Trigger warning: This article discusses suicide, depression and substance abuse.
With the recent chart success of Juice WRLD’s “Legends Never Die,” it occurred to me that two of the year’s most popular (and best) albums have been posthumous releases from artists who died under the age of 30. Juice WRLD’s album, as well as Mac Miller’s “Circles,” have rightfully received acclaim for being emotionally moving and career highlights for both musicians. But they also explore the deep-rooted depression that ultimately contributed to their far-too-early deaths. Reflecting on these albums rekindled a concern I’ve had for a while that we, as music fans, glorify the depression of our favorite musicians. When we focus too much on the art or how the message speaks to us personally, we can lose sight of what the artist is revealing about themselves.
Deeply personal art tends to garner a following and I understand why. Listeners like musicians who can express their emotions in a way that resonates both with their own personal lives and with the human experience at large. Sad music has a near-universal appeal because there is catharsis in knowing that others share in our negative emotions, and there’s often a melancholic beauty to this music that can’t be replicated in a more uplifting way. This article’s purpose is not to condemn sad music at all. But I believe we sometimes elevate an artist’s pain or death rather than just the quality of their music.
Album titles like “Legends Never Die” are what concern me. It’s a nice sentiment to say that a beloved artist’s music lives beyond their death, which is true. However, this borders on the implication that the artist’s music is as important as the artist’s life, which isn’t. Consider the deaths of Ian Curtis and Kurt Cobain, which have become an intrinsic part of their legacy. Consider the countless musicians who have suffered from substance abuse and died of accidental overdoses, including both Juice WRLD and Miller.
The romanticized notion of the “tortured artist” has been around for centuries and pervades all types of art. This narrative has become so commonplace in the entertainment industry that we ignore the real-life impact that depression inflicts on its victims. We can look back and see all the warning signs of despair and substance abuse, but too rarely do we, during the artist’s life, express our concern for their well-being in a genuine and empathetic manner. Fans and the media rationalize depression as an innate part of the creative process because many of history’s most prominent creative minds suffered from it. We act as if their despair was essential to their creativity. When we accept mental health issues in this way, we begin to view depression as a condition artists passively have rather than something that has a profound impact on their day-to-day lives.
I also worry that when a creator becomes known for expressing their negative feelings, they’ll believe that their fans won’t accept content with any other emotional tone. In 2019, rapper Danny Brown released his first album since treating his mental health and addictions that affected him for much of his career. While I still enjoyed this release, I found that the album didn’t stick with me as much as earlier albums like “XXX” and “Atrocity Exhibition,” both of which dealt heavily with his depression and manic behaviors. However, upon reading a Rolling Stone review of “Atrocity Exhibition,” in which a critic disturbingly referred to the album as “the year’s most thrilling cry for help,” I realized that I would much rather have an artist I love live a happy and fulfilling life than continue to create painful art I revere. I was glad Brown felt comfortable moving past the style and subject matter that defined his career up until that point because he was in a better mental space.
I encourage both fans and media figures to scrutinize the way we reconcile with mental health in the entertainment industry. Always consider the context in which art is created and understand that an artist’s well-being is more important than their content, because no entertainer owes anyone anything. Don’t feel betrayed because a musician changes their style or decides to pursue other interests because, at the end of the day, they’re just another person. Until we change the way we talk about depression in entertainment, I fear we’ll fail to see a change in its prevalence.
There are numerous ways to support mental health awareness and research. A few resources are the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, a nonprofit dedicated to funding scientific research and supporting those affected by suicide; the National Institute of Mental Health, a federal agency leading mental health research with extensive information available about many mental disorders; and Art With Impact, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting wellness through art.
If you know someone at risk of suicide, please reach out to them. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-TALK (8255)) and Crisis Text Line (741-741) are free services they may use to speak in confidence.