Monday, January 29th, 2018...9:21 pmLillian

“Lament” in Music

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Lament: Any poem expressing profound grief or mournful regret for the loss of some person or former state, or for some other misfortune. 

Reading this definition, my first thought was “oh, a lament is a ballad.” While the Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms does not agree with me[1] in the world of musical theater, the slow, emotional songs of loss are generally referred to as ballads. In addition, there are tons of slow breakup “laments” in more mainstream music. I mean, just look at Bruno Mars’ early discography or really that of any successful pop musician. The cry yourself to sleep breakup song is an essential track on any album.[2]

But that felt a little like a cop-out so I’m challenging myself in finding as close to an up-tempo lament as I can.[3]

The trick here is the requirement of regret. There are so many great up-tempo breakup songs that focus on moving past the hurt and saying screw you to the time spent in the relationship. There’s a regret, but it’s not for the loss, it’s for the fact that it didn’t come sooner. Everyone loves CeeLo Green’s ultimate declaration of F**k You to his former flame, but it doesn’t create any regret for losing them.

Sara Bareilles’s Little Black Dress creates a middle ground. The song is relatively uptempo, following suit with the dance away your troubles style previously acknowledged, but even in the chorus she never moves fully past the hurt of the loss of a relationship.

The opening lyrics are:

Okay, I can see it now it’s all the same thing
Just different wrapping around it
No need to soften your words, they’re still gonna hurt
So don’t pull punches[4]

Already it’s clear that this is about a breakup, which is a pretty classic example of loss in music. And Bareilles acknowledges that the hurt is still relevant, which sets it apart from other songs in a similar musical style.

The chorus of the song really establishes this feeling of trying to achieve the up-tempo “screw you” attitude while really being overwhelmed with feelings of sorrow and regret:

I’ll get my little black dress on
And if I put on my favorite song
I’m gonna dance until you’re all gone
I’ll get my little black dress on
I got my little black dress on
And if I tell myself that nothing’s wrong
This doesn’t have to be a sad song
Not with my little black dress on

There’s an effort being made to mask the regret with dancing and clothing, which makes it possible for Sara Bareilles to keep an up-tempo melody while also qualifying this as a lament. It’s an interesting balance, that, to me, makes it even more effective. When people are mournful there is often a large effort to cheer them up, whether by other people or on an individual basis, but this doesn’t end the sorrow or longing for what has been lost.

[1] Ballad: A folk song or orally transmitted poem telling in a direct and dramatic manner some popular story usually derived from a tragic incident in local history or legend. The story is told simply, impersonally, and often with vivid dialogue.

[2] Some of my favorite slow laments are When I Was Your Man by Bruno Mars and Back to December by Taylor Swift.

[3] I could have gone with the comedy classic “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer” by Elmo & Patsy, but I thought I should find something a little more nuanced.

[4] All lyrics from https://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/sarabareilles/littleblackdress.html



3 Comments

  • Your post is an interesting piece because it offers a simple explanation of the literary term “lament” and a vivid illustration that helps deepen the reader’s understanding of the word.

    After giving a rather technical definition of “lament”, your article starts by providing a personal interpretation of the word, which serves as a hook that invites further reading. By comparing “lament” to “a ballad”, you have succeeded in building the relationship between a literary jargon and your musical language. Moreover, your writing shows the reader that there are deeper layers to the term “lament” than just loss, grief, and pain. I especially like the way your article places an emphasis on the element of regret in “lament.” Sara Bareilles’s “Little Black Dress” serves as a beautiful example here.

    Different from the common “screw-you-after-the-break-up” attitude that is prevalent in many popular songs nowadays, it feels more human and relatable to me that this song acknowledges bygone, yet fond memories of a lost love. “Little Black Dress” highlights the sorrow of the woman after losing a loved one, despite her tremendous effort in moving on and cloaking her melancholy in fancy dresses, dances, and songs.

    Overall, I think that you have done a great job at digging into the meaning of “lament” and choosing an example to exemplify this word.

    On another note, “lament” reminds me of one of my favorite songs:

    “He’s pining for her in a people carrier
    There might be buildings and pretty things to see like that but architecture won’t do
    Although it might say a lot about the city or town
    I don’t care what they’ve got, keep on turning ’em down
    It don’t say the funny things she does
    Don’t even try and cheer him up because it just won’t happen

    Despair in the departure lounge
    It’s one and they’ll still be around at three
    No signal and low battery
    What’s happened to me?”

    – Despair in the Departure Lounge – Arctic Monkeys.

  • You made a good point here; most break-up songs use lament. I think it’s interesting, because break-up songs, or lost loves are so common. It’s important to take note that songs with a loss, or lament are generally quite emotional. They also include similar story lines like you mentioned- starting with a person being upset, and then either regretful or angry. Therefore, I interpret that the use of lament has two sides: a sentimental, heart felt loss, and an angry, pissed off loss that is expressed in various art forms. Also, when lament is expressed in different art forms, the artist of the piece usually uses many reminiscent stories, comparisons to the past or objects reminding them of that person. Then the art form becomes very personal, and when you listen to the song, or read the poem you almost feel like you should not be listening to or reading it- it almost sounds like a diary. I conclude that when artists use lament in their art, it is a way for them to be cathartic, or release their pent up emotions. Sometimes the most beautiful art comes from the hard and painful experiences one has.

    Meryl Streep once said (at the Golden Globes), “Take your broken heart, and make it into art.”

  •   Professor Seiler
    February 5th, 2018 at 9:02 pm

    Lillian–what lively writing in this post! I’m so intrigued by your example of “LBD” as, in a sense, a lament that’s trying not to be. If you had to pick a straight-up lament to which to compare it, what would it be?

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