Kurt Cobain. Chris Cornell. Chester Bennington. Each of them left behind very different marks on music: Cobain’s grunge sound defined an era and birthed a distinct subculture; Cornell’s vocal range and raw lyrics are aspirational to many singers and songwriters; and Bennington’s angst-filled ballads gave teenagers something to relate to. But one thing all three greats had in common? Their own struggles with mental health.
It’s especially disheartening when we lose artists to mental health struggles, because they’re often the ones who have gotten us through our own dark times. Whether we want to admit it or not, there’s a very real stigma surrounding mental health. Take Kanye West, for example. Last year, he was hospitalized for having a “psychotic breakdown” on tour while people on Twitter made jokes about his rants and mental state. When Kid Cudi bravely penned a letter about his battle with antidepressants, some people couldn’t get enough of the diss track Drake allegedly wrote in response.
It’s a shame we don’t talk about mental health more openly. We lie to our bosses about taking sick days or make up excuses to get out of social events because the thought of interacting with others is exhausting. This is why music holds a special place for many — it’s the one outlet and form of expression that’s entirely real. Listening to our favorite songs provides an escape and allows us to make sense of feelings that often aren’t articulated in daily conversations.
Music has the power to change the conversation on mental health. Whether you’re a rock ‘n’ roll lover or hip-hop head, artists connect with fans across a wide variety of genres. Here are a few songs that demonstrate the incredible capability music has to heal and help us feel understood.
Sufjan Stevens – “I Want To Be Well”
The Age of Adz may be a particularly divisive album for Sufjan Stevens fans, but it’s also one of his most personal. Before the album’s release in 2010, the singer battled a viral infection that impacted his mental health and sent him into a spiraling depression. Around this time, he became fascinated by the work of schizophrenic artist and self-proclaimed prophet Royal Robertson, whose psychedelic art and strange life story influenced his new sound, lyrics, and cover art. In “I Want To Be Well”, the patterns of frustration are especially apparent as he belts out “I’m not fucking around” 16 times throughout the song’s duration. The song feels like an ongoing battle with himself for things out of his control and the defeat that brings.
Revealing Lyrics: “Illness likes to prey upon the lonely, prey upon the lonely/ Wave goodbye, oh, I would rather be, but I would rather be fine”
Kanye West – “Clique”
West articulated how he feels responsible for the death of his mother, Donda, who passed away in 2007 from complications following plastic surgery. In an interview with Q magazine, he said that if he never moved to LA, she’d still be alive. In the 2010 hit “Clique”, he admits to having suicidal thoughts, which feel like a cry for help. The drum-heavy track with Jay-Z and Big Sean is all about Kanye’s new lifestyle and group of friends, but when he touches on his depressive thoughts, it suddenly gets serious. His revelation is especially important to the rap and hip-hop community, where mental health is often a taboo topic.
Revealing Lyrics: “Went through, deep depression when my mama passed, suicide, what kinda talk is that”
Linkin Park – “Leave Out All The Rest”
The raw guitar and synths of this Linkin Park song mixed with Bennington’s powerful vocals reflect the notion that if you’re gone, no one might care or miss you. Bennington said the song is supposed to feel like an apology letter — in order to move on, you need to make sure the good things are remembered over the bad. This is especially haunting given Bennington’s suicide this past July, as the candid lyrics mirror his own well-being and battle with depressive thoughts.
Revealing Lyrics: “When my time comes, forget the wrong that I’ve done/ Help me leave behind some reasons to be missed”
Logic ft. Alessia Cara & Khalid – “1-800-273-8255″
After embarking on a fan tour from Los Angeles to New York, Logic said many people told him his music saved their life. In an interview with Genius, Logic revealed he was unaware of his impact on others, so he wanted to give back to his fans with a reminder that someone is always a phone call away. “1-800…” is a moving song acting as a call to the suicide prevention network, where he raps about “feeling out of [his] mind.” A few verses in, Cara and Khalid sing in response, reassuring him he will be okay by replying: “I want you to be alive/ You don’t gotta die today.”
Revealing Lyrics: “It’s holding on, though the road’s long/ And seeing light in the darkest things/ And when you stare at your reflection/ Finally knowing who it is/ I know that you’ll thank God you did”
Soundgarden – “Boot Camp”
The song is definitely different from Soundgarden’s guitar-heavy material, but its lyrics are pretty weighted. The mellow tune reflects the numbing feelings of conformity and being trapped in a depressive state of mind. The tone of the song seems to be intertwined with Cornell’s personal life and struggles as well. He opened up about depression and anxiety in a 2006 interview with Men’s Health, saying: “I was depressed for a long time. If you’re depressed long enough, it’s almost a comfort, a state of mind that you’ve made peace with because you’ve been in it so long. It’s a very selfish world.”
Revealing Lyrics: “There must be something else/ There must be something good, far away/ Far away from here.”
Ellie Goulding – “Lights”
Don’t let the upbeat tempo of this pop hit fool you — the lyrics are indeed haunting. Though the song was written about Ellie Goulding’s childhood fear of the dark, it also echoes a greater fear of the unknown. Some have also speculated the song deals with insomnia and the anxious thoughts that race around your head when lying sleepless in the dark. The lyrics often reference the voices in Goulding’s head and how she succumbs to these dark thoughts in the middle of the night. The song is incredibly catchy, but its eerie undertone makes it that much more intriguing.
Revealing Lyrics: “Voices I play within my head/ Touch my own skin and hope that I’m still breathing”
Nirvana – “Lithium”
One of Nirvana’s most popular songs is also one of its most heavy — the song references drugs, suicide, and religion. Music journalist Michael Azerrad dubbed the song a reference to Karl Marx’s statement on religion being an “opiate of the masses.” Cobain said the narrative of this song revolves around a man who turns to religion to keep himself from suicide after the death of his girlfriend. While the story is perceived to be fictional, Cobain said he drew inspiration from his personal life with breakups and bad relationships. The lyrics reflect dire loneliness and trying to appear okay, but knowing you’re not inside. The tempo of the song even goes from loud guitar riffs to soft chords, possibly reflecting the chaos of trying to keep it together.
Revealing Lyrics: “I’m so happy because today I’ve found my friends/ They’re in my head”
Kid Cudi – “Wounds”
In October 2016, the Cleveland rapper penned a gut-wrenching Facebook post about his decision to seek professional help after battling anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts. If you’ve listened to Cudi’s older material, you know he’s been candid about struggling with drugs and depression. While it may not have been a shock for him to receive psychiatric attention, it was his willingness to go public about his decision that got everyone talking. A couple months after receiving treatment, his sixth studio album “Passion, Pain & Demon Slayin’” dropped — both loyal listeners and newcomers were more curious than ever about what he had to say.
Wounds is a song for people fighting depression. He questions why he doesn’t feel “whole” and details the challenges of grasping your identity. But it’s also just as much a song about healing, as he urges: “You gotta dig deep” and “Sew the wounds [yourself].”
Revealing Lyrics: “We all have times when we weep/ It’s a troubled life, traumatized psychologically/ I pray in the shadows when I’m speakin’ to no one/ Myself, did everything right, didn’t I?/ So why aren’t I whole?”
Sia – “Breathe Me”
Dubbed the “socially phobic pop star” by The New York Times, the Australian singer-songwriter rarely shows her face in public. Sia connects with fans through her music with cutting-edge honesty about her problems with addiction and mental health. In “Breathe Me”, she softly sings about self-harm over soft piano, echoing the thoughts of someone who’s in a downhill battle. When the song was released in 2002, she was penning hits for other artists including Rihanna and Britney Spears. The song went mostly unnoticed until it played in the finale of the HBO show Six Feet Under in 2005. After the positive response, her manager launched a tour, though Sia became increasingly dependent on drugs and alcohol. After canceling her tour and taking time to recover, she was able to reignite a successful solo career while maintaining a private image by using stand-ins like dancer Maddie Ziegler. Her songs are never short of total honesty, which is always so refreshing to hear in pop.
Revealing Lyrics: “Ouch, I have lost myself again/ Lost myself and I am nowhere to be found/ Yeah, I think that I might break/ Lost myself again, and I feel unsafe.”