Shiny happy people: depression, music and artists

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Sad songs make us all feel better. I’m sure everyone reading this has a playlist set aside for when they’re feeling a little down (I know I have a whole range of them, because I am still 14 years old emotionally). There’s almost always a band that helps you process difficult feelings or particularly trying times.

This isn’t a problem in itself. But the problem comes from the way society views celebrities; we deify them to a huge degree and build up ideas in our heads of what our favourite singers and should be like. We tend not to like it when things aren’t the way we expect or want them to be. When a band tries something new for an album, it tends to divide an audience.

One of the most shocking examples of this was My Chemical Romance. If you want to talk about sad songs, My Chemical Romance defined an entire generation of sad songs. For millions of fans, they became a voice for the sadness, anger and disillusionment that comes with adolescence. Frontman Gerard Way was in a bad way for a lot of the band’s career; his lyrics drew greatly from personal experiences with mental health issues. He channeled his suffering into a cathartic outlet and shared something beautiful with millions of fans who were feeling the same things, but maybe never figured out how to express them.

Then, Way became healthier. He found a way to lift the darkness that defined his public persona didn’t exist anymore and things began to look up for him. This is good news no matter which way you look at it. But fans of My Chemical Romance were left distraught after Way was unable to capture those experiences in his lyrics anymore. People were heartbroken when the band split, but they were even more upset when Way began his power-pop solo projects.

What upset me the most about these reactions was the notion that Way owed his fans something specific, as though his My Chemical Romance persona was the only version of himself they would accept. Sadness is a difficult feeling and we often like to feel like we’re not alone in our sadness. That’s why bands like My Chemical Romance become so popular in the first place and that part isn’t a problem at all. The problem is how much we romanticize this notion of a tortured or troubled artist turning their sadness into beauty. It starts to seem like it’s part of the job, as if you can’t make beautiful music without that sadness.

This isn’t a new trope. Everyone from Keats to Van Gogh have been deified as much for their struggles in life as their art. We’ve made it a part of a big, cultural myth about what an artist should be. But that’s not healthy for anyone. It gives musicians the impression that they need to dwell on that darkness to be successful. It gives music fans the impression that their mental health issues are cool or fashionable. In the past few years we’ve come a long way with public discussions of mental health (even if there’s still a long way to go), but this seems like a weird sticking point in that conversation.

Again, exploring and expressing your struggles and mental health issues through music is, on its own, healthy and it’s not what I have an issue with. But that sadness is not an end point and shouldn’t be seen as a career goal or, heaven forbid, some kind of cool fad. The conversation around this music so rarely goes beyond an expression of these problems and never seems to find ways of addressing them. Similarly, artists who make sad music don’t owe it to you to uphold a sombre public persona. Thankfully, this is something that artists themselves have been fighting against. A lot of artists that play music like this have taken to cracking jokes on stage between songs, or using interviews to have insightful discussions about mental health issues. I think it’s a big step forward.

When a lot of people talk about separating the art from the artist, they mean they want to watch American Beauty without having to think about what a monster Kevin Spacey turned out to be. I’d like to propose we give the phrase a new meaning: when we separate the art from an artist, we acknowledge that they’re human beings beyond the art they put into the world. We don’t know them, they don’t know us and they certainly don’t owe us a specific version of themselves. Fame is all-encompassing and the pressure of being in the spotlight is astronomical; real people can’t go through their entire lives as if they’re a performance and we need to start being a little more aware of that when we talk about our favourite artists and what we love about them. Just look at how many young hip-hop artists who have taken their own lives recently. The world in general needs to be more understanding when it comes to mental health issues. Not putting depression up on a weird pedestal of artistic greatness would help put us on the right track.

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