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When Did Pop Music Get So Depressing?

Are all of our pop stars depressed? Sinéad Dunphy examines the troubling trend of mental illness in popular music.

Not long ago, the pop charts were dominated by songs about trivial topics like sex, drinking and having a good time. Of course, there’s still plenty of that kind of content to go around, but there’s been a significant trend as of late of radio hits talking less about the good times, and more about the bad. Nothing brings this topic into sharper focus than watching seventeen year old Billie Eilish command festival stages with her youthful exuberance while thousands of gleeful fans excitedly scream her lyrics back at her, “I WANNA END ME!”! Undeniably, mental illness is selling right now. In recent years, the charts have grown ever more populated with lyrics about depression, anxiety and abuse of prescription meds from artists like Eilish, XXXTentacion, Kanye West, Kid Cudi and Ariana Grande. This trend is often praised by fans and critics alike for helping to lessen the stigma surrounding mental health and opening up the door to some productive discourse on the topic. On the other hand, there can be unintended consequences to this surge of mental health focus, for instance, the glamorisation of mental illness and drug use. Is it possible for the issue to be overexposed? If so, it seems we’ve certainly reached that point. 

The past couple years have been some of the best for Ariana Grande’s career and some of the worst for her personal life with the bombing of her Manchester concert in 2017, the loss of her ex-boyfriend, Mac Miller, and the breakup of her engagement to Pete Davidson. Grande hasn’t been afraid to lay it all bare in her music with tracks on her last two albums, exploring her anxiety, depression and PTSD. Fans all over the world applauded the singer for her strength and clearly the music has been extremely cathartic for both Grande and her fans. Popular rap music has been full of similar content lately with the likes of XXXTentacion, Lil Peep, Juice Wrld, Kanye West and Kid Cudi. It seems troubled teens are turning to soundcloud rap for their moody music much more than the old staples of emo, pop punk and hardcore. From lyrics about suicidal thoughts and personality disorders, to downbeat instrumentals and whiny off key vocals, rap music has gotten really depressing. Arguably, the music only serves a purpose for already depressed listeners, but it’s worth considering that constantly listening to depressing music can put or keep you in that state of mind.

In January of this year, pop superstar, Selena Gomez teamed up with singer-songwriter, Julia Michaels for ‘Anxiety’, a track about, yep you guessed it, anxiety! The track details the difficulties of balancing debilitating anxiety with relationships and social life. Of course, where anxiety is mentioned, depression is not far behind as the lyrics proclaim, “I’m holding hands with my depression.” The song is honest and relatable but clearly, still palatable as it was a reasonable commercial success with little publicity. This image of ‘holding hands with your depression’ is a perfect reflection of what is so troubling about the current music trend. While opening up is a far better option that repressing your feelings, there seems to be a tendency in society to embrace our issues and over-identify with them. Billie Eilish’s entire brand revolves around mental illness. From her forlorn lyrics, to her interviews full of passing remarks about hating herself, to her moody aesthetic composed of glazed over, vacant looking eyes and dark, horror inspired imagery, Eilish’s image is a microcosm of our current culture where mental illness memes often take the place of actually going to therapy, prescription drugs are taking the place of party drugs and people aren’t deemed interesting unless they’ve suffered sufficiently. 

There’s no denying that it is an artist’s right to turn their pain into art. There’s also no denying that this can be a healthy, cathartic process for the artists and their fans who will find comfort in hearing their problems articulated by someone they admire. It’s nice not to feel alone. However, our society has gotten to the point that anyone who does open up about their mental health is immediately doubted by many because they are so fatigued by the amount of mental illness content in popular culture right now. Sometimes, it feels like everyone is depressed. Maybe they are. Regardless, the trend in music is symptomatic of some serious problems in society today and it could well be contributing to the problem in a vicious circle.