There was someone on Twitter a couple years back (Matt Frost, actually) who asked if there was a more "upbeat downer" song that "Pumped Up Kicks". Interesting thing is that I view that song as sounding completely haunting and dark to match the lyrics, but goddamn does it have a beat you can move to. I don't see how "Pumped Up Kicks" is a peppy song. If Hollywood were smart, they'd eventually use it in a movie about a serial killer where the serial killer playfully dances with a knife to the song as they approach their victim in the basement. Set the murderer up in a Bob Fosse styled solo, dancing around the victim before making the first slash. The song is haunting but people still consider it a feel good tune.
Are there more songs like this? Of course there are. One of my favorites is "Kicks" by Paul Revere and the Raiders. This was an American band that blatantly ripped off the drum heavy sound of the Dave Clark Five, channeled the Beatles visually and churned out some hits. "Kicks" is pretty upbeat
sounding and the embedded video shows the girls dancing onstage. It's a dark song about a young woman caught up in a hedonistic pursuit that leaves her feeling empty. This is a warning to her to stop with the drugs, booze and sex or else she'll chase the next, greater high to a point of no return. This was 1966. That was a big enough problem for this to become a written song and a message culturally broad enough that people would listen. The rot runs deep.
There are many others and it plays to the human ability to not really pay attention to lyrics with music. What are we listening for? What in the structure of the tune is reaching you? This is a nice trick the R&B and rap world pulled to create fantastic beats and melodies with the worst lyrics in the world... well at least lyrics that would cause a commotion if the rapper or singer was white (ask Eminem why only he was ripped for anti-gay lyrics fifteen years ago). You have had generations of women dance to songs calling them bitches, hoes and freaks for 25 years. Very easily R&B songs could switch to romantic instead of graphic, yet they do not. The message then is important for the listener to hear repeated over and over again on top of that catchy beat. "You are a worthless ho, act like one." If you believe in hypnopaedia at all, there has to be something to listening over and over again to the cultural messaging while awake.
One hit wonder "99 Red Balloons" is about nuclear war, yet how many can even catch the military lines, and that killer '80s dance beat makes you forget. I have heard interpretations of The Cure's "Just Like Heaven" to be about Hamlet and Ophelia. Ophelia drowned or purposefully drowned herself in Hamlet (read the dialogue discussing her death). Listen to "Just Like Heaven". Kind of flows, but The Cure were always depressing so I have a hard time seeing their music as upbeat. These depressing but upbeat songs are around and can even drive an album.
Bruce Springsteen's entire "Born in the USA" album is a nostalgia album for Boomers facing their mid-life crisis by echoing the '60s in either the sound or in the subject matter. Billy Joel did this same Boomer nostalgia for the '60s in the '80s as his audience aged. Echoing the sound of the early '60s is easy to spot with "Cover Me", "I'm Goin' Down", "I'm On Fire", "Working on the Highway", and "Darlington County". The depression hits in other songs. "Glory Days" gets fools moving but is depressing nostalgia of divorcees and High School peakers. It rocks like an over-the-hill band at a high school reunion. "Born in the USA" is a Vietnam War protest and yet an Affirmative Action-Outsourcing protest song. "My Hometown" is straight up depressing and nostalgic for the old days. It might as well be the background track for my Takimag column on heroin in Fishtown.
We all have a favorite though. Third Eye Blind's "Semi-Charmed Life" is my favorite example as it was a song that even your mom listened to in the '90s, singing along to the "doot-doot-doot" bits. She could even clean the kitchen counters while doot-doot-dooting along to the song. Similar to Georgy Girl where some whistling or doot-dooting can mask depressing lyrics. Semi-Charmed Life was about an empty life of doing meth and sex, highs and lows. Meth addiction sounds so damn happy when you just wrap it in "doot-doot-doot, doot-doot-do-dooooo". You still hear it today. It's on those '80s and '90s flashback stations that always have '80s hits weekends. Don't be alarmed and enjoy those tunes, but your kids call those stations "Mom Rock".