Feeling That I’ve Lost Control: Mental Illness in Pop Music

Ian Curtis's graveside 5/18/04
Ian Curtis’s graveside 5/18/04 (Photo credit: drl909)

Another night and I can’t sleep
I need to cry but I can’t weep
Feeling that I’ve lost control
Where’s my spirit, where’s my very soul?
Kevin Ayers, “Wide Awake” (from the album The Unfairground, 2007)
Kurt Cobain committed suicide by shotgun over 15 years ago, and people still can’t get him – or his music – out of their minds. One speculates: would his legacy have been as successful has he not died in such an unfortunate matter? Or would he have succumbed to a mildly satisfying solo career, kicked drugs, and possibly a life lived out in the tabloids (much like his widow, Courtney Love)? Obviously we’ll never know the answers to these questions, but his suicide firmly planted his legend into mythical status, very much how Sylvia Plath became a celebrity after she took her own life. In the last few years, the image of the “tormented” pop musician has gained much interest and momentum in the mainstream media.

Another case in point: there has been a renewed interest in Ian Curtis, the late singer of the late 1970s – early 1980s post punk band, Joy Division. Joy Division would have been legendary had Ian Curtis not died by his own hand; the band’s sound has been widely copied over the last 30 years, since the band’s inception in the late 1970s. However, many articles and book-length treatises about Joy Division focus upon Ian Curtis as the central figure in Joy Division’s legacy. In addition, the 2007 Anton Corbijn movie Control, which details Ian Curtis’ all-too-brief life (he was merely 23 years old when he died), was a critical success despite its lack of focus upon Joy Division as a whole entity. This leads one to believe that there is a universal fascination with pop singers who happen to suffer from debilitating mental illnesses. Had Ian Curtis lived, he would have most likely been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, which causes severe fluctuations of moods in its victims.

It goes almost without saying that there is a virtual flood of musicians, some still alive, whose mental illnesses almost encompass the work they did during their lives. Marvin Gaye suffered from debilitating bouts of depression, and ended up being shot by his own father; he allegedly had made attempts on his own life prior to this event. Elliot Smith, a supremely gifted singer and songwriter, suffered from depression so momentous that he apparently ended his own life via the knife. Wendy O. Williams of the Plasmatics chose to end her life via the gun; Robert Quine chose a massive overdose of heroin. Darby Crash of the Germs died likewise. Even Anne Sexton, the U.S. poet laureate of 1960s despair, had a band called “Anne Sexton and Her Kind,” named after one of her poems; she ended her battle with manic depression by gassing herself in her car.
Even Italian French-speaking disco queen Dalida was plagued by depression, and chose to end her life via barbiturates. She once remarked, “Yes, I have always longed for celebrity…but it has not made me happy. Yes, I have succeeded in life, but my life, it has not been very successful.” Her suicide note read, “Life has become unbearable … forgive me.” After her death, France mourned her loss enormously; in coming years a movie would be made about her often tumultuous life. Serge Gainsbourg’s death in 1991 can arguably be described as a suicide of wish; Gainsbourg had damaged his liver and heart severely through years of heavy smoking and even heavier drinking. He was also plagued by severe depression. His death brought Paris to a standstill, and the details of his turbulent life have been recounted in dozens of biographies.

Still more lists could be made of tormented pop stars, but the central question remains: why are people entranced by madness, and why do fans want to enter their idols’ darkness so intentionally? There are theories in mental health circles that people with mental illnesses (such as bipolar disorder) are high achievers and perfectionists, and are more likely to desire fame; perhaps this explains the creative impetus of musical artists who happen to suffer from mental illnesses. The book Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament by doctor and bipolar disorder expert Kay Redfield Jamison argues to some degree that psychological torment can be a part of the artistic process (Jamison’s studies mainly include painters, classical musicians, and writers, but her theories can easily be applied to rock musicians as well).

Quite simply put, fans are attracted to these artists because they communicate the heart of darkness in a catchy medium; there is no doubt, as a listener, that I personally can relate to the psychological struggles many of these musicians have faced. Currently I am digging The Unfairground, the excellent 2007 album by ex-Soft Machine member Kevin Ayers. This album basically underscores the loneliness and feelings of panic about getting older and feeling “left behind.” The song “Wide Awake” is particularly poignant to me, as it describes Ayers’ feelings of desperation as he lurches through wakefulness and insomnia:
What’s the future? There’s no cheer
Feeling too much doubt and fear
I hide and run, I run and hide
I just can’t face the world outside my dreaming
At my very own worst moments of insomnia, I can listen to this song and know I’m not the only human being who has felt desperately awake, and who has wanted to “run and hide.” Therein lies the beauty of understanding and being attracted to artists who happen to make battle with the symptoms of mental illness.

However, there are artists who have struggled with mental illness who have become “blocked” by their issues; case in point – the endless enigma of Courtney Love. Ms. Love, who has very publicly dealt with a host of drug addictions, most likely suffers from some form of bipolar disorder (in a Channel 4 documentary, she admitted to taking Abilify, which is a drug classically prescribed to persons with bipolar disorder). Her follow up to 2004’s shambolic America’s Sweetheart, Nobody’s Daughter, has not yet come to fruition; demos which have leaked are not entirely impressive. Phil Spector, who has admitted that he suffers from a form of bipolar disorder, has publicly suffered the worst indignities because of his illness (including a conviction of murder!).
While mental illness has inspired countless musicians in the canon of rock and pop, one gets the feeling that mental illness of any sort, no matter how “enticing” artistically it might be, ultimately impedes the musician and is a dangerous presence for one to emulate.
Mental Illness and the Artist: An Interview with Marya Hornbacher
Marya Hornbacher is the author of Wasted, a memoir about her struggles with anorexia, and also recently authored Madness: A Bipolar Life, which details her experiences with bipolar disorder. I had the opportunity to interview Marya about her bipolar disorder diagnosis; her answers illuminate the challenges faced by persons with the disorder, and the danger of the “legend” of mental illness which surrounds many contemporary musicians and writers.
1. Because I’m not you…can you set the scene of when you realized the ramifications of your illness? Was there an “a-ha” moment in which you realized fully that you had bipolar disorder?
Marya Hornbacher: There were two: When the doctor who diagnosed me first explained to me what it was, it hit me that he was describing what I had exactly. I was both relieved that there was a name for it, that I hadn’t just been imagining things, and horrified because I didn’t want it to be true. Then, years later, when I’d gotten sober, stabilized on meds, and had a long period of relative remission, it came back in force, and I was in and out of the hospital for two years. During that time, I realized that I’d never fully grasped that it was a real illness, and would come and go whether I wanted it to or not, and that all I could do was manage it to the very best of my ability. That was somewhat overwhelming.
2. From my own situation, I am well aware that Bipolar Disorder Type I with rapid cycling is often difficult to treat. What treatments have you used (medications or holistically, etc.)? Which treatments were most effective; which weren’t?

MH: I’ve been on most of the mood stabilizers and several of the anti-psychotics and antidepressants. Some were effective, some weren’t; that all depends on individual chemistry. I am currently on Lamictal, Tegretol, carbemazepine, Wellbutrin, and Ativan. I also do yoga 6x/week, which has a huge impact on my mental health, and get other types of exercise as well. In the winter months, I use a medical light box to keep the depression as much at bay as possible. I supplement the pharmaceuticals with a large dose each of fish oil and a B complex. Beyond that, therapy is an important part of maintaining stability as well.
3. To many, the archetype of “the tortured artist” with a mental illness is very powerful, particularly in the rock music canon (i.e. Kurt Cobain, Ian Curtis, etc.). Do you think the travails of these musicians pose as cautionary tales, or are they “Rock Follies” fodder (you know, expected for rock stars)?

MH: I think the “tortured artist” stereotype is incredibly damaging. It may be expected for rock stars (and writers), but it often gives people who do have mental health diagnoses the mistaken idea that if they take the medication that would stabilize them, they will lose their creativity. This just isn’t true. It isn’t necessary to be living in a mental hell to work creatively and well – far from it. What is necessary to create good work over time – as in, for longer than a few years of sudden tortured fame – is clarity of thought, stability of lifestyle, and a mental state that is healthy and supports functionality. I did the tortured artist thing for years; it nearly killed me, and I produced absolute garbage for work. Once stabilized, my work life was vastly more productive and consistent. I wasn’t writing in huge explosive bursts of “inspiration” anymore–I was actually a working writer, doing my job, every day. Less drama, but more impact. So while I think those particular artists’ troubles should pose as cautionary tales, they often don’t – because what people see is the relationship between “madness and genius,” not the relationship between mental illness, pain, and early death. I hope that association will change, and that people will begin seeing the reality that a working artist needs to be a healthy artist.
4. This question is from my own curiosity, but how does bipolar disorder manifest itself differently in different people in so far as behaviors? I am aware that bipolar disorder causes a spectrum, even a constellation, of different symptoms in different people…

MH: There is, as you say, a wide range of behaviors that can be triggered by manic or depressive episodes. The common ones are things like grandiosity, hyperverbality, rapid speech, compulsive shopping, gambling, spending, etc., hypersexuality, binge drinking or drug use, cutting, driving crazy fast, things like that. In extreme states of psychosis, you see hallucinations, delusions, and the like. In depression, you see a range from restlessness and irritability to suicidal ideation/planning to catatonia. There are also the little quirks that are totally particular to the individual – one person may be unable to stop himself from stealing a car even when he doesn’t want to, another person may write reams of poetry, another may find basic daily things like paying taxes insurmountably difficult (all examples of individuals I know). It all depends, but it’s of a piece.
5. I have just completed your book Madness and it is very intense, but it is an illuminating read because I see so much of my own disordered behavior in it. How are you doing now?
MH: I’m doing very well, thanks for asking. I’ve been on a nice, stable plateau for about two years, and it’s lovely. The winter depression was a bear, and I’m coming up on the summer manic months, so I’ve got my eye on it. I’m on a combination of meds that’s working well, and the rest is about yoga and lifestyle stuff like staying close to the people in my life, working a reasonable amount, things like that. Overall, I’m happy.
A special thanks to Marya Hornbacher for her contribution to this article.

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