Last January, East 17 singer Brian Harvey posted a video online. Filmed in a brick-walled alleyway, it showed the musician smashing up his own platinum discs before delivering a short explanation to the camera: “That’s what I think of your fucking music industry.” Harvey, it emerged, had reached a point of despair with a business that had offered him no care and no financial or psychological support. Despite having sold 18m records, he now struggled to heat his home, suffered from long-term depression and frequently contemplated killing himself.
Historically, there has been a near-fetishisation of the relationship between mental illness and creativity, as if one might feed the other, as if Oscar Levant’s assertion that “there’s a fine line between genius and insanity” was true. What’s notable about the coverage of mental illness in the music industry in 2015, however, is how profoundly normalised its portrayal has been. Harvey’s video marked the beginning of a year in which the industry’s approach to mental illness seemed to shift; musicians began discussing problems with a striking candour and readiness. From Pete Doherty’s anxiety attacks before Libertines shows and Ezra Furman’s songs about mental precariousness to Florence Welch’s public account of depression, there has been no flaming glamour to these tales, only straight-talking stories of the distress and the drudgery of mental turmoil.
The industry’s new openness on this topic is, arguably, reflective of society’s broader willingness to discuss such issues. Personal stories about mental health problems by public figures such as Ruby Wax, Kerry Katona, Paul Gascoigne and Stephen Fry, have done much to spark discussions over the last few years. Professor Green’s BBC3 documentary explored the subject of men and mental health. In it, the British rapper talked openly not only about his own depression, but also about his father’s suicide and what leads so many young men to kill themselves each year.
The unusual nature of a musician’s working life may make them more vulnerable to mental illness. Last year, a survey by the charity Help Musicians UK reported that 60% of professional musicians had experienced mental health problems. The charity noted that the common demands of the job – including anti-social hours, loneliness, worries about money and the strain placed on relationships by frequent touring – can create a breeding-ground for psychological issues.
Last March, Kendrick Lamar discussed his own experience of this strange climate in an interview with MTV, explaining how, during the recording of To Pimp a Butterfly he had suicidal thoughts. The combination of a life now spent largely on the road, feted as a hip-hop legend and remembering his beginnings in Compton (where many of his friends and family still reside and struggle to get by), conjured up what he described as “survivor’s guilt”. “This is how an artist deteriorates,” he said.
That unsettling no-man’s land in the life of a musician – somewhere between the demands and trappings of a normal existence and the distorting realm of success – was also addressed in the documentary Cobain: Montage of Heck, released last spring. In it, we saw how Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain struggled with being in the biggest band in the world while also dealing with new fatherhood, a volatile relationship and drug addiction.
It would be naive to overlook the music industry’s acceptance of drugs and alcohol in the narrative of many musicians’ mental health struggles. Drugs played a role in the breakdown of dubstep producer Benga, who spoke in October about how he was sectioned and diagnosed with both bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, brought on, he said, by drug use and the demands of touring. Talking openly about mental health issues was, he said, at odds with the image of free-wheeling escapism offered by the music world:
This industry is all about perception: a lot of people wouldn’t want anybody to think they’re weak, or that they can’t do what they do, or that they’re not cool. Nobody wants to come clean, let alone an artist.
Sometimes, even the psychological torment of an artist becomes so much part of their story, their songs and their image, that it also becomes part of the entertainment. In July, Asif Kapadia released the documentary Amy, in which the singer Amy Winehouse’s mental and physical demise was presented with restraint and without sensationalism. It offered several perplexing thoughts: that we had become so caught up in the dark narrative of her songs – the blighted love, the drugs, the chaos, the notion of the mercurial genius – that when her demise became ever more brazen and distressing, we saw Winehouse not as an individual but as the butt of chat-show jokes and YouTube footage. By its close, one was left with a feeling of dismay and the sensation that no one had helped her.
And so we return to Brian Harvey, smashing platinum records in an alleyway in midwinter. Not a far cry, in many ways, to footage of Winehouse tottering about on stage in Belgrade, dazed, drunk and distressed. What do I have to do, the video screamed, to get someone to help me? The hope is that, with the music industry’s new willingness to discuss mental health, support may not be quite so far away.
- In the UK, the Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123. Calls are free and do not show on itemised phone bills. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is on 13 11 14. Hotlines in other countries can be found here.
Read the full blog article by Laura Barton on the Guardian website