When Britney Spears had a widely publicised breakdown in 2007, her multiple trips to rehab, her infamous shaven head and the umbrella-attack-on-a-paparazzi's-car incident were splashed on the front pages. It was clear that she was suffering from mental health issues and going through personal struggles, yet she was met with scorn and became the subject of ridicule.
Whilst music itself is increasingly becoming recognised as a legitimate and effective form of therapy for dealing with mental health conditions, the artists behind the music are usually more likely than most to suffer from issues of depression and addiction themselves. In a survey conducted by Record Union, over 73% of independent musicians were found to suffer from a mental illness. Kurt Cobain, Mac Miller, Avicii, Amy Winehouse are just a few of the many who have experienced the pitfalls of fame.
As with many other jobs in the creative field, the music industry is not known for its financial stability. Hard work and talent is no guarantee of success. This has only been exacerbated by the use of streaming services such as Spotify and Apple Music, which has led to a decline in record sales. Furthermore, the recent pandemic has resulted in albums being postponed and tours cancelled. It takes no genius to work out the effect of low and unpredictable pay on an artist’s mental health.
As the lion’s share of streaming and album sales revenue gets eaten up by record labels and distributors, artists find themselves relying on touring to survive. In an interview with NME, English singer-songwriter James Blake explains, “Coming up at a time when the internet destroyed any chance of selling lots and lots of records meant there was a lot of pressure to tour, and you couldn’t really stop without taking a huge financial hit.” However, constant touring, long hours on the road and having to put on a show night after night can take a real toll on an artist’s health, both physically and mentally. Justin Bieber (Purpose), Kanye West (Saint Pablo) and Selena Gomez (Revival) are just some of the artists who have cancelled world tours. Bieber cited depression and exhaustion, West was hospitalised and Gomez checked into rehab. Now imagine what it would be like for artists who are not millionaires with an already established fanbase who can afford to make such decisions. Melbourne-based band Teeth and Tongue’s 2016 album Give Up on Your Health perfectly presents the dilemma that many artists face. The lyrics to the title track, "You got to sell yourself, but don’t you give up on your health at least not right now,” highlights that sometimes artists have to balance prioritising their health with making a living and sometimes sacrifices have to be made.
Part of being an artist is being a performer and with this comes the pressure to please your audience and a yearning for approval. This is captured perfectly in Taylor Swift’s recent Netflix documentary Miss Americana, where she explains, “I’d been trained to be happy when you get a lot of praise...Like those pats on the head were all I lived for.” Swift also reflects on the infamous 2009 VMAs incident, which would go on to spark a decade long feud with Kanye West. She recalls how she thought the audience were booing her rather than West and “for someone who’s built their whole belief system on getting people to clap for you, the whole thing was a pretty formative experience.”
The other side of the creative coin is that artists have a reputation for being ‘tortured.’ This stereotype is not confined to the music industry with the likes of Van Gogh, Plath and Hemingway all fuelling Aristotle's claim that “No great genius has ever existed without some touch of madness.” The idea that achieving something great requires suffering dates back to ancient times, including the Greek myth of Philoctetes. Some scientists, such as Dr Chayim Newman in a Rolling Stone article, have claimed that creatives are predisposed to be ‘more sensitive’ as they “tend to have dominance in the side of the brain that creates more negative emotions.” Whilst such a theory remains up for debate, it is not difficult to see how tapping into those emotions to hone your craft day in and day out can be exhausting and damaging. Hayley Williams, the lead singer of the band Paramore, said in a recent LA Times article: “I can feel my thoughts racing, and I’m trying to understand the balance between running from my own thoughts when there’s good stuff to mine from them.” This fine balance can be seen in lyrics such as those by Lil Peep where he explores having depression and suffering from addiction: "Help me find a way to pass the time/ Everybody tellin' me life's short, but I wanna die,” (The Brightside) and “I got a feelin' that I'm not gonna be here for next year.” (The Way I see Things) Tragically, Lil Peep died in 2017 after an overdose.
Similarly, Joe Tilson, a British singer-songwriter, explained the pressure to be creative on demand: “Being a musician has the impact of any self-employed job, you never switch off, everything is connected to your success...At the time I never thought of music as the cause of any of my low points, I saw it as the escape and cure.” Before her meteoric rise to fame, Lizzo remembers how the day she released her now hit song Truth Hurts “was probably one of the darkest days” and thinking that “If I quit music now, nobody would notice. This is my best song ever, and nobody cares.” Nonetheless, such problems don’t just disappear when artists achieve some taste of success. With fame, they'll find themselves under the magnifying glass and open to scrutiny in an age where social media is inescapable.
As such, the creative process is both the cause and the solution for the mental health issues many artists face. In an environment where drugs and alcohol are readily available, it is easy to turn to self-medication to cope. Artists either hit the jackpot and are catapulted into the spotlight and find themselves immersed in the drug culture or they hit rock bottom and turn to self-medication to cope with their failures. Whilst it is easy to dismiss as part and parcel of the rock 'n' roll lifestyle, the prevalence of substance abuse is having devastating effects on the music industry. References to codeine and Xanax are littered throughout the charts (see Blackbear’s do re mi, Lil Uzi Vert’s XO Tour Life, Travis Scott’s beibs in the trap, Lil Wayne’s Rich as Fuck, Post Malone’s Zack and Codeine) and risks becoming a dangerous trend.
This has even led to the creation of the so-called ‘27 Club,’ which includes artists who have all tragically died at the age of 27 such as: Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse and most recently Kim Jong-hyun, a member of Korean boy-band SHINee. Although there is no statistical evidence that supports the idea that more artists die at 27, it remains a cultural phenomenon and often features in songs. Mac Miller in Brand Name sang: "To everyone who sell me drugs, don't mix it with that bullshit, I'm hoping not to join the 27 Club." Miller later died from an overdose at 26. Juice WRLD also similarly referenced the club in his song Legends: "What's the 27 Club? We ain't making it past 21." Whilst the song was referencing fellow rappers XXXTentacion, who was murdered at 20, and Lil Peep, who died from an overdose at 21, rather chillingly, Juice WRLD himself died at the age of 21. Alongside the ‘tortured artist’ stereotype, we risk romanticising the rock n roll lifestyle and inevitable downfall of our musicians. As the lyrics in Uno by Rex Orange County go: "And every now and then I think about the fact that I'd become a legend if I died at 27." We glamorise and trivialise mental illness in the name of art and creative self-expression. If we rely on music to soothe our anxieties and shed light on our dark days, we can’t leave these artists out to dry.
If we rely on music to soothe our anxieties and shed light on our dark days, we can’t leave these artists out to dry
However, the tide is turning, and there are more and more artists speaking out about the struggles they face with mental illness. As Blake notes, “I think we’ve seen the effects of the artist’s life laid out for us in previous generations, and I think we’re just starting to go, ‘Maybe I shouldn’t use these methods to cope with it, maybe I should talk to somebody.’" Bieber discusses battling addiction in an episode (‘The Dark Season') of his documentary and how at his lowest point, he relied on “anti-depressants [to] help me get outta bed in the morning.”
Artists are also turning to their songs to express the issues they face. Demi Lovato has been open about her struggles with self-harm, depression and her song Sober details her relapse after a period of sobriety. Similarly, in her fourth EP, Inner Monologue Part 1, Julia Michaels boldly opens with the lyrics: “My friends, they wanna take me to the movies / I tell 'em to fuck off, I'm holding hands with my depression / And right when I think I've overcome it / Anxiety starts kicking in to teach that shit a lesson.” Lyrics such as “Like I’m out of my mind when I’m doing just fine” and “I got all these thoughts, running through my mind / All the damn time and I can't seem to shut it off,” are particularly poignant. Another way artists are stepping up is by encouraging others to seek help. The rapper Logic released a song titled 1-800-273-8255 in 2017, which is the number for the Suicide Prevention Lifeline and as a result the helpline received a surge of calls following the release of the single.
However, the battle doesn’t end here. The discussion on mental health has only just begun in recent years and it needs to be taken seriously by health professionals, employers and, most importantly, us. Until then, we risk losing some of our brightest minds and most talented from entirely preventable deaths. Music may be much-needed therapy for most of us, but that shouldn't come at the cost of the artists that create it.