  17. Bored in Vernal,

    If I were to sum up my distaste for all aspects of Mormonism which are harmful, every one of them is represented by that list, even, and especially even, the fact that it is organized in a list format…

    Hearing stuff like this as a kid is what helped me become EXTREMELY skeptical of LDS truth claims as a teenager and young adult. Once you distribute a list like that in a Church setting and then tie the concept of TRUTH in to “having the spirit”, you have a homemade Jell-O recipe for absurdity.

  18. While I will denounce these hoky lists with the next person as sub-par “folk cannon,” I will nevertheless offer this in its defense…it’s no less legitimate than what we’re stating here equates “having the spirit” (that is, if most of us even believe that one ca truly have the spirit). After all, this list appears to be, at least to me, an expanded version of Galations 5:22-23.

    Will anyone argue that a person who is looking to argue with and dominate over a spouse “has the spirit”?

    Will anyone dare argue that believing the Atonement to be irrelevant would lead to an abundant life of spirituality?

    Will anyone argue that not wanting to pray (and prayer in its broadest sense of communion with God…not just the on-your-knees business) is a good thing for spirituality?

    This list might be folk cannon, but it’s hardly foreign territory to us. And frankly, given that music is the greatest of all the folk cannon, it might be helpful to consider our folk cannon as a part of our open cannon…with such a perspective, sad/happy songs, good/sub-par lists…all of them can ultimately be edifying, for “unto the pure, all things are pure” (though I am loathe to take that statement to its logical extreme as it would open the floodgates for all kinds of practices if people just declared themselves “pure”)

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    Dude, the list isn’t just “hoky” or “folk canon.” It’s outright dangerous and that sort of thinking has caused major damage to many, many people with actual clinical depression in the Church. I think you’re missing the point entirely.

    Everything on that list could be caused entirely by something else. A person who is trying to “avoid others” could have a serious condition and doesn’t need to be told that, not only are they sad, it’s because God has a problem with them, too.

  20. Isn’t the real problem with lists like this the implication of causation rather than correlation? If it were as easy as causation, we’d be in the right to condemn those sinners (??), but if correlation we’re just heaping more burden on those who already have a heavy load. Can’t we just treat these list-makers like Rush Limbaugh and ignore their stupidity?

  21. You are right, Arthur re: its harmful effects on those who suffer (and apparently, whoever crafted that hasn’t read Alexander Morrison’s good article on the subject in the Ensign). I suppose that I do see some merit in it, if only because the list has helped me recognize in myself qualities that I should not have. Yet I concur that it should not be held up as any kind of standard; it’s no more or less valuable than a John Bytheway quote or a nice EFY song which can be either embraced or utterly decimated according to its helpfulness to the hearer. As a matter of personal faith (and others approach it differently with good reason), I try to make it a point to see merit in most things…even Saturday’s Warrior has some redeeming quality (and those of you who know me know that I am quite unsparing in my criticism of the level of such art we put forth as our best and brightest). My point in calling it “folk cannon” is that we should recognize it (and repudiate it) as such. The gospel sharpens human emotions…it doesn’t dull them and call for what Elder Hafen has described as a “smiley-button faith.”

    But in recognizing the list’s flaws, it doesn’t mean that we need to call the list worthless. They’re decent ideas that might help many people dealing with the problems that are “common to man.” But that said, if passed out as a card, it should be accompanied with a ringing declaration that it is not all inclusive and that sometimes sadness, has nothing to do with righteousness. It might be clinical depression or another issue unrelated to personal worthiness. Stephen Robinson has told of his issues with clinical depression in my New Testament class…casts Believing Christ in an entirely new light for me.

    It also might be healthy–what kind of a man would Enoch have been if he hadn’t teared up at the woes that befell mankind? He even “refused to be comforted.” Oh but c’mon…why doesn’t he just “snap out of it”? Why doesn’t he just “take care of his family and believe that everything will be alright”? “Enoch, just get your (name favorite grad. degree here) and move forward…”

  22. Sooo…I work as a classical musician and I find sustenance in all sorts of music–cold water on the face like a Mozart Allegro, or the gut-wrenching agony found in a Shostakovich Largo. Both are great music, and there’s nothing wrong with exploring all facets of the human condition.

    All human emotions are also felt by Heavenly Father. He has just perfected each of them, and holds them all in perfect balance. (This is why the scriptures mention God’s wrath, or jealousy).

    Two things that might be helpful. The Savior commands us to weep in Doc. & Cov. 42:
    45 Thou shalt alive together in love, insomuch that thou shalt weep for the loss of them that die, and more especially for those that have not hope of a glorious resurrection.
    46 And it shall come to pass that those that die in me shall not taste of death, for it shall be sweet unto them;
    47 And they that die not in me, wo unto them, for their death is bitter.

    So grief is OK.

    And here’s a great book giving an LDS perspective on depression:

  23. Heading back to the original theme…Sad music serves an important purpose for those of us who need to process those natural states of sadness that inevitably show up just by being a part of life in this world.
    There are so many challenges we have and sometimes we are met with defeat and confusion. Softening ourselves and giving in to the ache of sad emotions we feel certainly allows us to come out on the other end more quickly. The sure way to get stuck is to deny that we ever need to process sadness.
    Children are great examples of how quickly healing can take place. Hug a sad child and honor them, right where they are at, and watch how they naturally shift right before your eyes in most cases back into resolution and joy again.
    As a recording artist I’ve toured around the world and found that my sad compositions have connected more deeply with people over time than anything else I’ve done. I’ve definitely received alot of letters regarding the healing aspects of the more sad songs. So I’ve seen firsthand how the heart appreciates the chance to cry when it really needs to do so.
    Sad music and sad songs give us an opportunity to release the hurt; we can start to flow and empty it right out of ourselves. That’s what the heart wants to do. When we let it do what it wants to do the sun can eventually alwayas find a way to come out again.

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