If you weep when you hear that song, it’s your own fault.
Music makes us cry. And that’s totally OK.
Puff the Magic Dragon” was one of the folk songs in my mother’s repertoire that she’d sing to us on long road trips. I may be biased, but I always loved her singing. She would also sing to comfort me when I was upset—which was often. I was one of those sensitive, selfconscious kids who aren’t convinced that anyone cares about them. When she sang me to sleep, she would never choose “Puff.” That would have been counterproductive, since I couldn’t listen to it without weeping.
Maybe, despite consistent protestations from Peter, Paul and probably Mary (the people who made Puff famous), you still think “Puff the Magic Dragon” is a thinly veiled ode to cannabis, the same way that “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” is rumoured to be about LSD. But that oh-so-hilarious drug theory falls apart after the first verse. By the end, you realize it’s clearly a song about the tragedy of growing up and the pain of being left behind and forgotten. Truthfully, “Puff the Magic Dragon” still wrecks me. I mean, read these lyrics: “A dragon lives forever, but not so little boys. Painted wings and giant’s rings make way for other toys. One grey night it happened, Jackie Paper came no more And Puff, that mighty dragon, he ceased his fearless roar. His head was bent in sorrow, green scales fell like rain. Puff no longer went to play along the cherry lane. Without his lifelong friend, Puff could not be brave, So Puff, that mighty dragon, sadly slipped into his cave.”
I maintain that “Puff the Magic Dragon” could be a kind of Turing test: If you don’t get choked up by that last sentence, you’re clearly some kind of android. I identified with Puff. I was the youngest child in a big family, and sometimes I felt overlooked. Being left behind and forgotten by someone you love was as heartbreaking and cruel as it was inevitable (at least to little me).
Lately, I’ve been thinking about why we cry. When life is relatively steady, it’s not that you will never cry—a movie will still touch you, the odd argument or insult will make you tear up—but it doesn’t feel remarkable. But, when you experience change—like, say, a separation or divorce, or even a new relationship—suddenly you notice your tears. It’s at times like these I notice that music, more than any other art form, perhaps, outside of injury or therapy, can really choke me up.
Last year, in an episode of his predictably unpredictable podcast Revisionist History, Malcolm Gladwell argued that country music is more able to jerk your tears than any other genre of music, especially pop. According to him, country lyrics are more specific and more honest than the broad metaphors that make up much of pop music. Sad country songs are like a sniper’s bullet aimed at your heart. It doesn’t really matter whether the story or scenario described in your favourite George Jones song (“He Stopped Loving Her Today,” for instance) reflects your life or not; what matters is that it seems to be about a real person singing about real feelings. (The fact that Jones seemed to live a life remarkably similar to the lives he sang about, even if he didn’t write all the songs himself, also helps.)
Thinking about how “Puff the Magic Dragon”—which isn’t a country song— affected me as a child (and still affects me »
as an adult), I think Gladwell was wrong. Music’s ability to make us cry isn’t dependent on genre; it’s dependent on us. Folk, pop, country, rap, whatever: The types of songs that make you cry are as varied and chaotic and personal as the tragedies and neuroses, small and large, that break your heart in real life. When I asked the Facebook hive mind what songs get them crying, I received some predictable answers, but mostly they were all different, all suited to the person suggesting them.
Call it creator bias: Gladwell is a writer who must assume sole responsibility for conveying his ideas and so he places a lot of sway on the lyricist. But specificity is in the ear of the listener. The biggest, broadest rock song will make you weep just as powerfully as the most idiosyncratic torch song if something about it resonates with you. Songs aren’t bullets; they are viruses. Your reaction depends on your emotional immune system, your family history and, in some cases, how tired you happen to be.
While I was writing this, I listened to “Vulcan, AB” by The Rural Alberta Advantage (RAA) dozens of times. It’s not even three minutes long, but it has become my adult “Puff the Magic Dragon.” I cry nearly every time I hear it. And it only seems to be getting more powerful. It starts with an organ that sounds like it’s coming from a church basement, which is fitting: The song is about falling short of the ideal, the same way an organ—especially that electronic one—reaches for, but falls just short of, holiness. It sketches a love that’s in “slow decline” between two people stuck in Vulcan, a small town in Alberta. If this were the kind of country song that George Jones sang, those people would have names, professions or some telling details, but this song doesn’t give us any of those “Jack and Diane” specifics; it gives us this: What would specifics offer here? How would knowing some personal detail make the futility, the knowingly false hope, the existential punch of promising faith you don’t have any more painful?
But, of course, it could just be me. Actually, no. It is just me. Anyone can see that the song is sad, but—as a man still riding out a failed marriage that was built, like most broken relationships, on hope and lies that you don’t want to admit are lies— I’m especially receptive. I was weakened already. Of course these words, as broad as they are, keep pushing me over the edge because they never stop being true.
In his podcast, Gladwell profiled the songwriter responsible for some of country’s most heartbreaking ballads, including the songs that made Jones famous. He lived a hard life and poured that realness into his work. That’s another reason, argued Gladwell, that country songs are so powerful. They have a certain intent born of experience.
When I spoke with Paul Banwatt, RAA’s crazyimpressive drummer, he was almost hesitant to tell me the story of how “Vulcan, AB” came to be. He knew the song touched me and didn’t want to ruin it for me. I told him that he would only prove my point. The truth is, it’s not a ballad wrenched from some personal heartbreak in the Prairies. Banwatt wanted to write a song that included a Star Trek reference so they could play it at a regular indie rock Star Trek show he put on. Then, after nearly 10 years, they tweaked it in the studio (“it came together in 20 minutes”) so they could add it to their third album. So, not only is the song not specific; it’s almost accidental.
“I think it’s all about connection,” Banwatt told me. “It can come from a lot of places. I wouldn’t put all the power in the words. Whether it makes you laugh or cry or dance, it’s whatever moves you.” Otherwise, why would instrumental music make us cry, too? Why would I find myself tearing up on the elliptical machine while listening to a particularly inspiring guitar riff in a Metallica song?
Gladwell’s theory is cleaner, and there’s a certain satisfaction in being able to fit songs that make you cry into a tidy taxonomy. But it doesn’t take into account that music provides us with an opportunity for reflection: that moment when you realize you’re crying while listening to a Kesha song (and not “Praying”—because of course you’re gonna cry during that one) and you stop to ask yourself why. Because if it’s not the specific story the song is telling, then that tells you something about you.
“Oh tonight our love was on a slow decline Waitin’ on an empty heart to unite And I’m gonna tell you lies, gonna let you down Gonna break your heart, gonna grow up now Gonna try, gonna fight, gonna forget how Well I’m gonna wake us up, gonna break us out Gonna steal your heart, gonna save us now Gonna try, gonna fight, gonna fuck up now.”