The Noisey Guide to Roy Orbison, Pop's Original Sad Boy
School up on the first male pop singer to create a persona that reveled in heartache and sadness.
The last thing the internet needs is another thinkpiece on the sad girl in pop music. From Leslie Gore to Lana Del Rey, the trope has been sourced, dissected, and written about to the point of no return. What's cropping up more and more in the world of popular music these days is actually the sad boy. Let me clarify: this extends beyond dudes simply singing about feeling sad. Every pop singer's gotta have a sensitive single or two—Bieber's billion dollar apology songs surged up the charts like a wellspring of tears—but that in itself is not all that interesting. Rather, this distinct rebrand towards a more sensitive, emotional Bieber—one who cries on stage in all black—represents a significant shift in our leading male pop performers. And he's not the only one. Look at Sam Smith. Ed Sheeran. Drake even (he may not be sad per se, but he sure is mopey). The sad boys of pop are here to woo you, lose you, and croon you back into their arms. And it's a trend that's on the rise.
But who is the godfather, the sad boy originator? Swivel your ears to the 60s and remember Mr. Roy Orbison. The Texan singer was really the first male pop singer to create a persona inextricably entwined with sadness and heartache. The birth of rock 'n' roll interrupted the litany of teenage tear jerkers (also known, I kid you not, as "splatter platters”). These songs—composed by young icons of the 50s like The Shangri-Las and Johnny Leyton—were lyrically theatrical and frequently morbid, like the tale of a fatal motorcycle crash sung from the perspective of a deceased teenage sweetie. By contrast, Orbison's knack for emotional balladry was more grounded, undeniably sincere, and set him apart from such populist, maudlin trappings.
Of course Elvis and Sinatra deserve credit for the croon, but their performance styles were sexy and even swaggering. Roy Orbison, on the other hand, stood there on stage by himself, singing in his black suit, black sunglasses, lit by a single spotlight. His candor was painstakingly sincere and vulnerable, and as he stood there singing some of the most tragic love songs ever written, people began to call him the dark angel. His breathtaking, operatic voice—one that even Elvis called the most beautiful he'd ever heard—communicated a profound tenderness. Over the course of his career, before his untimely death, Orbison became pop music's most unlikely pop star with smash-hits like "Crying," "Only the Lonely," and "It's Over."
Like his music, Orbison's personal life was also marked by tragedy. His first wife Claudette Fraley was killed in a motorcycle accident and both his sons died during his lifetime. In 1988, he suffered a fatal heart attack. The tragic irony: Roy Orbison was killed by his own heart at the age of 52. Orbison's dramatic stage persona and aching ballads changed the emotional tenor of American pop and rock, bearing influence on the greats—in particular Bruce Springsteen who mentions the dark angel in several of his songs. In fact, let's break down the ways Roy Orbison became America's definitive musical sad boy.
THE ALL BLACK ENSEMBLE
Roy Orbison did not look like the other popular singers of the 60s. While contemporaries like Elvis and Ricky Nelson donned increasingly flamboyant costumes, Orbison stuck to a uniform many likened to that of an insurance salesman pitching you a great deal on dying. From his coiffed black hair to the pitch-black Ray Bans, Orbison's somber persona was made clear before he even opened his mouth. His air of mystery and pain came in part from his head-to-toe black outfits. Dressing in black was hardly en vogue at the time (goth was still Medieval, OK?) and it certainly added to his impenetrable mystique.
THAT DEVASTATING VOICE
When Elvis Presley deems you with "the most beautiful voice he'd ever heard," that's the defintive thumbs up. The deeply haunting quality to Orbison's songs came from the distinct way his voice could quaver and wail. The emotional affect was so wrenching and forthright that listeners couldn't help but feel it, too.
AS A BOY, HE WAS ACTUALLY PRETTY SAD
Don't let that smile fool you. Orbison wrote his first bereft ballad at just eight years old titled "A Vow of Love." I repeat, he was eight. The pitfalls of heartache rarely lay heavy on the mind of a second grader, but in this case, it actually makes a whole lot of sense.
YOU NEVER SAW HIS EYES
History has ascribed Roy's signature dark glasses to a sartorial choice, but in reality, they were more practical than any flare for attitude: Orbison was diagnosed as severely sight impaired when he was just a kid. The story goes that on an early tour opening for The Beatles, Orbison left his glasses on the plane and had to wear these gruesome looking, dark-as-night perscription ones. Little did he know how they would come to represent him. His lifelong insecurity about his looks was certainly a factor as well. The alabaster pale singer regularly dyed his hair black since high school.
HE INSISTED ON WRITING BALLADS
When Roy Orbison signed to Sun Records with his first band The Teen Kings, rockabilly was at its peak. Not ballads. Even legendary label head Sam Phillips told Orbison that no one wanted to hear those dated teenage love songs anymore. But Orbison insisted, despite the expert opinion, and went on to make an indelible impact on the development of American pop music with his timeless and perhaps greatest hit, "Only the Lonely."
IT WASN'T ALL ABOUT SEX
Roy Orbison's performance style was the direct opposite of Elvis the Pelvis. Because he was never considered a sex symbol, it was unlikely to feel that he was out for anything but your heart. The genuine quality to Orbison's music and voice is what made him such a captivating figure in time and place where sex was selling records (and still does). Orbison's songs evoked an old fashioned innocence (dreams, slow dancing, love letters) which was probably pretty comforting as the sexual revolution was coming to a head.
HIS FLIRTATIONS WERE SHY, NOT SLY
Another thing that made Orbison such an improbable rock star is the fact that he was on the shy side. Nowhere near as garrulous as the rest of the Sun Records' Class of '55, Orbison prided himself on being a loner. His 60s hits "Pretty Woman" and "Running Scared" are perfect examples of this. Sure, he gets the girl in the end, but only after countless episodes of longing from afar with crippling self-doubt.
LASTLY, ONE OF HIS BIGGEST HITS WAS A SONG ABOUT LITERALLY CRYING
Before Bieber bawling at the VMAs became a forever circulated .GIF, this kind of showy sadness was a shtick best left for someone like Morrissey. But before the Smiths rewrote love into something sarcastically maudlin and aware of its own irony, Roy Orbison made it OK to sob it out like no one (or everyone) is watching. There was no guise. No brooding. This song is just about crying. (The album is actually called Crying.)
Like I said, the commercial sad boy is on the rise. Look no further than the charts: Charlie Puth, Nick Jonas, and Shawn Mendes are right behind Bieber and the Weeknd. Macho, swaggering rock stars will always have a place in popular music and that's a cold hard fact. Go ahead and blame anatomy for that one. But as we continue evolving into a progressive society that accepts and celebrates vulnerability—take my word for it—the crooning sad boy will prevail.
Universal recently released a massive Roy Orbison box set titled The MGM Years. Full of rare b-sides, compillations, and remastered tracks, the collection is one of many in the Roy Orbison discography. His work has been organized into volume after volume, giving insight to the Dark Angel's truly prolific songwriter career.