Me, music and mental health

Wednesday, March 22, 2017 - 2:35pm


G.O.O.D. Music


Search “music and mental health” on Google – I know, I’m an incredibly skilled researcher – and a lot of positive physical correlations between the body and music come up. It turns out tunes can decrease the intensity of pain, increase endurance while exercising, improve poor sleeping patterns, prevent insomnia, enhance blood flow and so on. Basically, if you’re ever wondering why you can run that extra .25 miles on the treadmill when Nikki Minaj’s “Anaconda” comes on, it’s got something to do with music, the triggering of dopamine and some neurons firing.

There are some positive mental benefits, too. Ever heard someone say, “Listening to Mozart makes you smarter” and been like, “Well, that’s total bullshit"? Well, it’s actually not total bullshit. According to our good ‘ol friend science, there’s this thing called the Mozart Effect, which posits that listening to Mozart’s music, or any classical piece, induces a short-term improvement in certain mental tasks. That means “Piano Sonata No.12 In F, K.332:2. Adagio” will get you hype as fuck for that Ethics of Marketing paper you forgot to write until three hours before it was due. Talking long term, music is also known to reduce stress and anxiety, improve cognitive performance, elevate mood, help performance in high-pressure situations and relieve symptoms of depression.

But me, music and mental health have always had sort of a volatile relationship.

I’m 13, and Kid Cudi has just released Man on the Moon: The End of Day. XXL’s already included the rapper in its 2009 Freshman Class, and no one can stop singing his infectious single “Day ‘N’ Nite” — but Man on the Moon elevated his status as sad, stoner rapper to an unprecedented level.

Everyone remembers where they were the first time they heard “Soundtrack 2 My Life;” that shit just stays with you. I was sitting in Austin Ortwein’s living room pretending to like the taste of Hpnotiq, because for some reason the bright blue, almost radioactive-looking alcohol was all my friends’ older siblings could get their hands on for us. So, there I sat, sippin’, as Cudder belted out, “I got some issues that nobody can see / And all of these emotions are pouring out of me” – I know you can hear it now – and at that moment I felt like everything made sense. A cliché, no doubt; but as a white, upper-middle class female who felt she had nothing to really be sad about, and yet, still felt pretty sad, it was significant. Go read the Pitchfork review of the album, and they’ll say that Cudi’s a walking cliché, a wannabe sad, deep stoner. But maybe that’s the point; maybe that’s what a lot of us needed then. At least that’s what I needed then.

That album, as well as his sophomore release Man on the Moon II: Legend of Mr Rager, went on to soundtrack much of my high school experience; Kid Cudi got sadder, and so did I.

I’m 16, and I’ve only just heard Elliott Smith crooning the muted ballad “Between the Bars” over a scene in Good Will Hunting for the first time. The Portland-based indie rocker would go on to lose an Oscar to Celine Dion for one of his songs in the movie – of course Titanic’s “My Heart Will Go On” fucking won – but that wasn’t really what he was about, anyways. Melodic and melancholic, Smith’s music is some of the most powerful to come out of the post-grunge era of the late ’90s. But where there is grunge, there is also drug-use and alcohol-abuse, and Smith was notorious for his — a theme that would characterize his life and death and music.

Smith was shooting up heroine; I was drinking. A lot. My best friend in high school almost died of alcohol poisoning on a hot Las Vegas night in the middle of July after drinking straight Everclear inside some abandoned home in some gated community of a name I don’t remember. At the hospital near my house, I had to talk to the police and the doctors and her parents and my parents, all while borderline incoherent myself. Behavior along these lines continued throughout my adolescence, as did confrontations about it with my parents.

So you can understand why “Between the Bars” – which begins with “Drink up baby / Stay up all night / With the things you could do / You won’t but you might / The potential you’ll be that you’ll never see” – struck a chord. It was incredibly painful to disappoint your parents and yourself and not understanding why you kept doing things that disappointed your parents and yourself. It was incredibly confusing to feel like you were ruining your coming-of-age-narrative as it was being written.

I have a memory of being sprawled out across my bed, teary-eyes fixed on my dark blue ceiling, feeling like everything was collapsing, like I’d ruined my chances of doing anything important, of being anyone important. 

Now I’m 21 and comfortably seeing a therapist, while Kid Cudi is in rehab for drug and alcohol-related depression, and Elliott Smith is dead of apparent suicide. I’ve realized I used music as a companion to my sadness, a friend to sit with while I sulked; they used it as an outlet of expression for their depression. I figured my shit out; I’m not sure they ever did.

But their influence left lasting impressions. Kid Cudi ended up helping me curate my budding musical interests, what would become broad affinities for everything from Young Thug to Yo La Tengo. Elliott Smith’s “Between the Bars” ended up being the subject of my Common Application essay — which is what ended up getting me into Michigan.

And that, to me, is incredibly indicative of the dynamism of music, it’s power to play both the catalyst and the cure. Isn’t it strange, that dichotomy? It has the ability to both induce depression and pull you out of it. Thankfully, for me, it did the latter.