A microscope for the minds of musicians
Many modern artists are quite vocal about their struggles with mental health. Kid Cudi, Billie Eilish, Lil Uzi Vert, Juice WRLD, Mac Miller, Eminem, Demi Lovato, Logic, Kanye West, Tupac. I could go on for pages. While the mainstream music industry does not shy away from releasing songs about and profiting off of musicians' mental health, why do we keep losing so many artists to mental illness?
Graphic designed by Jesslyn Magner featuring Billie Eilish, Tupac Shakur, Mac Miller & Juice WLRD.
We know that making music is a creative outlet for all artists. Songwriting is touted as an activity that releases pent up frustration, sadness, hatred or admiration. Any interview you watch with your favorite artist is likely to include their gratitude towards music for "saving them from a dark time" or "bringing them to a better place." However, the music industry can sometimes be the thing to plunge artists into a dark place. The "rock and roll" lifestyle is well known to lead to drug abuse, alcoholism, self image issues and other facets of the Hollywood lifestyle.
The act of listening to music itself is very cathartic. Mountains of studies have been published on how playing an instrument or listening music are coping mechanisms. Music generally has the ability to boost your mood, regardless of what genre you listen to. Hardcore rap, country (not my taste, though) and classical music alike produced positive responses after participants listen. Music therapy even exists as a form of cognitive behavioral therapy.
Music is viewed as a marker of society to look back on. If the music industry is filled to the brim with a stigma towards mental illness, what does that tell future generations? Keeping track of emotions is one thing that musicians are quite good at doing, but why are they not able to get the help they need? They certainly have the funds to put towards psychotherapy and prescription meds. Why do so many musicians every year keep dying? The answer may lie in their peers' lyrics.
It is difficult to differentiate educational versus exaggerated mental health suggestions. For example, Lil Uzi seemingly directly raps, "She said I’m insane yeah, I might blow my brains out. Xanny for the pain yeah, please Xanny make it go away" in his popular song 'XO Tour Lif3.' Xanny refers to the prescription anxiety drug Xanax, and it does not sound like Uzi is headed to the psychiatrist to fill his monthly. Is this song glorifying illness and addiction? On the opposite end of the spectrum, Logic raps the National Suicide Hotline in the inspirational and positive '1-800-273-8255'. Likewise, the late 2pac Shakur's song titles alone express a message of heartfelt sadness and angst with names like 'Trapped' and 'Me Against the World,' as he dealt with frequent violence, a difficult upbringing and addiction from all of the trauma he experienced. Teen singer Billie Eilish reveals sentiments of her anxiety and depression in her song 'Everything I Wanted,' which is literally about a dream she had about killing herself. Eilish's lyrics "Everybody wants something from me now, and I don't wanna let 'em down" show the immense pressure artists feel to please their audiences.
In recent years, the world has had to watch artists like rapper Lil Peep, Juice WRLD, Avicii, Mac Miller and more die tragically by suicide or accidental overdose. In broader pop culture, talented contributors to society like Kate Spade, Anthony Bourdain, Robin Williams and too many more committed suicide in the last few years alone. These people felt like they had no one to talk to to release the pressure of their minds - and no hope for their futures. Evidently, there is a mental health crisis going on. News networks and celebrities have been decent about bringing up wellness in greater terms than just physical health. However, some may find it difficult to relate to wealthy stars with seemingly perfect lives; this is why rappers discussing mental health have such an appeal, especially to their young audiences. Many musicians communicate that their childhoods were not picturesque and they did not attend Juilliard or Yale, or frankly any higher education at all. These traits impact their future, which impact their music styling, and thus impact their listeners. It is up to the listener to decide whether they take such abrasive lyrics to heart.
Progress has been made of exposing mental health battles on the forefront of media. Despite the few positive additions to the regular listener's Spotify library, there is still a long way to go to reduce the stigma of mental illness in the music industry.