Art has always been, for myself and so many others, an outlet for so many deeply personal emotions. It has not only been a way of working through the trials and tribulations of human experience, but also a means of communicating these feelings to others without explicitly recounting details. Art gives us a way to articulate emotion while circumventing circumstance: a painting or poem is often a short-cut to the heart, a way of saying, “this is how it feels,” regardless of whether the audience can sympathize with the situation that prompted it. Because human emotion is a complex and varied thing, I may not feel the sadness you experience by falling out with a friend, or the frustration you have at a romantic rejection, but I have no doubt experienced them myself under other circumstances and can recognize their presence in artistic works.
That said, when it comes to light that a piece was not, in fact, composed out of its “proper” emotion, it feels like a sort of betrayal. I recall a number of times when I found out a song I deeply identified with was written from a totally different viewpoint, or exclusively pandered to radio production and popularity. My entire existence seemed to crumble when, at sixteen, I found out Robert Smith had written “Let’s Go to Bed” simply based on what got radio airplay—the song that had defined my first ‘adult’ relationship suddenly felt like a lie. I had been convinced that Smith had written from the same insecure, fugue-like daze of affection that I had experienced. I couldn’t believe those words that had actually moved me to tears had been complete fabrication.
However, I was also so thoroughly touched by works of fiction in literature—I wept for the doomed loves in so many Gothic novels, and thrilled at the triumph of good over evil in works so obviously fantasy. When I read urban legends (my generation’s fairytales), I found myself jumpy and unsettled for days. Never for a second did I believe these accounts were true, but I still allowed them to move me and spark very real emotions. Whether or not the authors had experienced unrequited love, or ridden dragons triumphantly into battle, or escaped the horrors of Satanic cults firsthand was irrelevant. Whether or not I had any emotional basis of comparison was also irrelevant—the work felt authentic enough to create those for me. Years later, with more of life behind me, those feelings hold true. Now, instead of reading Leroux and thinking, “that must be what love feels like,” I can examine the dynamic between Christine and Raoul and say, “that is love” and feel just as strongly with the bonus of recognition.
We can watch Leonardo DiCaprio fight bears and struggle against a historical wildness without questioning the emotional credentials he or director Alejandro González Iñárritu have behind them. We can even give them both awards of global artistic recognition. So why did I feel so betrayed by Robert Smith for his lyrical fiction?
Perhaps it’s because it caused me to question the authenticity of his other songs, songs I aspired to experience myself. If “Let’s Go to Bed” was a total fabrication, what did that mean for songs like “Just Like Heaven,” or “Icing Sugar,” songs that summed up everything I wanted out of love? Maybe, if the emotion I felt came from lyrics confessed to be fictional, the feelings I got from other songs were just as fictional, and described experiences I couldn’t possibly have. For years, I thought that may have been painfully true—real relationships, at least as far as my experience extended, did not include the dizzy euphoria or frenetic excitement of love that Smith had promised me. It pained me that the emotions they described would exist only in these musical fantasies, and my initial feelings were replaced with resentment.
It wasn’t until years later that I realized the sincerity of Smith’s lyrics were irrelevant: my emotional reaction was no less real, those feelings no less authentic, than they would be born from my own experience. Listening to those words produced in me a reaction—that alone was totally valid. And later on, they proved an invaluable base of comparison for my own feelings in response to other life experiences. Like Aristotle’s poets, Smith’s songs had taught me to recognize love in its playful, creative, joyful form, which I had no previous concept of through my own experience. Whether or not Smith had written them out of like experience made no difference: the emotions I felt listening to those songs were real, and prepared me to identify those same emotions when they came into my life organically.
There are aesthetic theories that deny we, as viewers, can experience any real feelings from art. With no personal stake in the creator’s experience or the plot at hand, we go through the motions of reacting—while sitting in the dark of a theatre, watching the latest James Wan flick unfold before us, we experience what feels like a genuine stress response. Our heart may beat erratically, we may have difficulty breathing, we might even scream, but according to theorists, this isn’t really fear: at the end of the movie, we know the lights will come up and we’ll all shuffle out of the theatre safely. But those feelings stay with you. Days, weeks, months later, when you find yourself alone in the dark, that same sense of dread may creep back in and you find yourself re-living the fear you experienced in the theatre. My sister still won’t use public restrooms alone thanks to a certain Japanese horror film, and loathe as I am to admit it, I kept all my coats out of sight for days after watching the Babadook so I wouldn’t see them out of the corner of my eye as something else.
The same extends to other works of art, poetry, and music. “Let’s Go to Bed” remains an emotional song for me, whether or not it was emotional for Robert Smith. I had a genuine experience, one that I relive each time I hear that song. I believe that my emotional experiences with other pieces are authentic as well—each time I’m moved to tears or imbued with excitement, I trust the feelings that evoked the response are relatable and repeatable, whether they are insights for future experiences or recall specific emotional occurrences. Those emotions aren’t packed into a box and stored on the shelf at the end of the experience, like the record that provoked them—they’re carried with me, recalled over and over again.