I learned about the term “torch song” a while ago, during a session of listening to covers of pop songs (my unfortunate guilty pleasure) when one was labeled “in a torch song style.” The majority of the music I listen to has been created in the last twenty years, so consequently, I had no idea what that meant. After looking it up, I learned that a torch song was “a sad or sentimental song about love and romance,” predominantly sung by female pop or jazz singers in the earlier 20th century. The information was then shuffled deep into the recesses of my mind next to other miscellaneous Google searches I complete daily, and I never thought about it again until recently, when I discovered a trend in the music I was listening to.

I kept looking for this specific type of sound that I wasn’t sure how to describe, but could instantly recognize when I heard it. In order to find more songs to fuel this strange addiction I had for this type of music, I tried to pinpoint what exactly I was looking for through commonalities that I could find between three particular songs in the style that I kept playing on repeat; they were all slow in tempo, about love, and sad. Instantly, I made a connection in my mind between this distant knowledge I had of this obscure genre I barely knew of, these three commonalities between the music I enjoy now, and bam! I realized I was addicted to torch songs.

Part I: a (very) brief history of the torch song

A torch song is a love song, not necessarily sad, but always with heavy sentiment. The most common trend in torch songs is the mourning of unrequited love, which reflects the origin of the term from the idiom “to carry a torch” for someone. This style originated in jazz, as early as the 1920s, and took advantage of the already morose-sounding tones of the blues genre, infusing them into its sound. Combined with a mournful voice and heartbroken lyricism, the formula for the torch song was born.

Part II: the songs

  1. “The Fall” – Rhye (Woman, 2013)

“Make love to me one more time before you go away / Why won’t you stay?”

Love is sad, love is nostalgia, love is bittersweet. The thing about love songs that hurt is how brutally honest they can be, this track being no exception. The piano, the bass, the driving brush of the steady beat, all come together with singer Milosh’s androgynous vocals to create an atmosphere of insistence, even without the lyrics coming into play. His smooth, sultry voice interestingly acts as a subtle reference to the female jazz singers of the past in the torch song genre. Once the lyrics are heard, the atmosphere morphs into one of pleading for a love almost lost, thus the unrequited characteristic of the genre is present. For the song itself, Rhye’s words are so potent that they end up being felt rather than understood as written language. It all leads to the listener experiencing the whole of the music as a language in itself, the instrumentals portraying the feelings Milosh sings about just as well without needing words, just like the instrumental breaks in jazz. In some way, the instrumentals convey what the singer can’t through his vocals. The swell of strings mimic bursts of feeling, the violin continuing his plea, “Don’t slip away, my dear” to the very end.

2. “I’m a Firefighter” – Cigarettes After Sex (I., 2012)

“Baby I’m a firefighter trapped in a burning house in a silent picture, and there is no way out except to watch the love between us die.”

Whenever I listen to this song, immediately my breathing slows down, my heart rate attempts to match the slow, steady beat of the drums, my mind zones out into this cloudy envelope of noise. The bright, echoing notes of the guitar create a sharp contrast to the general fuzziness of the intro to the track and the devastating first line that comes right after. Everything melds together into this bubble of feeling, of noise, of words/emotions, of experience, of memories, transporting the listener into a trance-like state. The whole experience is hypnotic in its slow movement, which is an advantage of the modern lo-fi ambient ballad, as opposed to the more traditional, big-band power ballads of the past. The words are so poignant that one doesn’t even need to experience what is being sung to understand the level of hurt being expressed. Once again, the uncharacteristically high-pitched, gentle croon of the male singer and the “love lost” theme is present, making this fit neatly into the category of torch song as well. 

3. “i was all over her” – salvia palth (melanchole, 2013)

“Don’t know what I wanted, I have a memory. Back at that party, I was all over her / We didn’t make out or do anything, I just remember I was lonely.”

My favorite. There’s something in the discordant rhythm and the tone of the guitar that instantly creates a feeling of nostalgia for something that never happened. The hopeful, confused lilt of the guitar matches the lyrics, confusion in being attracted to someone in a non-sexual way, and wanting that emotional attachment when the desire wasn’t there before. “I guess I am always, it’s not a problem, it’s just something, I got used to it / Every stranger makes me feel safer and every person seems more beautiful.” The singer’s voice seems more a part of the background music, rather than a centerpiece that’s trying to stand out from the rest of the composition. As a result, the guitar also seems to be a part of the singer, having a purpose, but not really sure about following it, whereas the bass in the back is keeping continuous, steady time from the beginning. Near the end, after the lyrics, “every person seems more beautiful,” the guitar melds into the bass, finally seeming to find a continuous time as well, reaching a conclusion of sorts that echoes what the lyrics have said, the music becoming an extension of the words.

Part III: TL;DR

With the increase in fusions between music genres present in today’s music, it’s interesting to notice how genres of the past don’t necessarily disappear as the scene changes, but rather morph and adapt to the current times. I believe it’s because music has this unique ability to act as a universal language without words. A simple guitar riff can inspire feelings of nostalgia, or a drawn-out vibrato on a violin can sound eerily similar to how longing feels. The versatility of music makes it timeless, and the versatility of love (the subject matter in this instance) makes it timeless as well. As a result, music (particularly love songs) can be counted on to remain a constant in the unstable, ever-changing world that we live in. Even if the world’s ending the next day, you can always rely on tuning into an oldies station and hearing someone dedicating a Celine Dion song to their husband of twenty-five years, so that’s something. I guess.

Article by Vivian Chen

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