I’ve always had a special affinity for the soft rock hits of the ‘70s and ‘80s. As an (admittedly odd) adolescent I’d lay in bed, listening for hours in the dark to K-Lite, Phoenix’s easy listening radio station. There was something warm and comforting about soft rock that I really connected with, even if I couldn’t understand the complications of love that artists like Phil Collins and Ambrosia sang about. I may have been the only eleven-year-old in 1992 who had a crush on Peter Cetera.
My college boyfriend had a similar fascination with genre, though his was more cynical than mine, and eventually I crossed over to the snarky side too. We’d sit around our apartment making fun of sappy songs like Air Supply’s “Making Love Out Of Nothing At All,” laughing at the angst of gentle rock stars. That’s an activity reserved solely for 21-year-old jerks who’ve never actually been hurt by love.
One day he turned on Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “Alone Again (Naturally),” a song I had somehow missed in my dorky adolescence. I remember my boyfriend dancing around sarcastically to the song, bursting into giggles at the song’s most melodramatic moments and me laughing at how utterly ridiculous the song was. I mean, look at its repeated phrase, the closest O’Sullivan gets to a refrain: “alone again… naturally.” Here I am, all by my lonesome, nobody cares about me – and of course they don’t, who could blame them?, he seemed to be saying. I mean, how self-defeating and wimpy can you get? Somebody clearly needed to take some self-empowerment classes, or at least listen to some disco.
It wasn’t until years later, living in New York and having gone through a few rounds of being alone myself, that I returned to the song in a moment of post-breakup weakness and realized with shock how utterly, crushingly sad the song is.
In a little while from now
If I’m not feeling any less sour
I promised myself to treat myself and visit a nearby tower
And climbing to the top, will throw myself off
In an effort to make it clear to whoever
What it’s like when you’re shattered
As if to knock me down, reality came around
And without so much as a mere touch
Cut me into little pieces
Leaving me to doubt,
Talk about God and His mercy
Oh, if He really does exist
Why did He desert me
In my hour of need?
I truly am indeed
Alone again, naturally
I listened closely to the lyrics and realized that the guy is singing about suicide contemplation, being left at the altar, adult orphanhood, and questioning the very existence of God. How even if you find love in this godforsaken world, you will eventually end up either dead, or alone and THEN dead. It seems the line between melodrama and tragedy is thinner than we ever thought, and it’s drawn in the form of a feathered haircut and polyester suit.
I’ve often thought this would be the perfect song to sing at karaoke, the kind you only sing at 3am, very drunk, and make everyone in the room feel super-awkward before throwing down the mic and stumbling offstage. (Works best if you exist in a movie montage about broken heart-itude.) But then I saw this video of Gilbert O’Sullivan singing it, his performance peppered with the puppy-dog eyes, cocked head and subtly angry tapping of toes that are the hallmarks of bitter solitude and I wondered, how can any human with a beating heart sing this song aloud without bursting into sobs?
Through the many romantic disappointments of my twenties, “Alone Again (Naturally)” became something of a standard in my pity-party playlists. Like “Against All Odds” or “Superstar,” if you haven’t yet arrived at the fierce, Beyoncé stage of singleness, “Alone Again” is the perfect song to wallow to. Just lay down on the floor and look up at the ceiling and listen to this song and think about how terrible everything is. It’s even better if you have a rainy window to look out of as you sing along to the words. Because there’s something in this song’s earnestness that is still kind of funny. Diving into your despair with a song like this is a great way to realize how ridiculous you’re being.
Listening to “Alone Again” when you’re down is the pop/soft rock equivalent of George Michael Bluth walking around with the Vince Guaraldi Trio’s “Christmas Time Is Here” in the background. Sometimes there’s nothing to do but hang your head, slump and mope around, and if you actually do it, the sense of self-indulgent woe becomes so heightened that it turns cartoonish, and you have to stop. It creates a distance between you and your own melancholy, like a reverse-psychology Chicken Soup For The Soul.
The song was listed #5 in Casey Kasem’s “American Top 40 of the 1970s,” just a few notches behind Debby Boone’s “You Light Up My Life.” You could say it was the anthem for the lonely people at the singles’ tables at the weddings of those people dancing to Boone’s saccharine ballad. In later years O’Sullivan waged a number of legal battles trying to protect the song from commercialization and sampling, saying he didn’t want the song to be tarnished since “it means so much to some people.” The wallowers of the world had someone on their side, protecting their ultimate moping theme song from derision.
What is it about this song that gives me such pleasure? The song’s repetition of crescendos and cascades not only make it undeniably catchy; they also mimic the pattern of hope and disappointment that the lyrics reference. But how is it that “Alone Again” makes me want to both laugh and cry in the space of a few bars? Do minor keys really have that much power?
I think it’s the song’s utter earnestness that makes me feel simultaneously sarcastic and tender. It’s a defense mechanism followed closely by the thing it’s defending.
There’s a reason this song belongs to the same era as half-dissolves and flowy dresses and wispy hair: in soft rock, gentleness was king. Sincerity was all. From a modern perspective, Gilbert O’Sullivan’s blatant vulnerability is scary and sad and, above all, relatable. These days, we never want to show that pathetic, defeated part of ourselves; it’s easier to laugh it away, make fun of it, because to be weak is silly. Better yet is to overdramatize, indulging oneself in the soaring melisma of so many American Idols. But in an era where a man could sing a song about overwhelming self-pity while surrounded by sweeping violins and a guitar soloist in a black turtleneck, and still make it the #5 song of the decade, there was proof that there’s something in all of us that, sometimes, just needs to feel sorry for ourselves. “Alone Again (Naturally)” gives us permission to pull up the corners of our mouths, regardless of whether it’s in a wince or smile.
Jenna-Marie Warnecke is a writer in New York.