Geouwehoer
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Geouwehoer

Mental Health in Modern Music: A Heartfelt Therapy, Or A Harmful Money-Grab?

Pictured: Billie Eilish, in the music video for “Bury A Friend”

Music is a deeply expressive art form, one that every single one of us has connected with at one point or another. The endless variety of different styles, atmospheres, and genres mean that there truly is something for everybody.

Music can connect with people in numerous ways by relating to listeners through lyrics or moods. Relations can be made through topics like class, race, life lessons, and of course, mental health.

In this article, I will make my attempt to explore how music covering mental health can either be divine, or wretched, depending on one key factor.

The History Of Mental Health in Music

Pictured: Joy Division (left), and Nirvana (right)

The type of songwriting that sheds light on mental health, has existed in music for generations. However, it seemed like the late 70’s was when the freedom to express feelings through music truly shone.

To give an example, Pink Floyd did a masterful job of expressing the negative effects that stardom, drug abuse, and dependence on the music industry can have negative effects on mental health in their 1979 masterpiece The Wall, with tracks like “Comfortably Numb”, “Young Lust”, and “One Of My Turns” really hitting the nail on the head in this cautionary tale.

As well as this, we got one of the first prominent bands who were synonymous with their dark and gloomy sound, that band of course being Joy Division. In my mind, this was truly when the idea of “misery music” became a widespread phenomenon, and becoming one of the final experimental sub-genres of music to come out of the 70s.

Each decade that followed the late 70’s would go on to have their own unique form of misery music. In the 80’s, there were the post-punk bands that drew inspiration heavily from Joy Division, such as The Smiths and The Cure (who formed in the late 70s, but gained their first wave of commercial success in the 80s). There isn’t an awful lot to say about this phase other than its similarities to the kind of misery music which gave rise in the late 70s. And it seemed quite frankly that many were still lapping it up.

Despite the post-punk phenomenon existing in the 80’s, however, that decade was more well-known for its overly-campy and saturated form of pop, where people wore fluorescent leotards and electronic instruments reigned supreme.

This would ultimately become fuel for the fire that was next decades form of mental health music. That being the short-lived sub-genre of grunge. Many knew grunge for the sub-genres “big four”; consisting of Pearl Jam, Alice In Chains, Soundgarden, and lastly Nirvana.

It is hard to argue against Nirvana being the one group that many remember Grunge by. But more importantly that the band itself, was the way they expressed teen angst, along with addressing mental health in their music.

Grunge was more about the aesthetic than the conventions of the music itself. Consequently, there were numerous stylistic differences between one Grunge band and the next. For example, Pearl Jam’s idea of grunge was far more soul influenced than Nirvana’s more raw, punk-inspired tunes.

I grew up listening to grunge’s big four as an angsty teen, who was going through my fair share of negative thoughts. Therefore, it came as no surprise that I connected with the genre so deeply, and that it is truly valid as a genre of misery music.

What bands like Nirvana offered to listeners, was an expression of frustration; a way for the artist to get all of their negativity off their chest. This would go on to heavily influence the mental-health music in the decade to follow.

In the 2000’s, it can be argued that a number of different genres hold this mantle; nu-metal, deathcore, emo, and so on. But one thing they all had in common, was the underlying theme of heaviness.

Bands like Slipknot, Linkin Park, and My Chemical Romance approached mental health in a different direction to the likes of earlier genres like post-punk.

Bands of the 2000’s chose to channel their negative thoughts in a hyper-frustrated way, similar to how some grunge bands did the same. I feel that by doing so, many listeners can connect with the music on a more subconscious levels, with the vocalist’s screams reflecting the cries from within.

What helped heavier genres, like those in the 2000’s connect with people even further, was the live shows. It provided a chance for audiences to open up to others, in a dynamic wave of shared pain and frustration.

Naturally, the point in which others get hurt as a result, is wrong. But when executed with consideration and a powerful love cloaked in anger, the aesthetic that these bands created, in my opinion, was one of history’s most powerful forms of misery music.

Misery Music In The Modern Day

Pictured: Lil Uzi Vert in the music video for “XO TOUR Llif3”

In the most recent decade, we have seen possibly one of the most drastic changes in the way music is produced, as well as the genres that now stand atop the mountain of recognition.

The earlier years of the 2010’s saw the continuation of heavy bands being the flag-bearers for mental-health music, particularly with the rise of metalcore. In-fact, it wasn’t until recent years that this trend was overthrown by another, which many have dubbed “emo rap”.

Coming into existence as a kind of offspring of the genre of trap, which rocketed to mainstream popularity in the later half of this decade, emo rap reverted to the idea of expressing mental health in a far less subliminal way, using things like drug abuse, self harm, suicidal thoughts, and alcoholism as subject material, and indiscreetly jotting these ideas very bluntly into their lyrics.

To shed light on this further, I am going to make a comparison between a song which covers mental health subliminally, and one which doesn’t.

“There’s something inside me that pulls beneath the surface — Consuming, confusing — This lack of self-control I fear is never-ending — Controlling I can’t seem — To find myself again, my walls are closing in — Without a sense of confidence — I’m convinced that there’s just too much pressure to take — I’ve felt this way before, so insecure”

Crawling, by Linkin Park

In comparison to…

“She say I’m insane, yeah — Might blow my brain out(hey) — Xanny help the pain, yeah — Please, Xanny, make it go away”

XO TOUR Llif3, by Lil Uzi Vert

I must make the point that this doesn’t always apply to modern artists (Nirvana has a single literally titled “I Hate Myself And I Want To Die”), but I do believe that this crude display of self-loathing is far more common, and far more popularised in modern music.

I also believe, that displaying themes of mental illness in your music this way can potentially be harmful to those listening, if it lacks one key element…

Resolve!

I strongly believe that if a certain form of misery music fails to offer comfort and/or resolve to the listener, it is ultimately useless. The sole purpose of much of the mental-health music genres was to let listeners know that they are not alone in the pain that they feel, or to inspire others to endure through their pain. This, I feel, is scarce in the trending mental health music in recent years.

The crosshair of blame shouldn’t be aimed just at emo-rap. However, it was popularised enough to give way to a broader scene of misery music, one that I think is the most toxic kind we have witnessed thus far.

In 2019 especially, the fiendish clutches of the music industry has tightened its grip on the despicable act of using mental health as their little marketing campaign. With a new breed of self-loathing pop-princesses like Billie Eilish, many pop artists have started to follow suit. Why? Because in 2019, suicide sells!

What worries me is that our newest generation of teens have only this to connect to in their time of angst. And by being so heavily marketed by the music industry, any semblance of sincerity or honesty is rarely found.

On the flip side, heavier genres continue to be the more sincere form of misery music. The dilemma is however, that its far less popular. The popularity of misery music with the shock-value of that which is so glorified, has spiralled too far upward for the music industry to want to stop.

So I am writing this article to try my absolute best to turn that tide ever-so-slightly.

There have been many phenomenal albums, that do cover mental health, but also offer a kind of resolve or sincerity. Some examples include Mike Shinoda’s 2018 piece, Post Traumatic, an album that paints a picture of grief from the former Linkin Park member and shows us his journey of coping with the loss of frontman Chester Bennington.

More recently than that, I have really loved the debut album from UK four-piece Dream State; Primrose Path. This album simply oozes with honesty and openness about the topics of mental health, which was exactly what the band wanted to highlight. As a result, many a fan, as well as myself, have felt that the album has really helped them cope through darker moments.

This is something that I feel, heavily-glorified industry plant artists who romanticise death for shock value, are incapable of doing for fans. Instead, it does more harm than good.

In conclusion, mental health plays a vital role in music. It has the potential to save many lives; and this, is exactly why it should never have be soiled by corporate greed.

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