Well, so the mainstream media are constantly telling us. Last year, a study published in the Psychology of Popular Media Culture journal was dragged around the news and internet that had ‘discovered’ in a group of 551 students, that those who listened to metal/rock music had a much higher incidence of depression and anxiety than those who didn’t and posited a link between constant exposure to ‘depressing’ rock music and actually developing depression. Thankfully, on the flip-side there were also plenty of articles such as this one that sought to debunk such claims. As a fan of rock and metal music myself, my initial reaction was one of sceptical eye-rolling, but the report did prompt me to examine my own relationship with music, my emotions and my evolving music tastes. Considering I come from a musical family and have made music a big part of my career, this is a far more involved exercise than it might be for an average joe!
The Classical Years (Part 1): My mother was a coloratura soprano, once a member of the LSC and a stage veteran of 20 years, singing for pantomimes, variety shows, musicals and music hall. I often joke that I spent my toddler years backstage in a dressing-room, but really that was only a tiny part; I was, however, always surrounded by music. There was the classical stuff, the church every Sunday stuff (my Mum ran the choir) and the 50s & 60s stuff my Dad listened to when Mum was out. I learnt how to play the violin, the piano, 3 types of recorder and did about 6 months learning the flute. I do not have the right character for flute. I found the music interesting and challenging, but I certainly lacked the emotional maturity to understand or connect with a lot of what I was playing. I guess it’s no surprise that my favourite composer to play at this time was Vivaldi.
The Cringey years: As I moved into being a pre-teen, I discovered the charts and expanded my tastes to incorporate early 90s dance, recording the top 40 onto cassette each week from Radio 1, then copying the ones I wanted onto another cassette…ah, nostalgia… Anyway, my mum was quite dismayed, but at least I could now talk music with my friends without being labelled a snob!
The Garbage Years: Then came 13 and with it a whole host of other problems. The culmination of 3 years of bullying in primary school, followed by the stress of moving to a new life on the other side of the country in a much more pressured academic environment, topped by the hormonal cocktail of that age led to what would now be termed OSFED – Atypical Anorexia: apart from my BMI which only just touched on the danger zone, everything in my relationship with food was anorexic. And my music tastes changed too. Gone was the upbeat techno-esque crap of the previous year and in came the guitars of Britpop and the Indie scene. Now, I was listening Blur, Suede, Oasis, Pulp, Nirvana and Garbage. I loved Garbage. I played their first album (on cassette) to death and had to replace it. Shirley Manson was my idol; I wanted to be her so much! Out came the red hair dye and black eyeliner. Her lyrics are dark; her delivery is snarling and understated. Many of Garbage’s songs touch on the subject of mental illness, (most notably Only Happy When it Rains, Medication, Trick is To Keep Breathing, I think I’m Paranoid, and especially Bleed Like Me) but then, Manson suffered with depression too, so she knew what she was singing about! With their grungy-pop, uncompromising lyrics and memorable tunes, Garbage spoke to me in a way that few bands did – or ever have done – and their first 2 albums are still on my playlists today.
The Lost Year: Then in 1999 I did a complete U-turn, going back to listening to dance music for a very confusing year. I was in a relationship that was totally wrong for me and I was hanging around with people that I had nothing in common with. They lived for the weekends; I had A-levels, Orchestra, drama group, getting into Uni and my whole damn future to sort out. I felt so lost. My ED resurfaced with a vengeance and I was back to restricting. I learnt how to vomit. I began to scratch myself. I spent some lunchtimes hiding in the sixth-form library, under a table in the corner, hidden by a pillar. Or in the bathrooms. Sometimes I would cry, sometimes I sat there blankly until the bell rang. I felt so alone (it never crossed my mind to seek any type of help though, I had convinced myself that I was just fine really). The soundtrack to that year was a mix of Indie at home and Ibiza anthems whilst with my friends. I was so disconnected from it, but I knew that the dancing helped burn calories, so whatever.
The Classical Years (part 2): Despite my bad mental health and lack of application in school that year, I had auditioned and interviewed well and so managed to get into my first choice of Uni (Cardiff). I was studying Music, and so began listening to much more classical stuff than before. During the first year there I was also able to explore the city’s musical life and discovered a thriving rock/metal scene, based around Metros, Clwb Ifor Bach and Barfly. In my second year there I joined GRIMSoc, Cardiff Uni’s rock music society. My musical tastes were split between classical and gothic rock, dividing line that’s often blurred!
The Rock Years: Amazing! I finally felt like I had found where I had belonged. I had found others that understood my love of graveyards, Victoriana and black, black, black. And the music – oh the music!¬ so raw, exciting, emotional and LOUD. As someone who had spent many years in the second violins with a flute or French horn blasting in my ears, this total immersion in music was not an issue. Rock music spoke and felt like what I had been unable to vocalise. It was so freeing to headbang, letting the sound vibrate through me, screaming the pain out. I was cleansed and pure by the end of the night. My ED receded to an occasional bad-habit-purge after a cinema binge. I went out with friends all the time. I stopped harming for years. I was happy. In fact I still look back on those Uni years as the best of my life. I was free and unencumbered, no need to ‘adult’ then. My soundtrack to those years was My Ruin, Linkin Park, Papa Roach, Marylin Manson, Evanescence and Lacuna Coil.
I truly believe that (contrary to the report) rock music helped to bring me out of that round of depression, giving me an outlet for my negative thinking and emotions. But I also don’t think that the report is wholly wrong; rather, the issue is more a chicken and egg scenario. I would say that:
- people who are already depressed are more likely to identify with rock music
- people who have the predisposition to become depressed are more likely to identify with this music
- people who are more attuned to the darker side of life, regardless of mental health, are more likely to identify with this music
- people enjoy the energy and power of the music – there is much life within it
- people who have no markers or likelihood for depression will NOT become depressed by listening to rock/metal music. That’s just ridiculous.
It’s unfortunate that the need for sensationalism in the world’s press has linked rock music with depression and other mental illnesses and to tragic events such as school shootings and even far right nationalism. It’s very easy to scapegoat that which you don’t understand and despite rock and goth culture moving closer towards the mainstream during the noughties, the fear of that which is ‘different’ still colours the perception of this usually accepting, tolerant and caring group of people. Not all goths have depression. Not all of those who have depression like rock music. And nobody will become depressed solely because of rock music. Rock music does not cause depression – in fact it might help you feel better!