The Placebo Politics of Pop - and why they’re dangerous

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1–800–273–8255 is the number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. It’s also the name of rapper Logic’s “hit” single featuring guest vocalists Alessia Cara and Khalid:

This song is bad. Bad lyrically, bad sonically, bad for the artists, bad for its audience, and downright insulting to the millions of people who suffer from common mental health issues like depression and anxiety. Something needs to be said.

In 1–800–273–8255, Logic promotes an overtly simplistic and naively optimistic portrait of mental illness: one that ignores the neurological, intellectual, and environmental complexities of its victims.

The self-proclaimed intention of 1–800–273–8255 is to “spread awareness.” Alas, Logic et. al. seem to be making the public aware of a perverted if not entirely fabricated narrative of mental illness, diverting their audiences attention to all the wrong places. Propagating a superficial interpolation of depression, 1–800–273–8255 is a damaging piece of pop culture.

Throughout his early catalog, Logic has proved himself an impressive lyricist, thoughtfully exploring the trauma and drama of a fractured childhood and his mixed-race identity. Yet 1–800–273–8255 is completely void of any of the deeply personal wordplay and storytelling that defined his earlier works:

I’ve been on the low
I been taking my time
I feel like I’m out of my mind
It feel like my life ain’t mine
Who can relate?
Woo!

Who can relate? Not Logic, who has openly never dealt with suicide¹ and depression himself.² And while his heart may be in the right place- taking on a charitable cause like suicide, he’s doing it all wrong. The song’s narrator is a shallow imitation of a depressive personality trope: Logic completely fails to empathize with the sophistication and conflict of a suicidal person.

The narrative of the song progresses in an abysmal and predictable manner. Alessia Cara plays the voice on the other end of the phone, blowing smoke with a series of misplaced metaphors and platitudes. Then enter Logic with the song’s egregious final chorus:

I finally wanna be alive
I finally wanna be alive
I don’t wanna die today
I don’t wanna die

Is this really how the story goes? The songwriters completely disregard the actual utility of a suicide hotline. The primary objective of the telephone counselor is to get that caller, whomever they may be, off the cliff. Once this is managed, the specialist will direct a caller to a variety of resources to aid them on the long and tedious journey towards better mental health. The NSPL is not an antidote to suicide: it’s one piece of a nebulous and imperfect puzzle. In painting a narrative wherein the depressed person suddenly finds peace after a simple phone call, Logic is setting up his most vulnerable listeners for frustration and failure.

Good intentions do not inoculate the folks behind this project. The flippant hubris of Logic and his team are revealed in the promotions surrounding 1–800–273–8255, culminating in Logic’s speech post VMA performance, in which he promotes his album as confronting the things “mainstream media doesn’t want to talk about,” enumerating issues like “racism, discrimination, sexism… domestic violence.” (Upon request), the crowd offers a standing ovation, while Logic turns to celebrate his unique message of positivity with a teary-eyed entourage in white t-shirts. (Who are these people? Supporters? Fans? Suicide watchees?) Wait, what?

This carefully crafted moment of feel-gud emotional pornography is emblematic of American pop culture’s frequent wholesale, for-profit exploitation of orthogonal cultural and social issues. Memetic culture cultivates moments like these by placing audiences into a synthetic tribalism of us v. them, presenting a clear cut duality. These situations make it too easy to pick a side. In the case of his VMA performance, Logic delineates the enemy: the big bad media that keeps talking about all the wrong issues. (Sound familiar?) Then, the good guy: Logic and friends, (i.e. anyone with a heart, especially you), or the people who want to fix issues like sexual assault and discrimination, (two of many controversial topics that Logic discusses on his maverick new album, by the way). Logic quite literally encourages his audience to applaud for both “[his] message” and themselves.

Sadly, reducing an issue like depression or the “awareness” of it to a two-dimensional populist binary is inaccurate and counterproductive. Imagine if Logic were singing about another American health epidemic, like obesity. Perhaps he’d let his audience know that they can lose weight through diet and exercise, while ignoring the social, economic, and psychological factors that catalyze bad eating habits. Between the thin, happy folks and the fast food chains, it would be easy to pick a side. Then what?

Us v. them, over and over again. It’s not actionable, it’s not thoughtful, and it’s not possible to help a bunch of overweight Americans by repeating quotidian advice and pointing them in the direction of the nearest Whole Foods. It’s shortsighted and rude.

Populism is loud, facile, and detrimental, no matter how cathartic. Whether it’s Logic masquerading as a mental health crusader or Taylor Swift vs. The World, entertaining any noncomplex, undemanding perspective is risky business. See: November, 2016.


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EDITS:

South Park gets it.

I’ve gotten a lot of flack for claiming logic hasn’t dealt with suicide:

[1] Interview on hardknocktv

“…I’ve never personally dealt with suicidal thoughts…”

[2] Logic on rapgenius:

“So I’ve thought about it but **never in my life did I ever think about actually committing the act for real.** And I hopefully I am never there. But I know a lot of people who have. A lot of people very near and dear and close to my heart and because of that, I think that also served for inspiration for this song.”