Mazzy Star: what is so endearing about notoriously sad music?

Mazzy Star’s unique sound has been described as nothing less than haunting in numerous ways over the past decades, Moreland for example labelling their songs ‘ghostly lullabies lingering in the purgatory of twilight.’ Attempting to accurately capture the mystical quality that Roback’s instruments add to Sandoval’s enchanting voice has proven difficult for many over decades, Lukowski arguing that the band’s music ‘defies any real attempt to bind it with words.’ However, there is undeniably something about the alternative rock band’s sound that manages to capture millions of monthly listeners (Spotify counting 6,916,334 monthly listeners at present) since the success of the Platinum record Fade Into You found itself on numerous soundtracks of television. Despite the band’s infrequent releases, (releasing their latest album Seasons of Your Day seventeen years after its predecessor Among My Swan) since Fade Into You’s peak at 44 on the Billboard Top 100 Mazzy Star has constantly remained lurking in the shadows of the mainstream, just on the cusp of what would broadly be considered popular music.

Fade Into You’s almost inexplicable success is reasoned by the effect that Sandoval’s hauntingly ambiguous lyricism has when combined with Roback’s slide guitar: creating a devastating melody of unrequited love situated amongst a sound of mystical optimism. The hypnotic tri-beatly tambourine not only highlights the desperation in the repeated failed efforts that the speaker describes, but the gentle twinkling that the tambourine adds to the sound also creates a whimsical sense of hope amongst the anguish. The anaphoric repetition at the start of Sandoval’s lines additionally highlights the speaker’s despair, whilst the repetitive rhyme of ‘truth’ and ‘true’ underscores the lack of effort that the speaker receives from their partner. Again, the seeming hopelessness of the lyricism is contrasted by Roback’s musical accompaniment; the swapping between kick and snare drum every fourth beat maintaining a level of audible variety which keeps a sense of optimism throughout the song.

When investigating Mazzy Star and Fade Into You’s seemingly unlikely success (the band never attempting to meet the demands of modern fans who expect to be fed new material consistently) I was particularly struck by one Reddit post – yes, Reddit is my source of inspiration here. The Reddit post read ‘I’m looking for songs as sad as “Look on Down from the Bridge” by Mazzy Star where the sadness is carried by the music more than the lyrics…’ Reading this I had two questions. Firstly, is the sadness of Mazzy Star’sdiscography carried more by the music than the lyrics? And secondly, why do we want to listen to sad music?

To answer the first question, I’d argue rather than the instruments or the lyrics working independently to create the sorrowful longing expressed in Mazzy Star’s music, the two actually compliment each other perfectly. The combination of Sandoval’s mystical lyricism and Roback’s mastery over his instruments allowing for the juxtaposition of desperate melancholy and hopeless romanticism which brings the listener to a sort of spiritual reconciliation with their own emotions.

These expressed emotions portrayed in Mazzy Star’s songs arguably provide a perfect case study as to why some listeners choose to listen to music that is known to be sad; allowing an investigation into this second question. One explanation that psychologists have found for this paradox of an enjoyable sadness is the idea that a musician acts as an imaginary friend. If accompanied by music that seemingly expresses the same emotion that you yourself are experiencing, it is easy to understand why it may make this emotion feel less lonely. Additional explanations of why we listen to sad music can be found in the work of Vuoskoski and co. which concludes that sad music not only produces negative but also positive emotions; such as nostalgia, peacefulness, and wonder. It is fair to say that the music of Mazzy Star leaves room for both this imaginary friend effect and the presence of more positive emotions despite the overarching themes of ‘darkness’ in their music. The entrancing combination of Sandoval’s cryptic lyricism and the instrumental mirror that Roback adds scatters a sense of hope amongst the anguish, exemplifying how a listener may find comfort in the bands discography. Additionally, Roback himself makes a strong argument that the band leave just enough to ‘people’s imagination’ so that the listeners ‘feel they can participate.’ By capturing the painful emotions of unrequited love, desperation, and vulnerability in such ambiguous ways, Mazzy Star create a somewhat interactive listening process where the listener is able to decode the music for themselves, often reaching their own unique interpretation. Thus, Mazzy Star’s subtle yet consistent popularity across the past few decades is explicable through their uniquely alluring melancholy, managing to incorporate a hopeful sound amongst the overwhelming sense of desperation.


Featured Image: By staticblackmagic from Flickr

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