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Mental Health

Let’s Talk – Romanticism of Mental Illness in the Music Industry

I recently took my boyfriend to a concert for his 22nd birthday. Going to concerts has become one of our “things” and actually may have lended a hand in us getting together, also knowing that he liked this band was another positive. Personally, I knew some of their music, and what I did know I liked,  but I was more excited to see the opening act. So far that concert was fun; The first band did a good job, and I was feeling energetic after listening to the band I wanted to see. I was at a high because they mentioned my all-time favorite band during their set.

Now when it was time for the main band, not knowing the lyrics by heart made me listen somewhat more attentively to not only what they were singing, but also look a little closer at what was going on around me. I feel like I need to preface this article by saying I also listen to somewhat sad music and that I know people use music as both an outlet and a comfort – but that is not what this article is about. Even before coming to the concert I was well aware that the lead singer has had struggles with drug addiction and depression, part of which are attributed to certain events in his life and things that he bases much of his music on. He also has battled suicidal thoughts alongside his depression, which he also often discusses in his songs.



As soon as the band started playing, the crowd of 100-200+ people erupted in cheers as they rushed to get closer to the stage or hung out in the 21+ area of the venue. The crowd immediately started singing along, repeating every word reaffirming their affections towards the band. Restating in the very first song, verbatim, about how they want to “kill themselves.” Again, I have listened to music like this before; I know and respect that artists use music to cope and express themselves, but looking around at a crowd of smiling fans screaming this at the top of their lungs hit me a bit differently this time. People screaming and singing the lead singer’s struggles of wanting to die and battles with addiction echoed throughout the venue, some probably empathizing heavily with the words that were violently leaving their mouths.

As I looked around I saw couples smiling, closed-eyed and dancing to the music, people throwing themselves into the mosh pit, a young girl close to the stage accompanied by what I assume to be her father with his greying hair and tucked in shirt, and girls dancing to the music, eyes closed looking like gypsies throwing their bodies around a fire like spiritual music was drawing them in. At one point, I noticed a guy saying to those around him, “suicides tonight?” A joke, from what I interpreted, about group suicide that in my disgust elicited some chuckles and giggles from those he addressed. It was unnerving to see a crowd of individuals soaking in these confessions of pain and in a way turning them into pleasure.



I started thinking back to how fans can sometimes enable artists in the music industry to even succumb to their pain, whether it is intentional or not. While this may be an unoriginal example, the relevance is tremendous in the fact that the suicide of Kurt Cobain could be attributed to his music and addiction. Fans blindly followed, and still blindly listen and belt their music to this day.

Nirvana’s hit song Smells Like Teen Spirit was written as a joke about a revolution and reportedly is littered with contradictory material. One of their most adored and misunderstood songs was written as an honest joke – even the band members disliked it at first. Actually, the band used to either refuse to play it or play it badly on purpose because they didn’t like the new audience that the song attracted. To put it into perspective, the song was nominated for two Grammys in 1993 and was up against Eric Clapton’s unplugged version of Layla and the Red Hot Chili Peppers Give it Away in two separate categories.



Fans can spin both artists and their art into something similar to a God in some cases (if you think I am exaggerating Google the shrines that have been created for them). Pain can even be overlooked until it is too late by stripping the humanity from these individuals. Chris Cornell, one of the recent losses in the grunge world, has recently taken his own life this past year as well, and looking back at his music I wonder if there was something there that may have been a red flag. This can even be said for others in the entertainment industry. To quote Robin Williams, “I think the saddest people always try their hardest to make people happy because they know what it’s like to feel absolutely worthless and they don’t want anyone else to feel like that.”



What I am trying to say is that as a society, by putting these people and their artistry on pillars, aren’t we romanticizing mental illness? By glorifying instead of understanding their cries for help and their emotional outlets, are we enabling their ability to heal and recover from what is hurting them? Even if this may be controversial and moderately vague, I think it is something that needs to be talked about so much more and delved into substantially. We can appreciate and relate to music but at what point do we become the enablers in a path of misunderstanding and destruction of a person?



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Kayla McEwen

PS Behrend

Kayla A. McEwen: President and Campus Correspondent  Senior at Penn State Behrend Marketing & Professional Writing Major Part-time dreamer and full-time artist Lover of art, fashion, witty conversation, winged eyeliner, and large cups of warm beverages.
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