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”