‘Mental Health Bops’ · Ariana Grande, pop music, and mental health issues

I have no time for music snobs that look down on popular, chart music. People find great strength in music, and that’s not something to sneer at. Not only that, but pop music is becoming ever-important in widening the discussion about mental health. Ariana Grande is proof of that.

Depression, anxiety and other mental health issues have been a mainstay of lyrical expression since the charts began. Some of the most popular songs ever written have reflected an artist’s ongoing battle with dark thoughts. The Rolling Stones’ 1966 hit Paint It Black, for instance, captures the common desire to isolate oneself that comes during a low period. Two years later, the Beatles neatly summarised suicidal thoughts in Yer Blues, whose lyrics include ‘I’m lonely/ Want to die.’

More recently, though, pop songs and artists have grown increasingly frank in their discussion of mental health issues – both in and out of the recording studio. Kate Solomon’s review of Ariana Grande’s Sweetener album, released in 2018, describes one of the songs (breathin) as a ‘mental health bop’ for its exploration of Grande’s grappling with anxiety disorder.

‘Mental health bop’ is a brilliant term, and it encapsulates perfectly how complex health issues can be condensed into what is often an upbeat song, just a few minutes long. Grande herself is one of many current artists whose lyrics are advancing our understanding of mental health issues, encouraging us to take problems such as anxiety more seriously. Grande should be commended for her readiness to open up about her struggles on social media and in interviews. Such openness is important if we are to reduce the stigma traditionally attached to discussing mental health, giving people greater confidence to address their own health concerns.

If Stevie Wonder is right, music is ‘a language we all understand.’ What medium is better than music, then, to expand the popular discussion on mental health?

Grande is not the only artist that has addressed their own mental health in their recent music. Although Eddie Fu criticised Kanye West’s 2018 album Ye for supposedly portraying bipolar disorder in a ‘misleading’ light, the track Ghost Town brings to the fore the issue of self-harm. In the outro, 070 Shake sings ‘I put my hand on a stove, to see if I still bleed’ – a graphic piece of imagery.

Plenty of songs have made explicit references to self-harm before, like Johnny Cash’s Hurt and Eminem’s Stan. But 070 Shake’s verse fits more comfortably within the description ‘mental health bop.’ The lyrics are dark, but anthemic. The tune is catchy, appropriate also for an otherwise lighter subject matter.

That is not to say that ‘mental health bops’ are glorifying or glamorising mental health problems. In fact, their catchy, upbeat music is what makes these songs so apt for widening the mental health discussion. Issues like anxiety and self-harm do not tend to be easy things to discuss, and the discomfort that people feel around their own mental health often discourages people from seeking medical help.

But detaching these issues from drearier rhythms allows us to reconsider them. In mental health bops, issues like depression, anxiety and self-harm become something the listener can sing along about. There might be the concern that this is causing mental health issues to be made light of, but the openness of artists (like Grande) about their health in interviews or on social media serves as a reminder of the harmful and hindering implications of their illness. Grande, for one, took a break from music after the death of her ex-boyfriend Mac Miller in September 2018.

As such, I think these songs are helping to increase the ease with which we discuss our mental health. ‘Mental health bops’ are playing a vital role in the way we reconstruct representations of mental health in popular culture, and I hope this is a genre that continues to flourish in 2019.

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