Finding Clarity Through Compassion: Mental Health in the Music Charts
American singer-songwriter Em Beihold’s song “Numb Little Bug” went viral on TikTok in early 2022. In her lyrics, Beihold asks the listener: “Do you ever get a little bit tired of life? Like you’re not really happy/but you don’t wanna die?” The album art features Beihold wearing bug wings and leaning against a pink pill bottle. With its gloomy lyrics and references to taking antidepressants, a song like this might have never cracked the charts even just a decade ago. More and more, however, people are beginning to not only talk about mental health, but also incorporate their mental health experiences into their art.In the 1990s, the “grunge” style of music emerged from Seattle. The most famous musician to come from this movement was Kurt Cobain, the front man of Nirvana. Cobain’s suicide in 1994 catapulted the topic of mental health to the forefront of the music world. The attitudes towards mental health were subsequently projected onto other musicians from that scene- music publication Stereogum’s Christopher R. Weingarten writes that, “For years — years! — the narrative about Seattle grunge bands would be painted with a brush that they were all whiny millionaires, their depression and discomfort an affect to overcome with an attitude adjustment instead of a doctor.”
In 2017, the front men of Soundgarden and Linkin Park, two rock bands, ended their lives. People’s responses were markedly different to these suicides than that of Cobain’s. When asked about these tragedies in an interview with a New Zealand radio station, Dave Grohl, the drummer of Nirvana, said that, “I think that mental health and depression is something people should take seriously. There’s a stigma attached to it, which is unfortunate. Just as you take care of yourselves in every other way, I think it’s important that people really try to take care of themselves in that way.”
Hip hop, too, has evolved to reflect society’s changing attitudes towards mental health. Famous rapper Kanye West had the phrase “I hate being bipolar, it’s awesome” written on the cover art of his album Ye. Kanye’s tumultuous public persona aside, he has been vocal about his struggle with bipolar disorder. Other rappers have been open about their mental health issues in the past few years- at the 2018 Grammy Awards, Logic performed his hit song “1-800-273-8255,” the number of the National Suicide Hotline, where he raps about his struggle with panic attacks. Dr. Daphne Watkins of the University of Michigan’s School of Social Work offers one explanation for this change: “We’re finally at a place in society where not only are Black men talking more about their deepest, darkest, emotional thoughts and feelings but we as a society are more open to hearing what they have to say.”
One example of this more public type of vulnerability is The Therapist, a series by media and news outlet Vice that began in 2017. In the show, therapist Dr. Siri Sat Nam Singh talks to famous artists about their experiences with mental health. Guests have included Katy Perry, Chief Keef, and Waka Flocka Flame. Dr. Singh has said that in his work in private practice after The Therapist, he’s begun to see much more young men interested in therapy than ever before.
Art, whether or not it intends to, always reveals the societal conditions it was born from. Literature in the 19th century often juggled warring philosophical viewpoints as the Industrial Revolution changed the way people lived and believed. The surrealist painting movement reflected a recoil from the harsh and inhumane realities of World War I and II.
Mental health issues did not just emerge within the past few decades- there have always been people who have struggled. However, as societal stigma around mental health slowly erodes, artists are finally able to incorporate their experiences into their creative work. Because of this, we are now seeing much more music in the mainstream that doesn’t shy away from the taboo of mental health. While society as a whole has many miles to go in accepting the reality of mental health struggles, seeing musicians channel their pain into their art encourages everyone to be more accepting. And it gives us all some great music, too.