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Happy days are here again ... because sad songs say so much

One of those “desert island” questions came up the other day — you know, “What five books would you want with you if you were stranded on a desert island?” (For which the answer always begins with “How to Build a Boat.”)

This time, it was “What five songs would you want to be able to listen to if you were stranded on a desert island?” (And while The Elders and Matt Mays & El Torpedo each have songs called “Building a Boat,” neither is very helpful in terms of instructions.)

Anyway, I started thinking about my list and the first one that came to mind was an unforgettable song from one of the classic films of the late 1970s.

I speak, of course, of “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” from “Monty Python’s Life of Brian.”

Brian sings the darkly comic, chirpy ditty to a stranger he meets while they’re both just hanging around … only the stranger is Jesus and the two of them, and a delightful whistling chorus, are awaiting the inevitable.

What’s great about the song is that it starts so positively cheerful before the verses take a turn for the worse — the full pu pu platter of emotional distress until Brian acknowledges that “life’s a piece of …” well … pu pu.

Obviously, if you were stranded on a desert island, there’s little doubt you’d be chewing on life’s gristle … just before you draw your terminal breath.

It seems, meanwhile, that somber songs have become entrenched as the earworms of pop culture … even those not written by Monty Python.

A newly released study researching 30 years of popular music has found that we’re used to feeling down in the dumps … since the trend weighs heavily toward songs reflecting increasing levels of sadness.

But, because we don’t want to be silly chumps, a recent study of popular music finds that upbeat dance songs are far more likely to top the charts.

To quote that great baritone, Gomer Pyle … surprise, surprise, surprise — both results have been found in the same study by researchers at the University of California at Irvine.

“It looks like, while the overall mood is becoming less happy,” according to study co-author Natalia L. Komarova, “people seem to want to forget it all and dance.”

And isn’t that a cheerful thought.

I suppose this dichotomy makes sense — the “soul” of the artist conflicting with the “need” of the audience. Regardless of what the songwriter is trying to say, the musicality of the number can create an ironic experience.

Consider, for example, three members of the karaoke singer’s Hall of Fame — “Glory Days,” “Crocodile Rock” and “Old Time Rock and Roll.”

All are energetically performed songs by classic artists in the pop music era, all have instantly recognizable hooks and sing-along choruses — and all are, lyrically, depressing tales of people longing for the good times they use to have now that they’ve grown older.

Yet, when you hear them on the radio or karaoke bar (depending how tolerant your ears are) those songs goose the old endorphins to a high based on nostalgic exhilaration.

What’s missing in such songs is the sequel — what happens when the music stops, and the narrator returns to the present day.

Billy Joel hit this on the head in “Scenes From An Italian Restaurant,” when the old friends meeting and falling into a discussion of the good ol’ days snap back to reality by sharing a couple of bottles of wine — only to realize that these oft-told stories are all they have left of a more exciting past.

Upbeat songs about sadness itself are an alliterative anchor of Top 40 radio – think “Song Sung Blue,” “Seasons in the Sun” or “Sad Songs Say So Much.” Even that trite piffle (or perhaps trifle) that is “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” exists to lift you out of a somber mood.

Harder still is to find an upbeat song that has the opposite impact — although if you’re old enough to remember “Sing,” it’s near-high impossible to listen to it now without hearing the explicit melancholy in Karen Carpenter’s voice and seeing it as foreshadowing the tragedy to come.

Many of today’s “sad” songs are echoes of the advent of singer-songwriter introspection — dealing more often with personal relationships than with the wider spectrum of human experience.

Songs such as Paul Simon’s “American Tune,” another from my list:

But it’s all right, it’s all right

We’ve lived so well so long

Still, when I think of the road

we’re traveling on

I wonder what went wrong

I can’t help it, I wonder what gone wrong

In other words … don’t grumble, give a whistle — we’re all on this desert island together.

Mail Tribune senior designer Robert Galvin (rgalvin@rosebudmedia.com) sings “If I Only Had A Brain” in the shower.

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