“While it’s hard to deny the prettiness of Blake’s music, the mopeyness of it all is starting to feel cloistered. Maybe he needs a night out.” These are the closing lines of a Pitchfork review dedicated to “Don’t Miss It”, a sparse yet beautiful electroballad released last week by James Blake. For years, discussions of the acclaimed musician have been prefaced by two words: ‘sad boy’. Now, he’s had enough.
In the wake of the song’s release, Blake penned an official statement detailing his feelings on the “unhealthy and problematic” expression to his Twitter account, claiming: “I can’t help but notice, as I do whenever I talk about my feelings in a song, that the words ‘sad boy’ are used to describe it.” He goes on to explain that the term is often applied uncritically to “men just talking openly about their feelings” – “to label it at all, when we don’t ever question women discussing the things they are struggling with, contributes to the ever disastrous stigmatization of men expressing themselves honestly.”
Please read. I've wanted to say this for a long time, and now seemed as good a time as any. pic.twitter.com/1fSPt7SJnx
— James Blake (@jamesblake) May 26, 2018
Ironically, the track is actually a lyrical reminder to enjoy happiness and avoid the romanticization of sadness; “When the dull pain goes away / don’t miss it” he sings, seemingly indicating that he’s currently managing to cope with his own well-documented struggles. Blake alludes to his own mental health journey in the closing lines of his impassioned statement: “Sorry for this ‘sad boy’ letter, but I’ve seen enough friends drown in this, and almost drowned in it myself because I bottled everything up, afraid of being seen as weak or soft. I now see the great strength, and benefit for those around you in actually opening up.”
Of course, he isn’t the only musician to have this moniker applied to his work. The term ‘sad boy’ snowballed in popularity back in 2009 after a tumultuous twelve months in which Kanye West’s emotive 808s & Heartbreak landed just before Drake’s landmark mixtape So Far Gone, sparked by a conversation with a friend which hinged on the question: “Are we becoming the men that our mothers divorced?”
Viral star Yung Lean then officially adopted the descriptor and built his Sad Boys Entertainment empire, releasing a string of seriously melancholy work along the way. He wasn’t the first to sonically encapsulate sadness – this lengthy FACT feature highlights examples from decades before Lean rose to prominence, as the mid-noughties reign of ‘emo’ must never be erased – but he was arguably one of the best at condensing it and, in the form of his ‘Sad Boys’ merch, branding it.
But as the term has grown in popularity, its definition has started to shift. Originally, the term could be defined as a simple descriptor of men who had freed themselves from the shackles of masculinity, as well as the associated pressure to bottle feelings up and remain silent. As Blake points out, men are too often demonized for displays of genuine emotion, a stigma which he cites as the reason for a current “epidemic of male depression and suicide – we don’t need any further proof that we have hurt men with our questioning of their need to be vulnerable and open.”
He’s not wrong. In the UK in particular, male suicide rates are worryingly high; a 2015 survey showed that suicide was the single biggest killer of men under 45, and more recent statistics indicate that three of every four suicides are carried out by men. These findings are echoed in the United States, where men are also three times more likely to commit suicide than women. Rates have continuously risen over the last few years. These tragic facts can’t be neatly accredited to one sole cause, but the fact remains that men are less likely to discuss mental health issues and therefore unlikely to seek professional help, thus running the risk of missing out on life-saving treatment – although the efficacy and funding of mental health services in both countries have been heavily scrutinized in recent months.
So how does this tie into the rise of the ‘sad boy’? Arguably, the term has been circulated so often that its initial meaning has been stripped; now, ‘sad boy’ refers to a trend, an aesthetic, and, obviously, a series of memes. According to Urban Dictionary – which, let’s be real, is a better cultural barometer than most major media outlets – a ‘sad boy’ is a person who “wears bucket hats, drinks Arizona Green Tea and listens to Yung Lean.” According to another user, the ‘sad boy’ has a “sharp sense of style”, whereas its wider surrounding culture “glorifies negative emotions and depressed mental states.”
It’s worth pointing out that these entries actually highlight the fact that plenty of us use memes and humor more generally as a coping mechanism, or as an entry point into wider discussions of mental health. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but when ‘sad boys’ become nothing more than a punchline or a tired fashion stereotype, all nuance is lost.
The aforementioned Pitchfork review of Blake’s new work, for example, misses the opportunity to analyze his lyrics and highlight that not all ‘sad boys’ stay so forever. The same haunting soundscapes and musings which defined his most celebrated past work are still present, but they’re used respectively as a sonic backdrop and a personal preface to an uplifting lyrical climax. Instead of a nuanced analysis, his track was reduced to nothing more than a news post headline which claimed that Blake is “still sad” – an article which he retweeted alongside the caption “case in point.”
The obvious fact is that artists undergo musical and personal evolution, meaning that one album’s heartbreak might soon be replaced with euphoria; Kanye West’s 808s & Heartbreak, for example, was followed by the epic My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, a complete musical reinvention which (though still at times melancholic) saw him freed from the now-reductive ‘sad boy’ label.
The tone of the conversation has also changed, with many artists once celebrated for expressions of emotion now being described as ‘mopey’ as we propel forwards into peak ‘sad boy’ territory. Just years after he was praised for pioneering a blueprint of male sensitivity, Drake found his work described as a “sulkfest”, whereas other articles spoke of a collective “sad boy ennui”. What once seemed an opportunity to open up discussions around male mental health quickly became nothing more than a brief eye-roll moment in musical history, essentially commemorated by a few full-length features and a scattering of #relatable memes.
The fact remains that conversations around mental health do need to broaden – not just for men, but for everyone. Music has a rare ability to act as a form of empowerment and of catharsis, channeling emotions into notes, chords, and lyrics with the real power to resonate. The last few years in particular have also seen the cultural potential of music able to open up incendiary conversations around racism, political corruption, and personal struggle. Obviously this isn’t always the case; generally speaking, music exists to make us feel things, but for the most part it exists to make us feel good.
Still, when there are deeper messages woven within soundscapes, they should be explored. The trajectory of the ‘sad boy’ trend highlights that this isn’t always the case. Sure, male musicians are occasionally willing to open up and discuss their feelings, but what good does it do if we write them off as ‘mopey’ in the process, or if we let our expectations of what their music should sound like cloud our grasp of what they’re actually trying to say? The music industry is filled with makeshift terms for new trends and genres, but maybe it’s not so helpful to reduce something as essential as men discussing their emotions to a clickbait term destined to always trivialize conversations.
That’s not to say we should the stop the memes, the jabs, and the jokes – God knows the Internet and its collective humor can often feel like the one respite from the outside world – but musicians should be free to dictate their own narrative without having tired stereotypes forced onto them without permission. Because now, as Blake highlights, we’ve reached peak ‘sad boy’ – and with the predicted death of one clickbait term comes another missed opportunity to discuss the moniker’s still crucial implications.
For more like this, read what’s behind the rising trend of vertical music videos right here.