Pain Soundtracks

This past Saturday, some colleagues and I launched a new blog project called Write Where It Hurts in hopes of starting a collective conversation about the emotional aspects of teaching, research, and service. As we launched the site with our first post and shared our vision with a post on another academic blog called Conditionally Accepted, I found myself thinking about the use of music to manage pain and other negative emotions.

Since I was a teenager, I’ve often turned to a handful of artists whenever life feels terrible. Whether I’m sad, angry, insecure, exhausted, experiencing bouts of depression with or without noticeable stimuli, or grieving a loss, I typically crank up my stereo (often either in a car while driving aimlessly or in my headphones while roaming around aimlessly) and just let the songs wash over me, sing along in a cracked voice, and wait for the latest storm to pass. In fact, I doubt this type of behavior is uncommon.

For me, as noted in the comments section of a previous post, the big ticket song is Perfect Blue Buildings by the Counting Crows, which lyrically feels like the inside of my head when I’m swinging downward. I find myself screaming along with Adam Duritz about the desire to get “myself away from myself and me.” By extension, the whole Counting Crows catalogue becomes my own personal pain soundtrack, and it usually doesn’t take long for it to be joined by some other artists that just somehow speak to the way I experience, interact with, and interpret pain in my own life.

Alongside the Counting Crows, the other two most common elements of my pain soundtrack include Melissa Etheridge and Gary Allan. In fact, based on when I initially got into the music of these two artists, I sometimes wonder if maybe pain is exactly why I listened to both of them in the first place. There is something about their raspy vocal styles, and the propensity of hooks involving things that just don’t work out well that speak to me on a level I can’t quite understand. While there are any number of songs by these artists (like the Counting Crows) I could mention, I generally find myself turning to Melissa Etheridge’s If I only wanted to and Gary Allan’s Songs About Rain the most. The defiance of the former and the ‘I can’t catch a break’ of the latter somehow make me feel better (if only for a few minutes) no matter what is bothering me at the time.

Reflecting on these things, I wonder if other people have pain soundtracks? What songs do we turn to when the world turns against us, and why do we pick these? As a commenter has noted rather well on other posts, there is a powerfully personal element to what songs and artists mean to us, and thus I would guess answers to these questions would reveal intricate avenues of our selves and lives that might not be apparent to any but those closest to us. What is your pain soundtrack, do you have one, and if not, what might yours look like?

I wonder about these questions, and I think about the work of Staci Newmahr concerning interactionist elements of pain and other emotional experiences (see here and here for examples). While focusing on sexualities and BDSM community activities, Newmahr notes the reciprocal and interpretive dimensions of pain and emotion, and I think about these dynamics when I realize not only that certain artists and songs speak to me when I’m hurting, but also that in those painful moments there is a pleasure (a release if you will) that comes from passionately screaming along to these songs and using their content to explore, feel, and interact with emotional pain. This connection between pleasure and pain is not uncommon in the world, and thus I wonder if we look at our pain soundtracks (or those of others) what we might learn about the ways people turn negative emotions into positive expressions and vice versa. What does it feel like to sing our pain with existing musical selections as our own seemingly personal backing band? What does it feel like to belt out the songs that make the bad days better? What might interactionists learn about pain and music by studying the two in combination with one another?

I don’t have the answers to these questions at present, but as usual, I invite the thoughts of others on the relationship between painful emotional experience and musical selection or consumption. If my own reflections over the past couple weeks are any indication, there may be much to learn from this nexus about ourselves, our relationships with others, our emotions, and music itself. I wonder how many people, like me, reach for the records when it hurts, and figure out the hard moments by singing along.

J. Sumerau


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The Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction (SSSI) is an international professional organization of scholars interested in the study of a wide range of social issues with an emphasis on identity, everyday practice, and language.
This entry was posted in Blog, Discussion, Emotion, Interactionism, Music, music sssi, Pain and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Pain Soundtracks

  1. Reblogged this on My Symbolic Interaction and commented:
    I believe music plays a large part in many people’s lives. Just today I was listening to several of my favourite you-tube pieces. I’ve added “write where it hurts” to the blogs I follow.

    • Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction - Blog says:

      Thanks! As we’ve noted before, I think you’re right about their being an important personal dimension in the ways people approach or interact with music in a wide variety of ways.

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