The tormented contemporary artist

What is it about music that makes us so afraid?

“What are you on about?”, you’re telling me, unplugging your earphones as you do a double-take on what sort of deep sh*t I just asked. “I love music.”

Watch out – what’s coming next isn’t especially light reading.

Recently, a series of deeply worrying Facebook posts from singer Sinead O’Connor hit the headlines. Authorities rushed to recover the singer, best known for her 1990 hit ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’, following an apparent suicide attempt during late last November.

Just days before reportedly overdosing, O’Connor announced on social media that she would be quitting the music industry: “Music is over for me. Music did this. Rendered me invisible even unto my children. Murdered my soul. I’m never going back to music.” Her fame long gone but struggles largely unnoticed, O’Connor’s emotional struggles resurfaced shortly after undergoing a hysterectomy in August.

But what do Sinead O’Connor, Kurt Cobain, Ian Curtis, and arguably even Jimi Hendrix all have in common?

For so long, the lifestyles of musicians have been associated with drug addiction and depressive symptoms. Sex, drugs n rock n roll is more than a cliché. But what is it about the music industry that exerts the tormented contemporary artist stereotype?

Perhaps artists are more predisposed to mental instability? Is it always creative geniuses who fall at their own hands? Both in and outside of music, the notion of the troubled creative genius certainly isn’t a new phenomenon. Elizabeth Gilbert, the writer of ‘Eat, Pray, Love’, pondered if there was a link between creativity and suffering during her infamous TEDx talk in 2009. She went on to ask, what is it about creative ventures that makes us so afraid for each others’ mental health?

Pressure in a massively competitive industry takes its toll. How many artists don’t make it? We only have to remind ourselves of so-called talent shows, which have particularly surfaced since the late 1990s, exist to find just one winner amid tens of thousands of entrants. In 2013, O’Connor criticised Simon Cowell and the X Factor of ruining the music industry.

Some say Kurt Cobain died because he despised the idea of his music becoming part of a bland corporate industry. Toxicology reports claim that Cobain, the Nirvana frontman who shot himself in the head in April 1994, was intoxicated with a lethal dose of heroin at the time of death.

Suicide is often romanticised in music, and very often lyricised. The likes of My Chemical Romance have glorified suicide to the point where the ’emo’ and grunge genres arrived, becoming renowned for their expressive and often confessional lyrics. Such pop-punk music gave way to subcultures loosely associated with such music, bringing around a certain obsession with the emotionally unstable.

Writing music, or arguably any creative writing, prompts us to connect with our emotional personae; our inner thoughts and feelings. Perhaps that is what predisposes any lyricist, or any form of artist, to some sort of existential crisis. We’ve all had our own fair shot at creating something, perhaps a poem, song or even a piece of free-writing. What if we get it right but what if it’s something we’re not ever able to do again? It’ll be lost forever? The fear of failure and a one hit wonder is something we all recognise.

Honestly, there isn’t a clear answer to this one. Any form of artist will always collect heavy scrutiny for opening their mouth. O’Connor’s inner turmoils have gone long unnoticed, as have her previous attempts to fall at the hands of her own demise. Cobain’s bandmates spoke out against their frontman’s undiagnosed bipolar disorder. Unknown to the public eye, there’s a heck lot more struggle going into artistry than we realise.

So, isn’t it about time you plugged your earphones back in and really thoroughly indulged?

One thing is for sure – the mixed-up artist prototype is here to stay.

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