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The cult of melancholy: Is it time to stop fetishising musicians' mental illness?


In the 1980s, a folk musician who had little success in his own lifetime was rediscovered and received a wave of posthumous popularity. The three albums he released, Five Leaves Left (1969), Bryter Layter (1971), and Pink Moon (1972), saw him rejected by folkies and hippies alike, and in 1974, having grown increasingly anti-social and schizophrenic, was found dead of a drug overdose.

No album’s celebrating Nick Drake’s life and legacy were released in the immediate aftermath following his death, and he remained widely unknown until around 1985 when musicians like Kate Bush and Robert Smith of The Cure began citing him as an important influence on their style. His popularity gained real traction in the 1990s, a decade that saw the mental illness of tragic figures such as Drake romanticised to near-mythological status, just as Syd Barrett had been in the past and how Kurt Cobain, Elliott Smith, and Daniel Johnston would go on to be.

All of these characters have come to form a pantheon of mentally-unstable recording artists, whose tragic ends have come to form the bulk of their public image – a sort of cult of melancholy, the alter of which we continue to direct our worship. But is it perhaps time we did away with this fetishisation of mental illness and started unstitching ourselves from the notion of the tortured genius? And, if so, how might this affect the way we listen to the music of Smith, Drake and others?

The concept of the tragic artist is nothing new. The connection between art and mental illness goes back almost as far as art itself. In Ancient Greece, for example, creativity was innately bound up with the concept of madness, of which there could be two forms: divine and demonic. Demonic madness was the cause of mental illness (although the Greeks wouldn’t have called it that), and the divine was the source of artistic excellence. For the philosopher Plato, divine madness was spiritual in its potency, allowing individuals to act outside of societal standards and subvert social norms – thus creating innovative artistic works.

With the dawn of the Romantic era, this idea became even more embedded. Beethoven, for example, who was abused by his father and struggled with mental illness his entire life, developed a style of orchestral music that embraced the extremity of emotion at a time when order and symmetry were coveted above all else. As the centuries progressed, the concept that an artist’s suffering was the root of their genius only deepened in the public’s collective consciousness. Van Gough, Sylvia Plath, Jimi Hendrix – we revere them all, not simply for their art but also for their tragic stories.

Indeed, since the late ’80s, Nick Drake’s death has become something of an industry in itself, with his modest grave in the churchyard of St Mary Magdalene in Tanworth attracting hordes of musical pilgrims every year. As Nick’s sister, the actress Gabrielle Drake, noted in 2014, his grave – the very symbol of his death – is often treated as some sort of souvenir. “We’ve just had the gravestone removed because it’s been rather badly defaced one way and another with people chipping away at it,” she began. “Somebody once said they saw someone taking a piece away from Nick’s grave and being thrilled. This person who said they saw that, said they tore them off a strip.”

Our obsession with figures such as Drake can be seen as an extension of our continual fetishisation of mental health; one that sees the public treat the madness of famous recording artists as an inherent part of their act, as though it had been curated for our benefit. This attitude not only glamourises the damaging effects of mental illness but also tells us that a musician’s worth is in their suffering, meaning that we are effectively choosing to define them by their mental illness, thus ridding them of any individuality or basis in reality. The images we have formed of characters like Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse, Nick Drake, Syd Barrett, Brian Wilson, Elliot Smith, are innately reductive, offering us a convenient model to categorise the sane from the insane.

The reality is, however, that Drake was a very complex character, coloured with equal shades of darkness and light. It’s just that somewhere along the way, people realised that there was more money to be made in darkness. I think it’s about time we started embracing complexity, and the best example I can give as to why comes from comedian Hannah Gadsby who, in her 2017 live comedy show Nanette, told an illuminating story about Vincent Van Gough. A fan came up to Gadsby after a performance in which she’d talked about receiving medical treatment for depression. The fan attempted to convince her that she shouldn’t medicate because “Van Gough didn’t medicate and he gave us Sunflowers“. But, as Gadsby points out, Van Gough did medicate. In fact, one of the side-effects of the medication that he was prescribed by his doctor, Paul Gachet, was a heightened sensitivity to certain colours, one of the most vibrant of which turned out to be – you guessed it; yellow. So, in fact, Van Gough’s work is beautiful precisely because he was trying to get better, not because he was mad. I think there’s a lesson in there somewhere.

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