The Comfort in Being Sad: How Nicki, Taylor, Sia, and Lana Transcended Melancholy in 2014
Nicki Minaj, Taylor Swift, and Sia.
Illustrations by Mark Andresen
Five minutes in to The Pinkprint, Nicki Minaj has already alluded to her broken romance, the murder of a cousin, and abortion. It's a bold move for the rapper who broke through the pop mainstream thanks to songs like the bright-pink "Super Bass" and the neon "Starships." But it's also the kind of move that offers you help getting back on your feet — after it punches you in the gut. She ends the opening track, "All Things Go," with a cinematic flourish. In a manner both menacing and elegant, as only Minaj can accomplish, she delivers: "Gee, we did it. Let's leave this imprint. Just finished writing — this is The Pinkprint."
Minaj is not looking for anyone's pity on her latest album. Neither is Sia, who spends the majority of her beautifully honest 1000 Forms of Fear outlining her struggles with alcoholism and adjusting to fame.
Taylor Swift celebrates her romantic tragedies on 1989, even singing, "Heartbreak is the national anthem, we sing it proudly" on the bonus track "New Romantics." Lana Del Rey wears her sorrow like a well-tailored garment, turning the Sad Girl into a haute couture aesthetic on the nostalgic Ultraviolence. 2014 was a landmark year for sadness, as it finally transcended melancholy and became an assertion of one's control over oneself.
On all of these albums, the artists deliver their stories in ways that are pointed, authoritative, and powerful. They don't hold back in the process, making us adjust to the level of brutal honesty they toss our way. This comes on the heels of Beyoncé's landmark self-titled release, dropped at the end of 2013, wherein we were exposed to a side of a pop star we had never seen before, Bey having been previously known (and criticized) for glossy tunes that barely cracked the surface of her actual life. Yet with that surreptitiously released album, one of the world's biggest and most private celebrities laid her life bare for everyone to see, expressing the pain of a youth spent in beauty pageants and the struggles and triumphs of sex and marriage, and delivering an evocative response to the miscarriage she had before giving birth to her daughter, Blue. This year, on the album's deluxe edition, Beyoncé stuck with the theme of openness with the song "Ring Off," which details her parents' divorce from the perspective of her mother over a shimmering and optimistic beat.
In some cases, the results of the great migration to comfortable sadness were ABBA-esque. Swift's 1989 is primarily cheery; the tale of a directionless romance on "Out of the Woods" is accompanied by pounding drums, while a feud with another female singer is given the singalong-friendly arena-pop treatment on "Bad Blood." Sia's "Chandelier" is the story of alcoholism and party-girl fatigue, a much darker lyrical ambit than the massive delivery and infectious video led many to believe.
On the other hand, Minaj's Pinkprint finds the art in balance. The sad tracks are sad and pull you down — but not too far, given the often blunt and factual delivery of her relationship's hard truths. "Bed of Lies" and "Pills N Potions" hint at betrayal and drug overdoses with no smudging of the mood and reaction those topics often elicit. Rather than cushioning them with love songs and optimism, she delivers different kinds of facts. On "Get on Your Knees," Minaj asserts herself sexually, while she does so professionally on "Want Some More." Heartbreak is not her national anthem; instead, it serves as a stepping-stone to appreciating a variety of personal successes.
To be a Sad Girl hasn't always been as conducive to developing confidence as Minaj, Swift, and Sia have made it. There's a history of women and strong expressions of feeling being diagnosed as hysteria or, more recently, being deemed a form of bad taste within pop culture. To dive into those deeply morose moments of life's failures and pains, and to do so as a woman, had been compartmentalized by pop in the category of cheesy or even cloying. There's an entire book (Carl Wilson's Let's Talk About Love) devoted to dissecting what makes people hate the tear-jerking nature of Céline Dion. Respect for sad girls arrives when the delivery is more intimate, like on Janis Ian's heartbreaking "At Seventeen" or Joni Mitchell's Blue.
This was the year the girls either delivered their feelings loudly or made us simmer in them, no matter how brutal it felt to have those emotions reflected back at us, as singer-songwriter Sharon Van Etten did on her release Are We There. It was a year to be heard and to strip themselves of all emotional inhibitions. It was a year for uncomfortable honesty and the shifting of narratives, as Swift allows herself to do on "Blank Space," poking fun at — and, remarkably, owning — every misconception of her. And it worked: Women ruled every chart this year with ease, dominating sales and airplay and showing that sadness may be our most valuable currency.
Like 2014, those moments and feelings of deep heartache, inferiority, pain, despair, and failure will pass. The feelings themselves are probably distant memories for the women performing that pain, their albums serving as the remaining scar. As Minaj sings, as she begins to let her life's open wounds heal: All things go, all things go.
2014 Pazz & Jop Essays Index • A First-Rate Year for Second Acts • Black Lives Matter • The Comfort in Being Sad • Pop's Not-So-Secret Weapon • Pazz & Jop 2014: The Critics' Best Comments • Tabulation Notes by Pazz & Jop Ballot Master Glenn McDonald
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