"Has popular music been completely consumed by melancholy, anxiety and hopelessness?" Karel Veselý and Miloš Hroch ask in their 2020 book named after a song by The Cure, and today we delve into their compelling narrative.

Despite having been published two years ago, All Cats Are Grey‘s gravity seems all the greater considering that since its release, the world did not become a happier place. The authors’ ideas and theses originated in their eponymous podcast and are quite well-known in the Czech cultural environment, nonetheless with having been released only in our language, SWARM MAG’s diverse audience (and others looking for a refresher) may enjoy this excursion into the authors’ focused interpretation of the history of popular music.

Right off the bat, the text is very convincing and hard to argue with. The 7 chapters more or less follow a chronological development of “popular music” genre by genre and touch upon almost every one, from post-punk to blues, electronic music, metal and rap. In the spirit of the intimate subject matter of anxiety and depression, the authors also occasionally provide some personal context or their relationship to particular artists or songs, other times they quote academic theory to broaden the perspective – both in good doses and always in support of the greater picture.

One of the book’s points of departure in locating the growing degree of negative sentiments in music is academic research. An interesting empirical backing is the quote of a 2012 Toronto-Berlin study which found that compared to the 60s, where 85 % of popular songs were in major (uplifting, happy) keys, at the time of the study actually 58 % analysed tracks were in minor (sad, melancholic) keys. In another study, Lawrence Technological University used data analytics on lyrics of 6000 songs between 1951 and 2016 that hit the Top 100 and found that the use of words labelled “angry or disgusted” doubled, while the number of positive songs dropped to a historical minimum. This shows how data science can offer an interesting view into a field usually perceived as too subjective or ethereal to grasp, lending credibility to those who have to capture music in text.

Reflecting this gradual onset of depression in music in the second half of the 20th century, the authors point out how only until post-punk and folk reached a wider audience, popular music rarely attempted to instigate melancholy – an interesting example is the Beatles’ song Help!, which is dubbed “schizophrenic”, combining desperate lyrics with an upbeat instrumental, showing how the forms of popular music had perhaps not yet developed a functional means for conveying hopeless mental states. It was only later with bands like Joy Division or Simon and Garfunkel that audiences were prepared for melancholic music beyond the occasional heartbreak song.

A pattern that recurs in All Cats Are Grey is that expressions of anxiety or depression in music grew with the development of neoliberalism in the world. As many of the discussed artists were from the United States and Great Britain, and typically from working-class backgrounds, these economic policies directly impacted their experience. Mark Fisher haunts the text like a spectre, often popping up when capitalism is discussed in the book – and the authors link the theorist’s insights into depression being a society-wide condition to the emergence of introspective, melancholic and hopeless music in the late 70s, including post-punk, gothic rock and metal, new genres that in the 80s reached mainstream recognition and success.

The chapter “Eternal Resignation” discusses the importance of grunge that took much of the appeal of mainstream rock music, stripped it of its machismo and replaced it with vulnerability and naked emotions. Kurt Cobain is presented as a revolutionary figure that opened the doors to a whole new aesthetic where popular artists could authentically express any emotions, laying the ground for many to come, irrespective of genre. This was apparently underscored in the band’s famous Unplugged sessions, where the use of acoustic instruments further “castrated rock, getting rid of the pomp of stadium rock, grand gestures replaced with silence and emotions bared to the bone”.

The authors saw another, similar revolution take place very soon, specifically with Linkin Park, whose frontman Chester Bennington (who like Kurt Cobain or Ian Curtis committed suicide after a life of addiction and depression) expressed in his lyrics the importance of one’s perspective: instead of believing the world is rotten, what really matters the lens through which it is observed, and as such this admitting to one’s weaknesses, an unprecedented act in heavy music, is what helped propel the band into the global spotlight. This apparently helped emo music develop in the early 2000s as well, its musical appeal shifting into more pop territory and away from rock.

Beyond the anxieties stemming from one’s economic status, the authors also identify another factor leading to the emergence of melancholic and disgusted music: social marginalization. The fourth chapter delves into the repression of women in the music industry, discussing artists such as Robyn, Yoko Ono, Joni Mitchell, Tori Amos and Björk, among others, and spanning various genres. In an industry dominated by men, female musicians were often seen as curiosities whose artistic works would often be simply labelled as “cute” and put into a separate category – imposing a gender apartheid in the 20th century music industry that sought to repress women who stepped outside a stereotypical life trajectory or expressed emotions or discussed topics deemed unsuitable for women.

A position not unlike that of women in the music industry applied to people of colour, who in the book are mainly represented in the genres of blues and hip-hop. Blues’ massive influence on rock is briefly discussed (receiving more space in Veselý’s publication on black music Hudba ohně), nonetheless most of the discussion is centred around rap, where an earthquake in the genre is identified in Kanye West’s 808s & Heartbreak record when the artist whose clubby, energetic aesthetic ruptured with the death of his mother, turning instead to introspective and melancholic atmospheres. This laid the ground for rap to leave its 80s-90s gangsta emphasis, allowing for a modern take on the genre where the artist spilled their own guts instead of others’, which paved the way for rappers such as Drake or The Weeknd wallowing in their melancholy caused by success.

Having already arrived in the digital era, an obvious new development was social media, which seems to have “accelerated or even normalized societal anxieties”. This purportedly helped the massive success of “Xanax rappers” who used drugs to get rid of the plethora of emotions – quite contrary to the rock stars of history who would stereotypically indulge to get rid of boredom. As such “in rap iconography, the pill replaced the gun as the symbol of a dangerous, wild and authentic life”. This dazed era is also witness to mental issues receiving their long-overdue attention, where pop stars openly discuss, sing and rap about the topic, amplifying the melancholic vibes taking over the charts.

However, an interesting trend running parallel with this was the post-2008 escapism of pop such as Lady Gaga or LMFAO who as if turning away from the economic reality wrote songs simply about partying, along with a mainstream proliferation of electronic dance music, all seeing a solution in a Friday night to forget the bills. In a roundabout way this serves to underscore the book’s argument in how music reflects daily realities, and an interesting point is made in this regard considering that even Gaga in 2016 went on to release an album dubbed Perfect Illusion, as if coming to terms with the fact that dancing provides only a temporary escape.

All Cats Are Grey eventually turns to the psychological impacts of climate change and the other crises shaking the early 21st century. As the authors state, if you want to know about the state of pop music, ask the teenagers. Since this demographic “grew up in a world where the word crisis is everywhere”, their music necessarily reflects this. Pretence has been replaced with authenticity, stereotypes turned upside down and nostalgias depleted – the only way out being a “hopeless optimism”, revolution and a radical restructuring of a world on the brink of collapse, one that the digital generations are aware they will have to inhabit. Even if their music is anxious and/or desensitised and “songs can hardly change the world, they can reconfigure how people think – and that is not marginal at all.”

Hopefully you did not find this cursory excursion in the fascinating book too depressing, and that if you haven’t read it yet, and can, you will. Although the subject matter is grim, it is all the more relevant in a hyper-connected pandemic world now shaken by a new war. As art mirrors reality, it just might be that, as Chester Bennington showed us, in the end it is more about the perspective that is voluntarily chosen and the way we understand that mirror, contrary to what a first sensory impression may provide. Through this awareness, the new sincerity that has emerged in music may help us all live more authentic inner lives and come to terms with emotions of all flavours.

Did you like it?
Share it with your friends


Tomáš Kovařík is the translator and editor of the music section in SWARM MAG magazine.


Text / Tomáš Kovařík @_tomaskovarik

Cover illustration / Markéta Kosinová

Book photography / Nakladatelství Paseka

You may also like

We've emerged from the thawed soil and we crave quick energy. Sweetness so frustrating you'll want to spit it out. By launching our first theme for the 2024 season, SUGAR RUSH, we wish to replenish your tired brains with fast carbs and worry about balanced diets later. The theme's cover was crafted by the talented Czech illustrator and graphic designer Danchez.
Witness the allure of our ritual candlesticks, crafted from hand-blown glass by Makora Josefina Krosno, and infused with exclusive aromatic wax and natural essences. SWARM MAG’s first merch was made in collaboration with Dark Concept Store, reanimating artifacts that revere the occult and sustainable craftsmanship, guiding seekers to transformation through the flickering glow of enchanted flames.
Music journalism is a sight rarely seen at SWARM Mag but some occasions are just too good not to share and recommend. Especially such a project as the INOTA Festival, which took place at the beginning of September this year. Enjoy a stream of observations from the very first year of Hungary's most ambitious audiovisual event.
Especially in the art world (but applicable universally), savouring, storing, sustaining and protecting your creative stimuli and inputs is just as paramount as letting them flow. Our fourth 2023 theme, ROOTS OF TASTE, seeks to find visual representations of our deepest, inherent drives to create that both anchor and activate us. The theme's animation was custom-made by Hélène L. Vaneukem.