Sorry Not Sorry: Music’s Struggle to Grapple with Mental Health

Every awards show has its controversy: who should’ve won, who shouldn’t have worn that dress. This year’s Grammys were no different. Billie Eilish—Gen Z superstar with ink for tears—swept the Big Four categories: Song, Record, and Album of the Year, and Best New Artist. Her success was not totally undeserved. Her album When We All Fall Asleep, Where do We Go? is a piece of youthful genius; the hi-hat in “bad guy” is actually a sample from an Australian crosswalk. However, the music critic world almost universally agreed that Album of the Year belonged to someone else: Lana del Rey.  

Norman F!cking Rockwell!, del Rey’s fifth studio album, is an Americana masterpiece. It was Pitchfork’s Album of the Year, where reviewer Jenn Pelly described del Rey as “the next best American songwriter, period.” The internet agreed; #Scammys is still trending a week later. While their fans may fight over who deserved what, juxtaposing these two artists reveals striking and dark thematic similarities. Each dive into suicidal mindsets, abusive romances, and what they’d be willing to do to get power: anything. They both push the limits of what most are comfortable listening to but remain musically and commercially successful—which is why they were nominated for a Grammy in the first place.

Every awards show is about something, from #MeToo to climate change. The commonalities and tensions between Eilish and del Rey’s oeuvres—along with the reappearance of Demi Lovato after her overdose in 2018—inadvertently made this year’s Grammy controversy into this year’s Grammy zeitgeist: addressing mental health in the year 2020. 

Both Eilish and del Rey grapple with mental health within and without their discography, and both toe the ever-blurring line between normalization and romanticization of these issues. Del Rey, however, is arguably the more problematic of the two. She’s been accused of glamorizing abusive relationships on her album Ultraviolence and glorifying suicide on her debut album Born to Die. In a now-infamous 2014 interview with The Guardian, del Rey aloofly proclaimed, “I wish I was dead already,” a motif permeating all of her work. 

How much these concepts were a part of the del Rey persona—the brooding, fantasy 1960s Sylvia Plath wannabe—and how much it was del Rey—the real person actively grappling with her own mental health—remains unclear. But she sheds the persona a bit on Norman F!cking Rockwell! when she says—as herself—“Don’t ask if I’m happy / you know that I’m not / but at best I can say I’m not sad.” In 2020, del Rey is speaking more openly and honestly than ever about mental health. “Hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have, but I have it,” del Rey sings, and in doing so, she’s left behind the glorifying tropes of mental health from 2014. Or so we can hope.

Eilish, like del Rey, has also relied on artistically embellishing the experience of mental health issues to create her music. She’s described her debut album as impersonating the monsters under her bed. She renders the idea eerily well on the track “bury a friend,” when she repeats the sinister mantra “I wanna end me” ad infinitum. Eilish’s noire, artpop exposition of Gen Z’s modern angst resonates on the basis of more than just its catchiness—Eilish gives voice to our inner demons with a grittiness that del Rey’s beautifully spun tragedies can’t.

Suicide rates have been steadily climbing for all age groups over the past decade. But, at the same time, there’s also a greater sense of normalization surrounding mental health issues—Gen Z is seeking help at rates higher than any previous generation. Eilish clearly cares about these trends. She has been incredibly outspoken about her issues with anxiety, Tourette’s, and depression. She has released public service announcements about seeking help via the Ad Council. She talks openly about her battle with suicidal thoughts and tries to legitimize the difficulties of modern life for her generation. 

But even with the best intentions, Eilish doesn’t entirely avoid the dangers of using mental health issues as her muse. Her singles “lovely” and “bored” are both featured on the soundtrack for 13 Reasons Why, a Netflix show highly criticized for its dramatization of suicide. In that sense, there’s something just as campy about Billie Eilish adopting the persona of the monsters under her bed as Lana del Rey adopting the persona of a suicidal debutante poetess. But perhaps the two artists differ meaningfully in their intent behind the personas: Eilish hopes to help other kids like her, while del Rey hopes to figure herself out. 

These two artists force us to question what we expect when art addresses mental health. Is it for the artist to process? Is it for us, the listeners? With art, there’s always a lot up for interpretation. But when it comes to addressing mental health, the last thing we want is ambiguity. There’s a world in which Lana del Rey’s music has a negative influence, glorifying depression rather than helping people experiencing it. But there’s also a world in which that’s true of Eilish, and a world in which each speaks to people with different needs. In reality, we probably live in all of these worlds. 

Which is why Demi Lovato’s presence matters so much. 

Lovato sang her new single, “Anyone,” live at the Grammys. Written four days before her well-publicized  overdose in 2018, “Anyone” is a heart-wrenching ballad of hopelessness, a window into the lonely void Lovato was facing. “I feel stupid when I sing, nobody’s listening to me,” she belted through her tears in a gorgeous and flawlessly delivered performance. It was a sobering reminder that we still live in a world where someone can record the lyrics “anyone, I need someone” without their studio batting an eye. There was a world in which Lovato might not have been alive to perform the piece, and her vocals proved that she knew that better than anyone.

Lovato sang about her mental health with an unwavering sense of honesty and clarity. There was no performativity. There was no sense of glorification, of camp. Juxtaposed with del Rey, who sings of being “obsessed with writing the next best American record,” and Eilish, who infamously sampled the removal of her Invisalign on her album’s opening track, Lovato achieves a near-transcendent level of purity on “Anyone.” There were no fascinating bass lines, no shocking samples. It wasn’t an attempt to attain new artistic limits. It was just her and a piano. And while she may not be winning a Grammy for it, Demi Lovato poignantly reminds us of what has always been, and what will continue to be, the most critical and difficult thing to address when talking about mental health: the truth.

Free and confidential support is always available to you and your loved ones at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1 (800) 273-8255. For Yale students, there is also the Walden Peer Counseling Hotline (8 p.m. to 8 a.m.): (203) 432-TALK.

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