I may not be the most charitable music listener around. Earlier this evening, as I write this, I just finished listening to a long-unreleased album by country singer LeAnn Rimes, “Whatever We Wanna,” which was recorded in 2006 but only released in 2021 after any audience that wanted to hear confessional mid-2000s pop had long ago moved on to other artists and was not looking for the long-awaited sequel to Rimes’ “Twisted Angel” project. An album placing the artist’s vulnerability and self-destructive behaviors with glossy dance-pop production would not be everyone’s idea of a fantastic album but it is right up my alley, I must admit. Of course, those who know my own taste for bittersweet and melancholy music would not at all be surprised by my fondness for polished production and songs about celebrity misery and woe.
In 1992, as I have written at more length about, former Chicago singer Peter Cetera released his album “World Falling Down,” a largely forgotten adult contemporary album that combined polished production with searing lyrics showing a man in a state of intense personal crisis. Naturally, I have always loved the album. That mix of having music that keeps everything together with a sense of harmony and balance with lyrics that reflect everything falling apart is just the perfect Nathanish mood that I appreciate in music. Perhaps it is not the most praiseworthy mood, but it seems to resonate with a deep and abiding aspect of my own personal heart and mind and spirit.
Later in the 1990s, Christian singer Amy Grant released “Behind The Eyes,” her last album which attempted to reach a pop audience. While afterwards the singer compared the album to her Alanis Morissette “Jagged Little Pill” period, seeing the era found her first marriage falling apart and the singer reflecting on the anguish of having her life fall apart even as she sought to understand what the crisis of her life meant about her character. I do not think that the album is quite as depressed as Grant makes it out to be. It is an honest album about heartbreak but also has a realistic sense of optimism and a hope in a brighter future that the singer would find. By the cheery standards of the singer, though, it is not a happy album, and it was not recorded in a happy place. Not everyone likes to linger on tales of misery and woe, but not everyone is me either.
What is it about celebrity tales of woe and misery that is so compelling to me? I do not think my interest in the subject springs from a sense of envy or hostility to famous people. Rather, I do not think that fame makes the lives of famous people any better. Most people who seek celebrity status are immensely damaged people with a high degree of sensitivity and a lack of self-control and personal discipline. The very act of seeking fame and celebrity indicates something has broken down in what could be a well-ordered soul, as well as a lack of dedication to that which is practical and sensible and likely to lead to lasting contentment in life. It is little wonder when people who have sought to make themselves well-known and well-liked in a world as hateful and broken as our own find that celebrity makes them a target of envious criticism as well as the exposure of their personal vices for the misanthropic entertainment of others. And frequently they are cheated by companies who profit off of their labors but abandon them as soon as they are not worth the trouble.
When artists indulge in their own misery and woe and create work that plumbs the depths of their own divine discontent, what they do is give voice to the larger discontent that exists within this world. When they can give voice to their misery without making their music sound miserable in the process, they provide the listener with a complex listening experience. Those who merely enjoy the vibe will find pleasure and enjoyment in the melodies and harmonies and production elements that indicate that things are going well and under control–at least under control of the producer of the material. Those who pay attention to the lyrics, though, will tend to discover the material is far darker and far more melancholy than first appears to be the case. The result is a tension, if not contradiction, between sounding as if everything is going well while communicating that indeed things are not as well as they may seem. And whether it is a good thing or not, I find that tension to be deeply resonant with my own emotional state.