Music-making and the myth of the tortured genius

The idea of mental illness as a positive creative force is unhelpful to the people who suffer from it – and some of them claim it’s damaging the music industry

Alanna McArdle: ‘Depression halts my ability to do anything at all, let alone be creative.’ Photograph: Burak Cingi/Redferns/Getty Images

From Billie Holiday to Kurt Cobain, Jeff Buckley to Lana Del Rey, we enjoy the music of suffering and sadness, songs that help us through our worst moments – broken relationships, melancholy, mania. Summed up by John Cusack’s indie-sad lad in the film of High Fidelity – “What came first? The music or the misery?” – we espouse the miserable and the hopeless.

However, the musicians behind the songs are often an afterthought. Or if not that, they’re subject to the notion that their depression is a creative spark and their mental illness the driving force behind compelling art. As someone who has suffered from severe depression, the romantic notion of the doomed artist is not all that. You put on weight and then lose it, you sleep too much or too little, and the myriad other symptoms dictate that it’s not the gladiola-swinging, woe-is-me fest it’s talked up to be. But does this connection between art and angst have any foundation?

Research earlier this year linked high childhood IQ to an increased risk of experiencing bipolar traits in later life. “There is something about the genetics underlying the disorder that are advantageous,” said Daniel Smith of the University of Glasgow, who led the study. “One possibility is that serious disorders of mood – such as bipolar disorder – are the price that human beings have had to pay for more adaptive traits such as intelligence, creativity and verbal proficiency.”

Marjorie Wallace, chief executive of Sane, a mental health charity, considers this concept potentially harmful, given that not all cases of bipolar disorder are the same. Although tormented geniuses exist – figures such as Robert Schumann and Van Gogh – she says their talents are not necessarily a byproduct of being bipolar. “The majority of people may have the illness but not the gift.”

“There is,” she adds, “the possibility that somebody who has fragile mental health can be sensitive to other dimensions. I also think that there is a ‘tormented genius’ link, particularly with people who have bipolar disorder. However, not everybody with mental illness can possibly be gifted artistically or musically. So it can make people who aren’t feel even less adequate, and even more of a failure.”

So is the troubled artist fallacy damaging the music industry? Alanna McArdle, formerly of Joanna Gruesome, believes so.

“It’s a harmful trope that leads to ignorance and a lack of awareness of what mental illness actually is and what it can do to a person,” she says. “I went out with a guy who told me that I shouldn’t be so resentful of my mental illness because it’s allowed me to create some amazing art. But I think that’s bullshit, and I also think it’s a very offensive stance to take. I would much rather never write another song if the trade-off was to not have my illness.”

The idea of mental illness as a creative force is, to most people who suffer from it, a myth. The chronic lack of self-esteem caused by mental illness, the numbing effect of antidepressants and the grip of anxiety on a performer who looks as if they have it easy are barriers that can prevent a musician from doing their job.Pete Doherty, for example, cancelled a number of Libertines shows in September after suffering from a severe anxiety attack.

“Depression and anxiety, in different ways, have the effect of limiting someone’s capacity for expression and reaching out towards the world,” says Simon Procter, a programme director at music therapy charity Nordoff Robbins, who has co-headed a paper on music therapy and depression. “Much psychiatric medication, while it may be very good at addressing some symptoms, doesn’t do much to help with this side of things either. So whether it’s caused by the illness or the medication, creativity is likely to suffer.”

McArdle agrees. “I find that depression halts my ability to do anything at all. It’s one of the worst parts about it. When I am deeply low, it’s a miracle if I can even manage to shower and eat, let alone create anything. The coming out of the depression is often the period of time where I can create the most. I’m lucid enough to feel functional, and I always have a desire to write out my depression, so I’ll make a song as catharsis. But never when I’m deeply, deeply in the depressive period.”

There’s no doubt that, on the other side of the coin, music can work wonders as therapy for mental illness, but when the biggest pop stars “act out” as a result of their condition, it’s often treated as a source of comedy: Britney Spears’ bald head, for instance, or Brian Harvey’s jacket potato incident.

High-profile musicians’ panic attacks and breakdowns are going to be made public, says Wallace. “In some cases, you might say that it helps lift the stigma from mental illness, that people talk about it. But on the other hand it can reinforce people’s feelings that a person who suffers from depression is seeking attention rather than needing help.”

In general, attitudes towards mental health, while improving, are still poor, and when it involves people making music we love, we tend to ignore it. While it is important to shine a light on these issues, glorifying the angsty artist leaves those suffering from mental illness more in the dark than ever.

Via the Guardian

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