What do you think of when you see the number 27? If you have any sort of interest in music and the culture that surrounds it, chances are that your mind will invariably ebb towards the infamously long list of brilliant artists who lost their lives at that age. Ever since Neil Young’s words “It’s better to burn out than to fade away” found their way onto Kurt Cobain’s suicide note in 1994, the celebration of the brilliant minds whose names are canonized in the 27-club has become vastly overshadowed by our obsession with their pain. But this is only a symptom of perhaps the most destructive habit in our music consumption: our romanticization of mental illness in music.
In the companion anime to their album Discovery, Daft Punk tells the story of the Crescendolls, a rock band from outer space that gets kidnapped and brought to Earth. They then promptly get their memories erased, are dressed up to look like humans and forced to perform by the evil label executive. This results in him making a fortune off their backs. While being ostensibly oversimplified, the nature of the relationship between countless artists and their bosses does follow this trajectory… With one glaring difference. In the end of Discovery, the music tycoon dies in disgrace and the Crescendolls are sent back home to continue with their lives after giving one last concert to their loyal fans.
…Now there’s a look in your eyes…
Now imagine this… You’ve just begun cutting your teeth as a performer, playing regular shows in your hometown. Your friends and family are thrilled for you and couldn’t be more supportive. This is what you’ve wanted since you were a child. One night after a show someone comes up to you and offers you more money than you’ve ever seen in exchange for an album that you are to finish by the summer, and a tour to accompany it. You’d be insane not to accept, so you do. You toil day and night to get the album done in time which leaves you physically and creatively drained. But now’s not the time to rest, the open road beckons. The first few shows are enjoyable enough, but it doesn’t take long before the monotonous rotation between your hotel room and the tour bus begins to weigh on you. You’ve left your friends at home, so you’ve had to make do with the people you meet along the way, not all of whom want what’s best for you. You want to stop and go home but you have obligations to the thousands of fans who bought your tickets, and to the label with whom you signed a contract. Against your better judgement, you keep going.
Since its early days, such has been the way of the music industry. The pressures of this life bear down on artists from every side, be it fame, isolation, burnout, or any number of other factors. Amy Winehouse’s celebrity led to the press shadowing her every move, exposing every last aspect of her personal life to razor-sharp scrutiny. Syd Barrett left his home and loved ones in Cambridge for London, where he was said to lock himself in his bedroom to avoid the strangers who were regularly invited by his roommates to do drugs with him. Tim Bergling’s manager was insistent to continue touring him, despite Tim himself recognizing that this had previously pushed him to within a hair of his breaking point. And these are not isolated cases. The ubiquity of these themes both in the lives and in the art of musicians goes to show the pervasiveness of this phenomenon.
…The pleasures of a normal man…
There comes a moment in every person’s life where their mettle is tested. How or when this moment shows itself changes from person to person, but one thing remains the same: it has a lasting effect on one’s life. Whether the trajectory of this change is to be a positive or a negative one may hinge on how one manages to cope. When dealing with hardship, most of us need, and are afforded the space and retreat to do so effectively, however unfortunately musical success often means being denied the luxury of privacy. With that being said, suffering from stardom may well bring out the worst in people, and coping with one’s demons becomes infinitely more difficult when under the microscope of the public eye.
Think of Ian Curtis, who was diagnosed with epilepsy in 1978. He spent the following two years on tour, contributing to his condition worsening steadily. Michael Jackson found himself robbed of his childhood by an exploitative father. Later in life, he developed vitiligo, forcing him to tint his skin. To compound his struggles, at the height of his fame, his scalp was burnt during a pyrotechnics accident leaving him with a bald spot on his head and an opioid prescription-addiction. Each of these situations are hardships that would require a great deal of patience and resilience for anyone to weather, never mind being faced with the trials of stardom. Combined with the unique pressures of being a famous musician, a situation like this is exasperated to a level that few have the fortitude to withstand. In other words, we see it all too often that artists try and fail to come to terms with their traumas. Think back to the moment in your life when you overcame a struggle. Now imagine going through that, but every time you go to the supermarket, several strangers approach you and ask you about it. Imagine wanting to seek shelter with your friends and family only to be a continent away. However, with everything that was discussed above being a reality of life for many artists, one of the few ways to cope with life is to give a voice to your pain through your music. Such visceral projections of internal struggles are in essence what make this music resonate with many people who are granted the privilege of suffering in secret, and is at the heart of the above mentioned artists’ success. Right?
The argument has been parroted repeatedly that an artist’s brilliance stems from their struggles. Chester Bennington, Kurt Cobain, and Malcom McCormick are renowned as songwriters for addressing their demons in their lyrics. While it is undeniable that these musicians are lyrically gifted, it can become easy for people to lose sight of an important fact: their genius exists not because of their pain, but in spite of it. Everything that you have read up to this point has hopefully reminded you of two facts. Firstly, even with all of the money and glamour, it is important to view artists as humans, with the basic needs of a human. Being a performing artist is a profession that can be as taxing as any, and the court of public opinion is relentless. When an artist gets caught up in bad behaviour, perhaps it is wise to remain cautious when appointing a judgement. The second is that an artist who has succumbed to their demons has attained neither more nor less greatness through their death. It may be tempting to think of an artist’s premature death as the inevitable crescendo of a troubled genius’ career. However, each of the artists that were mentioned in this article were not disturbed geniuses. They were geniuses who happened to suffer from mental illness. Only when we start to attribute the genius to the artist, not the illness, can we see positive change happen in the music industry.
This piece was inspired by the music of:
Roger Keith “Syd” Barrett
Tim Bergling (Avicii)
Malcom McCormack (Mac Miller)