This summer has been quite the bummer, right? We here at Tell Me Something got to thinking: What is the biggest bummer song? You know, that song that you put on and to make yourself feel sad and super Zach Braff-y. Well, there's really only one way to find out and that's an incredibly sad, deeply depressing and somewhat biased look at the songs that bring us down the most presented in a confusing and, again, biased form. Here we go...
Sufjan Stevens - "John Wayne Gacy, Jr"
I don’t think I need to tell you that a song written about a serial killer isn’t exactly a joy bomb, but this somehow manages to be far sadder than your average, garden variety song about someone who killed a bunch of teenage boys. Sufjan Stevens, as is his wont to do, sings this song in a hushed whisper, really forcing you to strain your ear to hear the words, sung in a cascading melody, over the gentle guitar and piano. When you hear them clearly, you almost wish you hadn’t.
It begins like just about every tale of youth gone wrong, with a sad childhood and the comments from neighbors of how nice the young man was. These are, of course, sad things; no one wants an alcoholic father or an emotional wreck of a mother. But it is when Stevens stops narrating and starts empathizing that the song really kicks you in the dick, emotionally speaking.
You can see the shift between the factual nature of the verses and the more unhinged chorus that follows:
“Twenty seven people / Even more, they were boys / With their cars, summer jobs / Oh my God”
The fact that he starts with a lower number than the actual number of murders (33) shows the narrator being so overcome with sadness that details begin to matter less, and the emotion begins to overtake him line by line, until he can only cry out to God. After this stanza, there is a single line that hangs like a spider descending on a single line of web over the listener: “Are you one of them?” Are we victims? Are we a killer, “one of them,” like Gacy? The question is left to linger atop the bed of fingerpicked acoustic guitars and gently hammered piano keys, unsettling you as the song moves on.
The next verse, again, goes into details that we’ve all heard about Gacy: the sexual element, the clown suit, the seemingly upstanding citizen. The chorus comes back, again, emotionally editorializing Gacy’s actions, again, while giving gruesome details beauty through the lyrics. However, it is the final verse that really sticks with me when the song ends:
“And in my best behavior / I am really just like him / Look beneath the floorboards / For the secrets I have hid”
This is heartbreaking for so many reasons, but most of all, because I completely relate to the sentiment. Sure, I’ve never molested or killed anyone, but I’ve got my skeletons, as do we all, that we don’t want people to be aware of, even if they seem slight when considering the grand scheme of things. But in comparing himself to Gacy, Stevens is both humanizing this monster, and incriminating himself as a less than stellar person himself. It is a turn that shocked me upon first listen, but now appears the only way to end the song. - Brian Salvatore
Bright Eyes - "Amy in the White Coat"
What makes this song so sad? Oh, probably the fact that it's about the repeated abuse and rape of a teenage girl, Conor Oberst regales us with every disgustingly, dirty and sad, little detail, bit by bit until we're thoroughly creeped out and covered in our own tears and it's still beautiful...
This song just gets under my skin in ways that few other songs have ever done. I mean, yes the subject matter is hard to take, but it's not the only song to exist with disturbing subject matter (lest I list Misfit lyrics). Nor is it the only song to cover depressing territory (lest I list every country ballad ever). It's just the way that it doesn't make a point of creating villains. The father of the song is a terrible person, for sure, but with lines that include details of the mother who is either dead or gone, you begin to feel for the sick bastard. If only for a little bit. Or the lethargic way in which the girl handles everything, cause she just wants it to be over with so she can watch TV, I'm not kidding, that's in there.
But there's something more. You see, upon stumbling across this song I ended up listening to it time and time again. I even began to love it, and found it haunting and beautiful. Maybe I'm a glutton for depression. Maybe I like to be sad, occasionally. But honestly, in my defense, I think it's just a really pretty song. That turn at around three and a half minutes in is just so damn beautiful. The song crushes your soul while simultaneously lifting it and forgiving it for it's sins. It's paradoxical. It's insane and bizarre and...well a beautifully, brilliant, wonderful bummer of a song. It's about, in it's own weird way, the sins of our own hearts and the salvation thereafter. That's heartbreaking, literally. That's gotta count for something, right? - Chad Foltz