In Defense of "Unhealthy" Music

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Content note: When I talk about “unhealthy” music, I mean things like music expressing and embracing mental illness, stereotypes, victim-blaming, and lack of consent. I give examples and do my best to explain their appeal.

I was in high school the first time it happened. I was enjoying a piece of music and wanted to share it with a friend. “Here. Listen to this.” I handed her a cassette tape I’d already gone some way toward wearing out.

The rejection was prompt and personal. “That’s really messed up. How could you listen to that?” Her eyes told me she blamed me for her exposure to such terrible stuff.

The answer was simple, of course. I listened to fucked up music because I was fucked up. I was coping (or mostly not) with serious anxiety and depression and probably had minor PTSD from childhood abuse. While the pop music of the 80s had plenty of dark weirdness embedded in it, it rarely met me where I was. That took pretty, mopey boys and angry women and strange fantasists of all stripes.

It wasn’t the first time I was out of the musical loop. In fact, aside from Free to Be You and Me, I’d never been in it. Most of my peers had parents who raised them on The Beatles, Fleetwood Mac, and southern rock. I mostly listened to 60s political folk music. Helen Reddy was about as mainstream as I got, unless the revivals from The Muppet Show count. Sound of Music soundtrack? No? Just me? Right.

It was the first time someone told me my musical choices were harmful, however. Or at least, it was the first time I was told that by my friends instead of some adult who wanted me off their lawn.

It wasn’t the last time, of course. We love to judge people’s music tastes. We love to judge people with mental illness. What could be better than getting to do both at once, particularly when we can treat depressed people as baffling aliens rather than simply asking them about their behavior.

My high school friend didn’t really want an answer to her question about why I listened to the music I did, and I couldn’t have answered her then if I’d wanted to. I’ve spent a good chunk of time over the intervening years thinking about what goes into my musical choices, though. Since the question keeps coming up, maybe it’s time to answer it.

Would you dance with the madman
Over the hills and far away?
Arm in arm in arm
Mad not mad
— “Mad Not Mad”, Madness

Illustration: Pied Piper playing for dancing girls in white dresses under a flowering tree.
“For he led us, he said, to a joyous land”
Robert Browning, Kate Greenaway illus.

I’ve danced with the madman, so far away it was uncertain I would ever make it back. Honestly, I didn’t want to make it back. I wanted a piper to come and play me a tune and take me away under the mountain, where the earth would swallow me and shut forever so I could never return. It didn’t matter if it was real. What mattered was that it wasn’t where I was.

No, there’s nothing the tiniest bit healthy about that.

There is also nothing in that that is safe for an adolescent to talk about. Talk like that gets you taken away, yes, but to places where the lights are too bright, where you don’t get to choose whether to follow someone else’s tune, no matter what it is. Talk like that makes the adults around you sad and guilty and the other kids scared. Talk like that leaves you very alone.

Music like this leaves you less alone. Even if your friends don’t want to share, you can still listen. If it scares them, you can shrug and say it’s just music, though it’s far more than that. You can sing it, even if you can’t say it. You can know that someone else thinks these things. Someone else wants these things. Someone, somewhere has found a way to say these things without being taken away, which means that someday, maybe you can too.

That’s a gift. The music may not be healthy, but neither is isolation.

Years go by
Will I choke on my tears
Till finally there is nothing left
One more casualty
— “Silent All These Years”, Tori Amos

I don’t understand the haters of emo. Or rather, I think I do, but I’d rather not. Emotion makes music “girly” and girly makes music contemptible. It’s why emo was always doomed to the same sneering that is routinely turned on the latest boy bands.

Emotion, however, is also a gift. It is particularly a gift for people experiencing the flattened affect of depression. You might think it would be a relief to feel nothing in the place of despair, but, well, I’ll just let Allie Brosh explain it:

At first, I’d try to explain that it’s not really negativity or sadness anymore, it’s more just this detached, meaningless fog where you can’t feel anything about anything — even the things you love, even fun things — and you’re horribly bored and lonely, but since you’ve lost your ability to connect with any of the things that would normally make you feel less bored and lonely, you’re stuck in the boring, lonely, meaningless void without anything to distract you from how boring, lonely, and meaningless it is.

Music is unparalleled for being able to induce emotion. Still, when you’re at that point of depression, sometimes you need the strong stuff. That often means sad or angry. A good minor key will help get you there. So will lyrics that cut you even through the fog. Vocals you have to push to match while singing are good too, perhaps because they mimic yelling. Tears for Fears was into something with their primal scream therapy set to music.

Can a happy song make you feel when you’re depressed? Sure, they can, though the only happy song I remember really reaching me in those years is “Walking on Sunshine”. And let’s face it, there just aren’t many songs as relentlessly and unabashedly happy as “Walking on Sunshine”.

Most of the songs that remind you what it feels like to feel are going to be unhappy. They won’t cheer you up, but they won’t let you wither away either.

Stylized, Impressionist still of Liza Minelli onstage in the movie Cabaret.
“CABARET …” by Bill Strain, CC BY 2.0

So please, sir,
If you run into my mama,
Don’t reveal my indiscretion.
Give a working girl a chance.

— “Don’t Tell Mama”, Cabaret

I don’t endorse a simplistic view of teenage rebellion as inevitable or based in simple defiance. There are plenty of reasons adolescents try on new ideas and behaviors, from a higher tolerance for risk to widening influences to, yes, rejection of their parents’ ideals. For whatever reason(s), teenagers often step outside the roles and moral frameworks they were raised in.

This is a good thing. It’s one of the ways we’ve progressed as a species, with each new generation taking time to ask who they should be.

It is also a good thing if some of that teenage risk-taking doesn’t have to come with real-life stakes and permanent consequences. Both fiction and music can help by offering teenagers a chance to step into a role they can then easily step out of again. If you’re familiar with the lyrics I chose for this section, you’ll know why.

We think of Sally Bowles as a free spirit, an independent soul who pursues her music career despite not being any good at singing, a woman with the backbone to get an abortion that will also end her most important relationship. While she is those things, she’s also a woman in a precarious position. A Brit living in Berlin on the cusp of war, who depends on men for money because music doesn’t pay, much of her independence is fleeting and fragile.

The song reflects that. While it plays vulnerability off as flirtation and a bit of a joke, it doesn’t hide it. “You wouldn’t want to get me in a pickle” nods to the fact that many of the men in her audience would like exactly that.

Is that dark? Yes. Grim? Yes. It’s also an opportunity to try on that role without committing to it. It flirts with the vulnerability of breaking the rules without making the listener or singer accept the consequences.

Chi Chi at the bar
Dressed а L’Esqualita
Talks of Johns and Joans
And tomorrow’s rhinestones
— “L’Esqualita”, Soft Cell

I won’t tell you I’ve understood trans people for decades because I’ve known a few songs about them. That wouldn’t just be silly. It would also be reductive and condescending and suggest I’ve stopped learning, which is entirely untrue.

Nonetheless, it is true that part of the reason I find it odd when gender nonconformity is a new issue for people is that the music that’s made up the background of my life has included several trans characters. Nor am I shocked at or dismissive of the way trans people are pushed into underground economies or face extra challenges combating addiction, because those situations have always been a part of the alternative music written about them.

Would I like to see music that depicts trans people living what many of us would deem “normal” lives. Yes. I would love to see (more of) that, but not at the expense of erasing the the problems too many trans people have faced.

I find many of these songs disturbing, but only because I find the situations themselves disturbing. I don’t want the music or the people to be erased to spare my feelings.

You’re an unrescuable schizo
Or else you’re on the rag
If you take him back
I’m gonna lose my nerve
— “Delilah”, Dresden Dolls

I promise never to tell you that music portraying people in extremis is not problematic. Very few of us are trained in how to deal with frustration, much less desperation. It is a mark of these situations that our coping mechanisms break down, that we reach our limits, that we lash out when we can’t handle the pain of hopelessness. We use words meant to hurt and words that will break bonds to the point where they can’t be repaired.

Is this sort of music tragedy porn? It can be. It can also be that thing that finds a person fumbling through tragedy and tells them that other people are imperfect in these situations as well.

I don’t know where that line is, even for me, and I’m sure it’s in different places for different people. I’m sure it matters how you’ve screwed up and how you’ve risen to the challenge and what you’ve managed to forgive yourself for. I’m sure it matters how strict the standards are that other people hold you to.

I do know that I sympathize with that person who has nothing left but attack. I’ve been that person in certain situations, though a situation like this. Knowing that I’m not the only person who has done the unforgivable to someone I was trying to help lets me know, strangely enough, that I’m not such a terrible person that I can’t learn to do better.

Your legs are a melody my hands
Would like to play
And your hips are a note
That does take me away
And your face and your eyes and your hair
And your waist and your smile
Drive me to distraction
— “The Rhythm”, Cat Empire

It is one of the more frustrating things in life to find music that makes you dance and cringe at the same time. That a song that lives where dancing meets sex should start with laughing street harassment–harassment that succeeds–is galling. Yet there it is.

I think everyone who likes to dance has at least one of these songs, and what is there to do but let the music move you while the lyrics leave you cold? Because the music will never not make you move.

Like a butterfly
A wild butterfly
I will collect you and capture you
— “Obsession”, Animotion

Model in striped shirt, dance pants, beret, and high heels pointing to musical notation behind her.
One of the things I’ve found most frustrating about the idea that my “dark” music is somehow unhealthy is that the standards are applied so selectively. Sometimes this means treating things that aren’t problematic, like female sexual desire (think “Darling Nikki”), as problems simply because they’re less often portrayed straightforwardly in music. A lot of the time, however, it means finding faults in alternative music that are overlooked in more popular music.

Animotion released “Obsession” in 1984. Three years earlier, Tommy Tutone released “867-5309/Jenny”. Both songs charted well in the U.S., but reactions to them were quite different. This is odd, given that both songs are about sexual obsession.

Despite the fact that “Jenny” lyrics make it clear that Jenny has no idea the singer has her phone number, despite a reference to having been “disturbed”, people actually called the number looking for Jenny. They still do. Apparently no one thinks it’s creepy.

If I had to choose–I don’t, because what I listen to is mostly determined by my odd musical tastes–I’d want the song that’s honest in telling you flat out that you shouldn’t take it as a role model. “Obsession” isn’t a healthy song, but it never pretended to be, an no one else ever tried to sell it to me that way.

In my mind, that’s just one more way in which my “unhealthy” music is exactly what I need.

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In Defense of "Unhealthy" Music

6 thoughts on “In Defense of "Unhealthy" Music

  1. 2

    Music can be a powerful outlet, both for the producer and the consumer.
    I’ve had times when a particular song resonated, when I heard it up and down (I had entire 90 minutes tapes with just. one. song.) I still sometimes do that (much nicer than making your endless repeat tape nowadays). They serve as an outlet. You feel with the song and it allows you to shed tears you urgently need to cry but cannot.
    Or it allows you to laugh and dance through the flat.
    Or it’s the hard and heavy stuff and while you yell with the singer your aggression finds a healthy outlet.

  2. 3

    Unhealthy music that is also good and (has been) pretty popular/mainstream:
    “I put a spell on you” – covered bij Creedence Clearwater Revival (don’t remember who wrote the original)
    “Every breath you take” – Sting (or the Police?).

    The latter is still played as a romantic song, when clearly it is about stalkerish obsession. Sting even expressed his discomfort with the song being seen as romantic and played at weddings.

    “I put a spell on you” (at least the CCR version of it) is one of my favourite songs, precisely because imo it does such a good job of expressing the irrationality, the intensity and the rage that it is about, both in the music, the lyrics and the way it is sung.

    (Sort of delurking I guess, so hi!)

  3. 4

    “Every breath you take” – Sting (or the Police?).

    The latter is still played as a romantic song, when clearly it is about stalkerish obsession. Sting even expressed his discomfort with the song being seen as romantic and played at weddings.

    I can’t listen to that anymore.
    You need to remember that I’m not a native speaker, so i grew up with “romantic”. I even learned it in English class as “romantic” (the teacher was an all around asshole. And then, after some years, I listened to it again. Having learned more about English and stalking, I nearly threw up. Same with “Roxanne”.

  4. 5

    I’m a non-native speaker too (never lived in an English-speaking country either) and I agree! But to a certain, lesser, extent this goes for native speakers as well, because they are told by the surrounding culture that this is a romantic song. It’s just easier for them to understand and really “feel” the lyrics, I think. There’s always a distance for me with reading/listening to different language, although with English it’s pretty small these days!

    Tangent: maybe theists don’t have the same reaction to imagining themselves being watched, because they already imagine someone watching them all the time.

  5. 6

    @Azalu #3 Screamin’ Jay Hawkins wrote “I put a spell on you”. I like CCR’s version. Actually, it’s just about the only CCR song I like.

    [OT: John Fogerty was once sued by a music company. He wrote a song called “The old man down the road”. The music company thought it sounded like the song “Run through the jungle”, to which it had the copyright. That song came out on a CCR album and had been written by…John Fogerty. Fogerty was sued for sounding too much like himself. It’s an intriguing story.
    The end]

    And I’ve always found “Every breath” a little creepy. It never seemed to be a love song to me, unless it meant a very obsessive love.

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