Last Friday, just as people were starting to turn their attention toward the weekend, the internet gave us a parting message of sorts, something that felt like homework, even: video of a Louis C.K. appearance on Late Night With Conan O’Brien during which the comedian shared his reasons for not allowing his daughters to have cell phones. First, he says, cell phones preclude us, and especially children, from feeling empathy—it’s easy to say hurtful things via text message because you’re spared the awkwardness of having to see the other person’s reaction, thus making it easier to just go on saying even more hurtful things to even more people. Simple enough. It was the next part, though, that really got everyone clicking the share button.
You need to build an ability to just be yourself and not be doing something. That’s what the phones are taking away, is the ability to just sit there. That’s being a person. Because underneath everything in your life there is that thing, that empty-forever empty. That knowledge that it’s all for nothing and that you’re alone. It’s down there.
And sometimes when things clear away, you’re not watching anything, you’re in your car, and you start going, ‘Oh no, here it comes, that I’m alone.’ It’s starts to visit on you. Just this sadness. Life is tremendously sad, just by being in it…
That’s why we text and drive. I look around, pretty much 100 percent of the people driving are texting. And they’re killing, everybody’s murdering each other with their cars. But people are willing to risk taking a life and ruining their own because they don’t want to be alone for a second because it’s so hard.
On one hand, it’s not surprising that the clip made its way around the internet like wild fire. Most sensible people have probably felt at least a little bit conflicted over the myriad ways in which their phones serve as their lifeline. But on the other hand, there was something old-fashioned about it, the sort of thing we’ve been conditioned to roll our eyes at: an extremely wealthy middle-aged white man talking to another extremely wealthy middle-aged white man about how he sometimes feels sad.
Silly as it may sound, the very notion of sadness has fallen out of favor over the past few years. Navel-gazing indie rock has become a punchline in music critic circles, of course, replaced by glossy, carefree pop (or pop-leaning indie) as the preferred mode; and there was a real final-straw kind of vibe when Keith Gessen published his debut novel All the Sad Young Literary Men back in 2008. All across popular culture, the rap on sadness came to be that, for certain groups of people anyway, it is merely a result of unattractive self-absorption, a luxury only afforded to people of at least moderate privilege.
There is some truth to this, certainly, but we over-corrected the way we always do, and we wound up in a situation where, to drive home the point that we’re not beholden to ostensibly outdated ideas about art and culture and the conditions under which they thrive, we’ve sought out the kind of art that flies in the face of the sad-sack stuff so many of us grew up with, and in the process we’ve conflated defiantly happy with stupidly happy. Our signals have become badly crossed. We now bristle at the urge to wallow, even though wallowing often leads to self-reflection, which often leads to us learning more about ourselves and the people around us, and then—and this is what Louis C.K. was probably getting at—to making art that’s informed by the whole process. Great art, even. It’s not the only way to make great art, but it’s sure as hell one of them.
This week we celebrate the 20th anniversary of Nirvana’s third and final album, In Utero. It’s getting the deluxe reissue treatment—a 3CD set featuring b-sides, live performances, demos and lots of other stuff of varying import, including a remastered version of the album itself. I spent some time with it this weekend, and I was surprised to find that the album isn’t quite what I remembered.
Considering what happened to Kurt Cobain not long after In Utero was released, it’s tempting to think of the album as an all-out mope-fest. And in some ways, of course, it is, but it’s less driven by feelings of sadness than it is about the effects, positive and negative, sadness has on us. I remember smiling the first time I heard its opening line, “Teenage angst has paid off well, now I’m bored and old,” from “Serve the Servants.” It’s as good an album-opening line as there is, and I remember being proud of myself for recognizing it as a joke—a response to the rampant simplistic readings of Nevermind and the movement it helped establish. But hearing it now, it doesn’t really sound like a joke. It sounds genuinely mournful. I continued listening: “Scentless Apprentice” is still totally fucking brutal. “Heart Shaped Box,” even 20 years later, continues to feel overplayed and fails to register with me in any real way. Same for “Rape Me,” actually.
But during “Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle,” it’s right out there on the table, a chorus consisting of just one line: I miss the comfort in being sad. Sung over and over and with as palpable sense of yearning as there is on the whole record, it sounds like the truest line he ever sang. The comfort that had escaped him was ultimately too big a loss to overcome—ironic, of course, given the amount of people for whom Cobain provided exactly what he needed most.
Another artist who clearly understands the power of sadness has an album in stores this week as well. Drake’s highly anticipated third full-length Nothing Was the Same finally comes out today, and as Pitchfork’s Jayson Greene put it in his review of the album, “As Drake albums go, this is the Drakiest.” I can never quite figure out how I feel about Drake. I find half of the songs he’s released excruciatingly boring and stupid, and I find the other half unbelievably thrilling and stupid. Or, if not stupid, exactly, then maybe just Machiavellian. I’ve never seen another artist more adeptly use his own sadness to win over an audience. He’s made an entire career out of it: First he had nothing, which made him really sad. Then he got rich, which made him happy, but then also sad. He has lots of sex with lots of women, which makes him sad because he knows deep down that he should be treating them better. So then he gets drunk, which makes him sad because it leads to him having sex with more women and thus becoming even sadder.
I wouldn’t question anyone who wants to call bullshit on the whole thing—he really does come across as the world’s most irritating humble-bragger, or, worse, like one of the faux-sensitive indie-rock/bookish dudes (think Nathaniel P., for instance) that have become the scourge of the dating world. But it’s also not difficult to see Drake as embodiment of that “empty-forever” feeling Louis C.K. was talking about, as a person who’s learning that true fulfillment doesn’t necessarily come from the things you spent your whole life thinking it would.
This is why Drake in particular seems like such a perfect artist for the age we’re currently living in, and why sadness in general seems like a perfectly reasonable emotion for artists of a certain age to be exploring. Much has been written about the plight of the millennial, about how they’ve been left with a world that is so drastically different than the world any previous generation had been left with that there was nothing anyone, themselves included, could do to prepare for the lives they’d be forced to live in their 20s. They have unspeakable amounts of student loan debt and no reason to believe the degrees they earned will help them get jobs that will pay enough for them to do anything other than make their loan payments. Not to mention, they live in a country that’s been at war for about half their lives.
This is extremely stressful stuff. It’s stressful enough that you almost can’t blame them for just trying to avoid the whole thing, for diving headfirst into a seemingly endless pit of 90s nostalgia, spending an inordinate amount of time fondly recalling and ascribing hugely inflated value to the meaningless trappings of their youth. It’s an extremely effective coping mechanism, helping to take the focus off what is often a very glum present. One has to wonder, though, what would happen if they just gave themselves over to the sadness they’re feeling right below the surface. It would probably really difficult. But then it might be something else.