Friday, March 16, 2012

The Real Reason Adele's "Someone Like You" Makes Us Cry

Someone Like You
   According to research by psychologist John Sloboda, a musical device known as an appoggiatura—using a note that creates a slightly dissonant sound with the melody—is especially effective at setting off tears in listeners. He claims that is what Adele employs when she sings the word you with a dip in the middle, in her song Someone Like You. (Click the song title below the photo at the left to view the YouTube video of Someone Like You.)
     Martin Guhn, another psychologist, says this: "Appoggiatura creates tension in the listener. When the notes return to the anticipated melody, the tension resolves, and it feels good." 
     That kind of thinking drives me crazy. Even it it's true, so what?
     You know as well as I do that you're still going to cry whenever you hear the song, and not because a musical device is manipulating you emotionally. You're going to cry because the pathos in this song gets to you every single time: we are witnessing, and participating in vicariously, the plaintive wail of unveiled emotional pain trying to overcome itself.
     How many times in your own life has a breakup hurt you so deeply that for several months, even years, you are still this close to tears every time  you think about it? (In her song, Adele tells us her former lover is now married, which takes time to accomplish regardless of the particular circumstances.) In that moment of burn, when your whole body feels about to burst into raw redness, you tell yourself to get over it, to move on. You still love the person, but you tell yourself that this hurt still boring into your soul was just one of those things, because sometimes love just doesn't work out. Everyone knows that; you chide yourself for holding on; you push your pain underground, and transfer your concern to the well being of your  lover.
      And never mind, anyway. You'll find someone else just like the one who left you behind. You know in your heart that this is impossible, no matter how  many times you say it. No matter how much you want to believe it, it does not feel true, it is not true, you do not believe it at all. There is no Someone Like You. Not anywhere in the world. You believe you will never find love like this lost love again. But, you tell yourself, never mind
     You show up at the door. You make that late night phone call. ...But I couldn't stay away, I couldn't fight it... And in your deepest embarrassment, your attempt to minimize the depth of your pain, you declare your hope that you not be forgotten, and you say out loud that you only want the best for this individual who will live forever in your heart while in the arms and bed of another person -- possibly without any awareness of holding this central role in your life.
     I believe the problem lies in what Adele identifies this way: Only yesterday was the time of our lives, we were born and raised in a summer haze bound by the surprise of our glory days. It is a problem because what she is actually talking about here is her own memory of her experience of this relationship, her side of the story. But her story is not necessarily an accurate picture of the relationship itself. It is not necessarily true that her lover experienced those times in the same way she did. For him, the relationship through which she defined herself to herself could easily have been a fling that somehow got bound up in words of love and passion in the summer grass.
     This song hurts because we all want the intimacy of having our reality and the reality of just one other person -- one particular and dear person -- to align with our own. It hurts because even when we think we have it, we know we are at risk for losing it.
     Or, in the saddest of all possible worlds, the world of which Adele sings, we may have been mistaken about the nature of the relationship in the first place, without even realizing that this misinterpretation of events is the real reason the loss hurts so much.
     A good therapist can help you see this, even though it may feel as if is the last thing on earth you want to see. She can also help you see your loving heart as a vessel created to hold the love of a worthy lover. She can help you fill it with compassion for yourself, while holding it open for the day you encounter another person who merits a place in that brave and loving heart of yours.
     You won't meet Adele's Someone Like You. You'll meet Someone Who Likes You. And you will know the difference, and rejoice.