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Creativity and Depression: Like Peas and Carrots

This morning as I drove to work I was listening to Neutral Milk Hotel's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. It's a rather tortured song about the lead singer's love for Anne Frank. It's beautifully arresting but rather depressing as well. And I started wondering to myself, is the best creative works depressing? And if so, why?

Take film for example, here is a list of the 20 most popular films on IMDb (http://www.imdb.com/chart/top). Not one of them is a comedy, in fact most of them have very serious topics. I had to scroll down to Dr Strangelove at #38 on the list for the first comedy of sorts.

1.9.2The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
2.9.2The Godfather (1972)
3.9.0The Godfather: Part II (1974)
4.8.9Pulp Fiction (1994)
5.8.9The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)
6.8.912 Angry Men (1957)
7.8.9The Dark Knight (2008)
8.8.9Schindler's List (1993)
9.8.8The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)
10.8.8Fight Club (1999)
11.8.8Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
12.8.8The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)
13.8.8One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975)
14.8.7Inception (2010)
15.8.7Goodfellas (1990)
16.8.7Star Wars (1977)
17.8.7Seven Samurai (1954)
18.8.7Forrest Gump (1994)
19.8.7The Matrix (1999)
20.8.7The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)

It's a bit more tricky when it comes to music because people have varied tastes and some people really like Black Eyed Peas and have lots of good feelings about their evenings. Personally I listen to a lot of indie acoustic rock which tends to have more of a lyrical focus, with artists dealing with heavy topics. Interestingly, a recent study analysed popular songs over the last 25 years and showed that music has become more sad-sounding with an increase in slower songs and songs in the minor mode.

While poetry and art tend to express a broader spectrum of emotion, many of the people who have created great works of art tend to be rather sad, with many of them struggling with depression. Despite their tortured personal lives they created beautiful poems or artworks. Their ability to creative beautiful works might well be because many of them felt like outsiders and were able to objectively look at society and draw unique and interesting insights.

Art is supposed to illicit emotion. When we see something creative it should move us in a deeper way, whether it be towards joy or sadness or wherever. Creativity is not there merely to create nice things, but rather to ask deeper questions and explain something of this beautifully awful mess we're in.

Happiness can easily be worn in public, and doesn't require any introspection or greater questioning. But when we get home and have time to think about our lives, and take time to look at an artwork and reflect on what the artist was trying to communicate to us, it can get pretty melancholic. Joy can also be found in these deep places, but it does seem a rather elusive truth.

I think we need to be able to embrace both the melancholic truths and the joyful ones, and not be afraid to be introspective and allow art to speak to us. Otherwise if that's not your vibe, I hear they're making Transformers 4.


  1. i hear you on the funny of your top movies but not on the fun cos movies like Forest Gump and Star Wars and Lord of the Rings are complete fun movies and possibly some others... but ja serious or deep, dark, gloomy does tend to get more accepted or recognised as greater works and there must be some travesty in there. and Die Hard the fifth starts this week...

    1. Ja, those three do have elements of fun, so does Fight Club with a very macabre sense of humour. But at the end of the day I would still place them in the drama section.

  2. Totally. My students are always asking me why all the short stories they study in English are so depressing. I'm like, hm, because they're the best ones. I don't know. But at the same time Shakespeare's comedies are amazeballs. I actually think comedy and happiness are more difficult to write than sadness - it's hard not to resort to cliches, but joy can be just as profound as tragedy. Agree with B, I think it might also just be an accepted thing like 'wow, that's so deep, because it's serious and no-one smiles and everyone dies in the end'. Also comedy is sometimes difficult to discuss or analyse because it's hard to explain why something is funny... I say this after looking at some very funny novels for my thesis and really battling to discuss them!

    1. I agree that it's harder to write a good comedy. Comedy is so very subjective, and so analysing it must be hecka difficult. But ja, Shakespeare ...