Tuesday, 27 May 2008


"Bittersweet" is a word I sometimes use when I mean something else that I haven't yet discovered the correct term for. Don't get me wrong, bittersweet is often the right word, but it's a specific of something much broader that I'm convinced a word must exist for, but not one that I know.

Bittersweet is a term that can often be applied to songs written by one of my favourite bands, the Eels. Mark Oliver Everett writes songs like Hey Man, Now You're Really Living which contains the following lyrics:

Do you know what it's like to fall on the floor
Cry your guts out till you got no more?
Hey man, now you're really living

Have you ever made love to a beautiful girl
Made you feel like it's not such a bad world?
Hey man, now you're really living

Well I just saw the sunrise over the hill
Never used to give me much of a thrill
Hey man, now I'm really living...

to the happiest sounding music EVAR. But bittersweet is often an inadequate reaction to many of his other songs. This man writes about devastatingly sad things, mind-blowingly euphoric things, and very often with music that sounds completely at odds to what the lyrics are talking about. That jarringness of emotional meaning, where the happy sounds sad, the depressing sounds uplifting and the ridiculous sounds amazing, that is what I'm driving at when I use bittersweet. Yes, things can be bitter and sweet at the same time, but I need a word that means, more generally, that they can hold two contradictory expressions of feeling in the space of a single entity.

And the reason I tagged my last post bittersweetness was because the song, Black Cab (incidentally, Joe it's by a guy called Jens Lekman, no, I've never heard of him either), sounds happy when you just listen to the music. But then the words are about him killing the mood at a party and getting a taxi home early, not really caring if it turns out the driver is a psychokiller. Bittersweet was the right word then. But when you see a production of Voltaire's Candide (ay-mayzing music by Leonard Bernstein) and there's a lot of Catholics dancing around to a jolly tune about how they're going to burn the heretics, "bittersweet" somehow falls short...


The Big LeBamski said...

The closest term I can think of is "oxymoronic": although technically a linguistic term, I see no reason why a piece of art or music or even a concept cannot be oxymoronic in its juxtaposition of themes and ideas.

That said, this, I fear, may be one of those situations where there is indeed a perfectly good word for the idea you are trying to describe, but I have no idea what it is.

TheTelf said...

In terms of music with interesting juxtaposition of emotions, I feel compelled to suggest the single Heretic Pride by the Mountain Goats. It's an upbeat sounding song about a not at all upbeat scenario in the same way as the one you posted, Hannah.

I feel compelled to talk about the Mountain Goats because they're the only band who's songs I'm at all familiar with.

immedia reaction said...

Now I know why your iPod was filled with Mountain Goats and nothing else...