The chicken/egg dilemma of dark music and clinical depression
In my years of on-and-off therapy for clinical depression and anxiety, one question I have never posed to a therapist is this: are my tastes in music a liability when it comes to my mental health?
Why have I not asked this question? Probably because I’m afraid of the answer.
The question has been top of mind this week as I’ve been preparing to meet with a new therapist owing to the particulars of my most recent downward spiral into depression. It appeared to coincide with a period of binge-listening to an old favourite band of mine, Porcupine Tree, and in particular to their lugubrious 2007 album Fear of a Blank Planet.
For those not familiar with the band, Porcupine Tree was an English prog-rock band that operated from 1987 to 2009, consisting most notably of lead singer-guitarist Steven Wilson, former Japan keyboardist Richard Barbieri, and current King Crimson drummer Gavin Harrison. The band’s oeuvre can roughly be divided into pre- and post-2001 epochs, the former characterized by an ethereal psychedelic style reminiscent of bands like Sky Cries Mary and My Bloody Valentine and the latter more in the vein of the dark progressive metal of Tool, Opeth, or Tesseract.
Of the dark, late-period Porcupine Tree, the Fear of a Blank Planet album is particularly morbid. Featuring cameo appearances by prog-rock luminaries Robert Fripp (King Crimson) and Alex Lifeson (Rush), the album explicitly draws inspiration from Brett Ellis Easton’s thoroughly depressing pseudo-autobiography Lunar Park, with dirgelike metal guitar riffs and icy electronic washes underpinning Wilson’s mournful vocals and lyrics about suicide, self-medication, and the unrelenting awfulness of adolescent life spent in amid screens and security cameras in suburban gated community America.
The album’s closing song “Sleep Together” is its crowning glory — featuring a mounting orchestral accompaniment that hearkens to Led Zep’s “Kashmir” and lyrics that read thusly:
This means out
This is your way out
Do or drown
Do or drown in torpor
Leave no trace
All my files erased
Burn my clothes
Burn my Prada trainers
Let’s sleep together right now
Relieve the pressure somehow
Switch off the future right now
Let’s sleep forever
This is fate
This is your escape
Leave here now
Yeah. Not exactly what a person on the edge of a mental breakdown needs to here.
But my record collection problem is much larger than my substantial collection of Porcupine Tree albums. In fact, much of my record collection looks as though it were specifically designed to engineer depression. Can’t deal with P-Tree? How about some cheery Radiohead? Joy Division, maybe? Tool? Black Flag? How about some happy-happy trip hop courtesy of Massive Attack and Portishead? How about “A Curse Upon Iron” by avant garde Estonian composer Veljo Tormis, as performed by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir?
Once I strip away the overly dark, the overly aggressive, and the less-than-uplifting from my collection, I’m left with a small handful of Thievery Corporation and Daft Punk albums that I don’t feel like putting on because, well, it feels like a calculated attempt to make myself feel happy, which I’m not. In the end I’m left with half a mind to set my entire music collection on fire and subsist on an auditory diet of silence, Mozart, and Ariana Grande.
All this begs the question: is dark, depressing, and aggressive music bad for our mental health? Clearly the answer is yes as far as my current mental state is concerned, but would I be better off generally if I avoided late-period Porcupine Tree and the like completely?
There appears to be very little consensus on this question, but some studies appear to indicate that depression-prone individuals listen to music differently from their non-depressive peers. For many people, sad music is cathartic, but for others it appears to result in cycles of rumination that are extremely difficult to shake off. According to one Australian study, both ruminators (those prone to depressive thinking) and non-ruminators reported significant increases in depression after listening to self-selected sad music, but while the non-ruminators also reported positive effects, these were absent among depressive people.
There is certainly plenty of evidence to show that dark and aggressive music is not bad for people across the board. If this were the case, surely Finland, a country synonymous with brutal Nordic death metal, would not be ranked number one of the 2018 World Happiness Report — with the land of Björk and Sigur Rós not far behind in fourth place? Conversely, surely countries like the Dominican Republic and South Africa, with their salsa and kwaito and whatnot, be happier places than their respective #64 and #80 rankings on the WHR would suggest? Perhaps there is something to recommend in the cathartic brutality of Finnish death metal, the icy sting of Norwegian electro-jazz, and the elegiac majesty of Icelandic post-rock after all.
But is any of this stuff good for people who, like me, are deeply depressive in nature? I’m beginning to think the answer is no and that I really need to rethink my auditory diet. Just as my wholesale embrace of long-distance running and weightlifting has forced me to be much more disciplined with my food choices than I once was, and that my come-to-Jesus moment with alcohol nearly two years ago forced me to abandon a mind-altering substance that had been an integral part of my life since adolescence, I’m realizing now that I may have to similarly redefine the “kind of person I am” vis-a-vis my tastes in music.
We live in a world demarcated by tribal associations, and nothing is more tribal than music. As a high schooler and university student I saw myself in large part as part of a specific subculture based on the type of music I gravitated towards, which tended to be the dark and heavy stuff. In the 1990s this meant lots of Nine Inch Nails, Marilyn Manson, Ministry, Pantera, and dark electronic music like Prodigy, as well as moody electrified jazz like Bitches Brew-era Miles Davis and its European counterparts from the ECM imprint, and the like. This sound — and the aesthetic that went with it — was largely how I defined myself as a human being, together with being a craft beer and poetry snob and just generally an opinionated pseudo-intellectual.
Thankfully I’ve lost most of the attendant pretense over the subsequent decades, but the soundtrack still remains. And now I’m wondering if this soundtrack has been part of my problem. Could it be that the wacko puritans of yesteryear who railed against “Satanic” rock music had a point — that much of this stuff isn’t really that good for us? I merely ask.
But don’t worry — I’m not about to toss any of my Porcupine Tree albums in the trash. But until I’m feeling far better than I am currently, I’m going to be administering myself prescribed doses of Bach, Daft Punk, and as much Afrobeat as I can get my hands on. It’s medicine.