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Music

Nine artists who addressed their mental health issues through song

@TylerGolsen

The connection between musicians and poor mental health is often amplified by the most extreme examples: the artists who publically struggled with their issues, wrote a number of songs about them, and in the most tragic circumstances, even lost the battle with those demons. Art is a wonderful way to deal with the darker realities of life, but the potential glorification of mental health issues like depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts is still a hot-button topic.

Today, we’re looking at nine artists who have combated their mental health issues head-on through their music. From the deep corners of depression to the heightened blur of anxiety and everything in between, these are songs that are never sensationalised or scandalised – they put forth harsh realities in the hopes of expunging those thoughts or dealing with them in a healthier fashion.

This is by no means a comprehensive list – there are just too many songs that deal with the depths of mental health to talk about them all here. These are simply some of our favourite instances of artists channelling their own demons into song. Some of these are well-known classics, while some are slightly lesser-known. The only requirement is that the popularity of the song takes a backseat to the power of its message.

While some of these songs wallow in their own darkness, others find a strong resolve that helps elevate them out of their fragile mindsets. The one constant is that all of these artists were able to channel their negative thoughts through a positive outlet. As you’ll see, however, not all of them are still here to keep those messages going.

Artists who addressed their mental health issues in song:

Green Day – ‘Basket Case’

Billie Joe Armstrong was never afraid to address his own difficulties head-on. Most early fans of Green Day saw the playful stoner-happy vibes of ‘Longview’ and the cracked optimism of ‘Welcome to Paradise’ as good clean fun, but in truth, there was always something slightly more disturbing just below the surface.

For a song as undeniably catchy and exciting as ‘Basket Case’, it’s easy to gloss over the lyrics and simply headbang along to the pop-punk classic. But Armstrong doesn’t sugarcoat just how messed up his head is, even if a shrink tries to brush it off as him not getting laid enough. The anxiety at the centre of ‘Basket Case’ is very real, even if the song itself feels positively triumphant.

Soundgarden – ‘The Day I Tried to Live’

Throughout most of his career, Chris Cornell had a remarkable talent for channelling some of his darkest and most disturbing personal struggles into anthemic rock music. It might seem obvious now, especially since he’s no longer with us, but Cornell got millions of fans to shout along to truly stark songs like ‘Fell On Black Days’ and ‘Blow Up the Outside World’.

But ‘The Day I Tried to Live’ is different – it’s a song about perseverance and getting yourself out of a negative state of mind. A dark cloud still hangs over the track, but the message is unmistakably optimistic, even as the lyrics grapple with staying in bed and feeling worthless. Failure is baked into the song, but the important part remains to get up and try again.

The Smashing Pumpkins – ‘Today’

The quintessential “sorry guys but this is all ironic” track from a decade full of ironic odes to life, The Smashing Pumpkins’ ‘Today’ is now well-known for being about depression and suicide. But back in the early 1990s, lines like “I wanted more / Than life could ever grant me” and “Can’t wait for tomorrow / I might not have that long” could have easily flown above the heads of a casual listener.

Nowadays ‘Today’ has become almost synonymous with the wave of rock and grunge acts who dealt with their demons in an open and rather blunt manner. But ‘Today’ also has a strange sort of beauty and resilience to it, unwilling to simply let the darkness overshadow everything.

Nine Inch Nails – ‘Hurt’

We’ve finally descended down to the deepest depths of dealing with depression. While most of the songs on this list at least have some form of uplift, whether it’s some cautious hope or even just an uplifting power chord to help rise above, Nine Inch Nails’ ‘Hurt’ has absolutely none of that.

Using eerie arrangements and dissonance to drive home the desolation and irredeemability at the conclusion of The Downward Spiral, Trent Reznor allows no light to pass through ‘Hurt’. It’s probably the most pessimistic song on this list, but just like every other song, it’s impossible to ignore the power and impact of Reznor’s message.

Elliott Smith – ‘Division Day’

You never had to look far to find an Elliott Smith song dealing with mental health. The legendary singer-songwriter gained a reputation for dark lyrics and dour imagery, even if his music could be folksy, jaunty, and even whimsical at times. With a near whisper-thin delivery, it was Smith’s intimacy that made him so compelling and at times so unnerving.

Perhaps the biggest track that deals directly with Smith’s mental health issues is ‘Miss Misery’, but equally impactful is the deep cut ‘Division Day’, which deals with depression and suicide in ways that are more poetic and impressionistic than Smith’s normal lyrical style. As was his wont, Smith wrapped the darkness in a rollicking piano/guitar arrangement that was easy to sway along with and miss the troubling implications buried just below the surface.

Magnolia Electric Co. – ‘I Can Not Have Seen The Light’

Jason Molina had an unbelievable knack for creating his own world of ghosts, spectres, hauntings, and darkness. Wrapped in an appreciation for old-timey Americana, Molina could sing some of the most heartbreaking lines ever written with his bands Ohia and Magnolia Electric Company.

‘I Can Not Have Seen The Light’ comes at the end of what is still Molina’s masterpiece on interrogating his own demons, Magnolia Electric Co.’ What Comes After the Blues. The back and forth between him and Jennie Benford with the line “Do I have to be alright / All of the time?” is still hair-raising, even a decade after Molina quietly lost his fight with his demons in 2013.

Amy Winehouse – ‘Back to Black’

Although Amy Winehouse famously took on heartbreak and addiction throughout her magnum opus Back to Black, the album’s title track deals with a darker reality that often accompanies the loss of someone you love: depression. While Winehouse dismisses the notion that she’s depressed on ‘Rehab’, she more readily takes on the subject on ‘Back to Black’.

With her trademark brassy vocals, Winehouse is able to somehow both acknowledge the deeper fragility of her mental state while also turning ‘Back to Black’ into a rousing middle finger to her ex. Even as she turns to the darkness, Winehouse promised that she would dry her tears, hold her head high, and move forward without letting the bleakness fully take her over.

Paramore – ‘Fake Happy’

For most of her career, Hayley Williams took on the persona of the indefatigable heroine – resilience, optimism, and an aggressive kick back at anyone trying to keep her down was a part of her m.o., and it resonated with legions of fans looking for a powerful female figure who attacked everything with a “take no shit” attitude.

But that persona was sometimes just that: a persona. In ‘Fake Happy’, Williams acknowledges honestly that she’s not always put together, not always positive, and not always equipped to fake it. Even superheroes bleed, and Williams showed that being candid with your audience meant showing your scars as well.

Kendrick Lamar – ‘U’

Hip hop has always been about posturing: braggadocio and confidence are weapons meant to be operated at full blast. There was no room for self-doubt or honesty about emotions, at least not at first. When figures like DMX began openly rapping about their struggles, it opened the door for a whole new wave of introspection to take over the hip hop landscape.

When Kendrick Lamar stepped up to speak his own truth, he left no illusions as to the depths of his own personal shortcomings. Throughout ‘U’, Lamar confronts his shortcomings and his insecurities, channelling his confusion and anger into a melancholy track. Lamar gained a reputation for his lyrical, and he never got more real than when he turned the focus to himself.