I struggled with what to name this article: “Top Songs About Mental Illness”? or “Best”? But those are both very subjective terms, and some of these songs aren’t even explicitly about mental illness, and really can anything about mental illness be considered “top?” So I won’t claim this list is comprehensive. But for what it’s worth, here’s a list of songs by popular artists that make me wince, with sympathy and profound discomfort, every time I hear them.
TRIGGER WARNING FOR SUICIDE LIKE WHOA
You may have heard of this Cee-Lo Green – as a matter of fact, he wrote another song about mental disability a few years back that was something of a modest success. But in true hipster fashion, I’d like to instead call out this deep cut from Gnarls Barkley’s debut album, St. Elsewhere. Green’s voice has a hoarse, plaintive quantity on this track, which juxtaposes delicate flamenco guitar with a pummeling drumline. He sounds overwhelmed, both by the music and the song’s emotional content, even before the track deteriorates into record scratches and a dissonant piano melody that sounds almost like it could have come from…
…these guys. You probably know what happened to Ian Curtis: if you don’t, I can’t tell you anything about him that his music doesn’t. This track is cyclical: it accelerates, the verse begins, Curtis gives us a moment of hope (“Just for one moment, I thought I’d found my way”) before crushing it (“Destiny unfolded, I watched it slip away”). And then back to that awesome (both in the “kickass” and “inspiring the fear of God” senses of the word”) bassline. The form complements the emotional content: anyone who has suffered from depression will recognize the downward spiral, interrupted by moments of desperate hope before the darkness returns.
But enough suicide! (That is a lie. We will be returning to suicide shortly). X-Ray Spex tackles your favorite anxiety disorder and mine (by which I mean the one that almost killed me) on this almost-title track from their all-time classic record, “Germfree Adolescence.” It’s a love song, at least technically, but the romance is highly unorthodox: “Your deodorant smells nice” is not a common pick-up line in pop music. “Blow disinfectant in her eyes” is not a conventional demonstration of affection. The synth riff is charming but soon becomes maddeningly repetitive; Poly Styrene’s vocals, superficially sweet, become increasingly cracked and desperate as the song proceeds. The song botches the pathology behind OCD, and disappointingly focuses on contamination, which is only one shade of an entire horrible rainbow of OCD symptoms. But it captures the experience of the disorder extremely well.
Not to be confused with the actual suicide hotline, which is probably a better resource if you find yourself considering taking your own life. This song isn’t completely free of the mentalist, “only rich people suffer mental illness” attitude I complained about in Das Racist’s “Puerto Rican Cousins” a while back. In Poetic’s verse he rhymes: “Hey little rich kid what’s your beef? Come and tell the grim reaper all of your grief.” But then he immediately challenges that by complicating the listener’s identity: “Maybe you’re a bastard child, you think / Your mom and dad are white but you’re dark as ink.” Poetic was apparently trying to comment on hip-hop’s increasing commercialization, and its simultaneous appeal to privileged white kids, but at the same time he touches on the consuming economic and racial guilt that (in my experience) accompanies depression.
The other verses are just as brutal. Frukwan describes a figure who, in a Looney Tunes-esque gauntlet of violence, tries to kill himself again and again without succeeding. RZA (as the Rzarector) urges the listener to “[c]omit suicide and I’ll bring you back to life”, much as depression promises that killing yourself will bring stop your pain; he then presents a gory sequence of eager sacrifices, none of whom are subsequently rzarected. Rather than offer empty promises that life gets better, the Gravediggaz shock the listener with graphic descriptions of self-inflicted violence, and then soberly observe how these attempts didn’t fix anything. And better than any other song I’ve heard, their rhymes capture the incessant, mocking self-loathing of depression.
NEXT TIME: Eating disorders, self-injury, and the best worst song about madness that isn’t “They’re Coming to Take Me Away.”