Let’s Get Rid of the ‘Tortured Artist’ Trope Once and For All

I’m not going to argue with you that musicians are a bunch of quirky motherfuckers. I know, I am one. You have to have some kind of gluttony for punishment to even attempt to make something of yourself in this ridiculous business. If you weren’t already prone to mental breakdowns, you might be after the music industry is finished with you. That said, we need to abolish the trope of the tortured artist. You know the one; “Oh, you know what they say, there is a fine line between crazy and brilliant.” As if one’s artistic merit is determined on how fucked up they are.

I won’t pretend there isn’t a large number of musicians that have mental health problems but the idea that mental illness somehow fuels creativity is controversial and one I don’t fully stand by. Besides, for every ‘tortured’ musician I could probably name, I could also name you a perfectly balanced one. I find it to be such a cliché, and even woefully dangerous. I truly believe an artist succeeds DESPITE their mental health problem and not BECAUSE of it. Their art can be a coping mechanism, but even if they weren’t mentally ill, they would still be creating. 

To give you an idea, I suffer from Bipolar 2 Disorder and Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and not once have I written a song while in a depressive episode, a hypomanic episode, or while having a panic attack. When I’m depressed, I can’t even find the will to get on pants let alone write a goddamn masterpiece. One time I tried to write a song while at my worst and all I sang over and over was “I want to die.” Honest, sure. Raw, definitely. A good song, no. When I’m manic… well, I feel like I’m the greatest songwriter the world has ever seen but to be truly good you have to be critical of your work and not think everything you do is brilliant. The only time a hypomanic episode might help with furthering my musical aspirations is when I have to reach out to venues, bands, or festivals. You tend to have a lot more time when you aren’t sleeping but my lack of focus usually ends up counteracting this anyway. I’m far more adjusted now than I have ever been, and I can tell you that during a balanced period is when I do my best songwriting. I’m not saying I’m the next great, but I do have talent and it doesn’t come from my sickness.

I won’t lie and say being mentally ill isn’t inspiring. I have written songs to express what the hell I’ve gone through after the fact. The worst things I’ve ever seen have been in my mind. Having those thoughts expressed helps me therapeutically and will hopefully reach those with similar issues. Overall though, it’s a hindrance, and one I would gladly get rid of if I could. I have lost YEARS of being able to create because I was plagued with intrusive thoughts, an inability to get out of bed, panic attacks, self-medicating drinking sessions, horrific self-loathing, and low self-esteem. I’m not here for your sympathy but to give a picture of what these “tortured artists” might have gone through. It’s incredible that they fought through and managed to do what they did. It’s not a given that they succeeded because of their conditions. They succeeded because they worked hard, honed their talents, and earned it. Not because they are suffering from a form of mental illness. Mental illness takes far more than it gives.

I know most of you reading this are educated enough to know these things, but you’d be surprised how often people still bring up an artist’s mental health issues while talking about their art. And it is the most aggravating when a celebrity dies because of it. Look at the YouTube comments to any video by Joy Division, Nirvana, Soundgarden, Linkin Park, or Amy Winehouse and you’ll see what I mean. When Chris Cornell died, I heard someone stupidly say “Oh, that explains why he was so good,” as if his inner turmoil was the reason for his profound lyrics and heartfelt delivery. This perpetuates the idea that one must die tragically for their art to truly resonate and last. Neil Young famously sang “It’s better to burn out than fade away.” But is it? Do we want our favourite artist to live their unhappiest life because we selfishly want to bask in their torment and find solace in it? Shouldn’t we want them to live longer so they can continue to make the music we love? Or, just be alive with their loved ones?

Now, I realize, that all of the artists I have listed made music that was prone to melancholy. Shouldn’t that be evidence enough that their despair was indeed their muse? Maybe, but I think it would be more apt to say that they were sensitive, talented, artistic people who wrote about their lives and their experiences, which sadly weren’t all sunshine and rainbows. If they hadn’t been in such pain, they probably would have still written amazing music. Again, their mental illness didn’t make them great and we need to stop presenting that idea. The boasting of this absurdity is a reason why there are numerous cases of artistic people not taking their meds because they feel it will stifle their creativity (Read the graphic novel Marbles for more on this). That their art will be worse for it. That there has to be a reason for their suffering. There isn’t. Depression sucks. Anxiety sucks. All of it fucking sucks. People die because of this bullshit. 

I once believed this too and I can tell you not taking my meds was a BAD idea. The last time I did so, I ended up going on a bender that resulted in me drunkenly running and hollering alongside a public bus for blocks on end and at one point almost getting hit by another one. I later found myself getting kicked out of a club for continuously hitting on a bartender because I didn’t realize that I had already talked to her several times. This still haunts me to this day, as I do not condone this reckless behaviour and shudder at the thought that I was just another douchebag who harassed someone who was only doing their job. There is no excuse, but that’s how warped my reality was; I wasn’t me. The depressive and shame-filled fall from grace was even worse, for weeks I couldn’t find the will to leave my apartment and was too anxiety-ridden to go outside. Even when I stood on my balcony, I was afraid I’d throw myself off. 

Through all of this, not once did I say, “Gee I should write a song!” Not only that, I didn’t end up writing anything for months. If you need to take meds, take your meds. One could argue that being a drugged-out zombie isn’t going to be beneficial to your process, but in time you’ll hopefully find the right treatment and be able to focus better than before. Being sick is not a superpower and not helpful in the long run. Balance isn’t presented as being as romantic but, trust me when I say, I’m a far better writer now than when I was undiagnosed, unmedicated, and losing my shit daily. I know meds are not for everyone, but whatever it is that helps you live a more balanced life, you should do it. I suppose we all must suffer a little for our art but, despite popular belief, you’re allowed to have SOME relief!

 So, in the end, yes, we artists are a kooky bunch, but as a society, we need to be more mindful of what we say and the false stereotypes we continue to push. I’m not saying to completely ignore the impact mental illness has on an artist’s life and music, but it should never define them. Robin Williams once said, “You’re only given a spark of madness. You mustn’t lose it.” Robin would have probably been the first to tell you that the madness he is referring to isn’t insanity but creativity itself. The ones who succeed, whether they have a mental illness or not, have an endless drive that fuels them to create and to take risks despite all the societal pressures to give up such childish things. These are the attributes we should admire and covet, not what demons someone is battling.

Written By Shawn Thicke
*edited by Danielle Kenedy

About Shawn Thicke 138 Articles
Since the age of 12, Shawn Thicke has had an unhealthy addiction to music consumption and the need to offer his opinion to anyone willing to listen. Thankfully, since writing at Bucketlist Music Reviews, his needs have been met much to the relief of those close to him. Not only is he an avid listener, but music has pretty much taken over the rest of his life as well. His love of the stage has ensured that he is constantly busy as the lead singer and lyricist of local rock bands Rustic State and Thicke Sugar. The former you can find playing on any given weekend all over the city of Montreal. During the day though, he becomes a member of society and works as a music teacher at the Montreal Oral School for the Deaf. Shawn hopes to one day find success with his own music, but until that day comes you'll be sure to see him at your show, bopping his head with a goofy grin on his face.

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