The legend of the Hungarian Suicide Song is one of those things that does the rounds on the blogs every few years, and it surfaced again on io9 over the weekend. The song in question — László Jávor and Rezső Seress’s “Szomorú vasárnap,” which translates into English as “Gloomy Sunday” — is famous for having allegedly catalyzed multiple suicides over the years, including its composer Seress’ in 1968. Quite how much truth there is in all this is forever unclear, but one thing’s for sure: the song’s depressing as hell. Still, it’s not always the obviously downbeat songs that cover disturbing and/or depressing subject matter — sometimes it’s the most deceptively jaunty songs that conceal the saddest lyrics.
Terry Jacks — “Seasons in the Sun”
It’s actually about… impending death!
The classic example of the happy song that’s actually crushingly depressing. The jaunty melody belies the lyrics, which are about bidding farewell to loved ones — the most common interpretation is that it’s about suicide, but the lyrics never specify why the protagonist’s death is nigh. Anyway, it all makes slightly more sense when you discover that the song is actually an English adaptation of a lyric by Belgian poet laureate of melancholy Jacques Brel.
Jens Lekman — “The Opposite of Hallelujah”
It’s actually about… depression!
This is surely the catchiest song ever about the impossibility of describing the experience of depression to someone who’s never experienced it. The lyric finds Lekman trying to explain the way he feels to his sister, and its wry humor can’t paper over the narrator’s despair, or his fear that she might one day suffer from the same illness (“You still think I’m someone to look up to/ I still don’t know anything about you/ Is it in you too?”).
The Statler Brothers — “Flowers on the Wall”
It’s actually about… existential loneliness!
This was an unlikely top ten hit for the Statler Brothers — it reached #4 on the Billboard chart in 1965, and found a whole new audience when it was featured on the Pulp Fiction soundtrack 30 years later. This means that there’s two generations of listeners who found themselves humming its oh-so-infectious melody, never really thinking about how crushingly sad its narrator is, despite (or perhaps because of) his delusional tendencies.
of Montreal — “Heimdalsgate Like a Promethean Curse”
It’s actually about… depression!
The title isn’t exactly promising, but at first listen, this actually sounds pretty upbeat and happy… until you read the lyrics, that is. This is an oft-misinterpreted song — the “chemicals” that Kevin Barnes are singing about aren’t drugs, they’re brain chemistry, and the lyric discusses the way that depression can descend arbitrarily, often at the most inopportune and frustrating times.
Elvis Costello — “Veronica”
It’s actually about… dementia!
Costello has written some enormously sad songs in his time, but unless you listen carefully you’d never guess that this was one of them. If you do pay attention, however, you’ll find that the lyric discusses the slow mental deterioration of the narrator’s grandmother, and the indifference of the people who are supposed to care for her: “They call her a name that they never get right/ And if they don’t, then nobody else will.”
Blind Melon — “No Rain”
It’s actually about… depression, again!
The one and only hit for Blind Melon, sadly, because of the death of singer Shannon Hoon from a heroin overdose in 1995. The song’s best remembered for its video and its distinctive guitar riff, but the lyrics are a whole lot sadder than the Bee Girl would lead you to expect. Like “Flowers on the Wall,” it’s delivered from the point of view of a narrator who’s depressed and isolated, although at least the protagonist here seems to understand his situation.
Outkast — “Hey Ya!”
It’s actually about… a bad relationship!
Wait, no, really? What’s cooler than cool? Shake it like a Polaroid picture? How can this song be sad? But if you listen carefully (or just read the lyrics), you slowly realize that this song catalogs ambivalence and sadness about the state of a relationship, with its protagonist riven with doubt about whether his partner really loves him, and what the point of the whole thing is: “Why oh why are we still in denial when we know we’re not happy here?”
Nena — “99 Luftballons”
It’s actually about… a nuclear holocaust!
The English version doesn’t really do justice to the German original, but both share a common idea — they’re sneaky anti-nuclear protest songs, which makes it all the more remarkable that the German version peaked at #2 on the US singles chart in 1984. The song concerns a nuclear war catalyzed by the titular 99 balloons and a whole lot of misunderstandings, and does a fine job of capturing the madness of mutually assured destruction.
Kylie Minogue — “Better the Devil You Know”
It’s actually about… going back to an abusive relationship!
Nick Cave memorably described this as “one of pop music’s most violent and distressing love lyrics,” and you can see his point — the lyric basically describes being a doormat, forgiving and forgetting any transgression so long as her lover promises not to leave her: “You say you love me… I can’t ask for more.” It’s not so much an ode to love as it is an ode to Stockholm syndrome, and all the more disturbing because of the syrupy manner in which it’s delivered.
Foster the People — “Pumped Up Kicks”
It’s actually about… a high school massacre!
The most irritating advertising jingle song of the last few years is rendered all the more evil by the fact that fact that it’s written from the perspective of a gun-toting high school murderer: “All the other kids with the pumped up kicks/ You’d better run, better run, outrun my gun.” Woohoo!