mental health, music
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What Taylor Swift, BTS, and Stromae Can Teach Us About Mental Health

Taylor Swift, BTS, and Stromae are at the frontlines of de-stigmatizing mental health challenges as something so relatable that they can make a hit song about it. 

It almost seems that for as long as humans have defined themselves as “artists”, artists have been trying to capture their struggles with mental health—and for good reason: there seems to be a privileged link between the two (cue the notion of the “tortured artist” or “mad genius”, which have also been proven empirically time and again—see Acar and Greenwood). Spanish painter Francisco Goya famously captured despair using color and light in his “black paintings”. American author David Foster Wallace explicitly likened depression to a “great white shark” in his best-known literary masterpiece, Infinite Jest (1996). German polymath Johann Wolfgang Goethe depicted suicidality in his 1774 novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther, which elicited such a contagious effect on his readers that it led to the so-called “Werther Effect”. 

When it comes to music, in particular, there seem to be entire genres dedicated to expressing sorrow and mental suffering. Different as they may be, the blues and heavy metal come to mind. But times are changing: When scientists recently analyzed the themes of Billboard top 100 songs across the US and Latin America over two decades, they found that songs across genres—not just R&B and metal, but also hip-hop, pop, country, and rock—have gotten more negative, by a whopping 180%. 

Much ink has been proverbially spilled over recent years about how music affects the listener’s mental state. During the last mid-century, overzealous parents wrung their hands over what they believed to be the “devil’s music” (rock n’ roll). Science frequently follows public obsession, so not surprisingly, an enormous body of research has also been dedicated to the psychological effects of listening to songs.

However, as any empiricist can tell you, science is more difficult than it looks; drawing a single conclusion from an expansive and occasionally contradictory list of studies is hard to do. Some studies show that, as you may have suspected, sad songs do indeed make listeners feel sad. Still, plenty of studies have supported using music as therapy. Many others have tried to show, with varying levels of success, that music can help with everything from sleep problems to encouraging exercise to coping with dementia.

Still, regardless of what the science says about music, the truth of the matter is that virtually no one is a fan of all music; most people want to know the specifics. Who are they listening to, and what’s the song? If you’re a lyric-phile like me, one phenomenon you may have noticed in recent years is that now, possibly more than ever, musicians are singing about mental health. 

Take, for example, American songstress Taylor Swift, Korean boy band BTS, and Belgian international rap sensation Stromae. These three global superstars may hail from parts of the world vastly distant from one another, sing in divergent languages, dabble in different genres, and attract distinct fanbases, and yet have one thing in common: they’ve all sung at length about their own mental health challenges.

Taylor Swift’s “Anti-Hero” is essentially a case study of body dysmorphia. Regardless of whether you self-identify as a Swiftie, I suspect that the general consensus we can all agree on is that the Grammy darling is conventionally attractive and dwells in what can universally be deemed a thin body. And yet she sings, “Sometimes I feel like everybody is a sexy baby/ And I’m a monster on the hill. Too big to hang out, slowly lurching toward your favorite city.” In the following verse, she even throws in a textbook psychological term—in this case, a personality disorder—when she asks, “Did you hear my covert narcissism I disguise as altruism?”

Apparently, Swift is not only incredibly good at winning Album of the Year; she is also highly adept at psychoanalyzing her own mental health, or at least the mental health of her doppelgänger in this song. Maybe she has been to therapy and done her homework. Maybe she reads about psychology while not releasing record-breaking albums or going on tour. Either way, she seems to be part of a new era of musicians at the frontlines of de-stigmatizing mental health challenges not as something bizarre or unusual but rather so ordinary and relatable that they make a hit song about it. 

She isn’t the only one. Swifties and Armies may be rumored to be rivals, but one thing the two most popular pop acts beloved the world over share is the vulnerable and poignant ways they’ve both discussed their emotional struggles. BTS members have long spoken about their struggles with anxiety, self-harm, and self-love ever since their debut a decade ago, well before these issues were mainstream.

In their 2014 debut album, Skool Luv Affair, Suga starts the first verse of the “Intro” by rapping explicitly about having an eating disorder and the endless cycle of eating but feeling hungry. In their 2020 album, Map of the Soul, Jung Kook and Jimin sing in “Zero O’Clock” about the symptoms that sound strikingly like depression—days of being sad for no apparent reason and feeling lethargic—“those days where your body is heavy…my feet won’t set off” (English translation).

Even in the members’ solo projects, these mental health themes persist. Jin’s “Abyss” grapples with similar feelings of depression and anxiety. Suga’s “Amygdala” is literally titled after the brain’s fear center; in its chorus, he heartbreakingly begs to be saved from it. BTS goes one step further by advocating self-love as a potential answer to these challenges: not only do they have a song by that name (“Love Yourself: Answer”), but they also went on a global campaign with UNICEF to foster self-esteem and curb violence against children and teens. 

Stromae also did a PSA—albeit via a very distinctive form—during the release of his latest album. Previously, he had walked away from music for almost a decade after becoming the most famous international rapper in the world, and he made a comeback recently with a hit single about depression, “L’enfer”. In a televised interview promoting the album, when the newscaster asked him about his mental health struggles in the past, he broke into that very song; the lyrics seemed to answer the question as he spoke of having considered suicide a few times but not being proud of it. In his case, though, he admits to being agnostic about the solution: in the final verse, he sang, “You know, I’ve pondered the issue/ And I really don’t know what to do with you” (English translation). 

Stromae might confess that he doesn’t know what to do with his thoughts, but as fans the world over have attested, he may not have to. Sometimes, just singing about one’s struggles with mental health is enough. After all, it doesn’t take an enormous amount of online searches to find someone who can testify that the music of Taylor Swift, BTS, Stromae, or another equally talented musician has saved them—literally, metaphorically, or otherwise.

Goethe, Wallace, and Goya intuited this with their own efforts to corral their mental turmoil into something not just digestible but beautiful. These days, the most popular musicians in the world are doing the same, suggesting that then and now, the goal of art might be salvation, one way or another. 

Works Cited

Acar, S., Tadik, H., Myers, D., Van der Sman, C., & Uysal, R. “Creativity and well‐being: A meta‐analysis. The Journal of Creative Behavior55. June 2021.

Baker, Felicity A., et al. “Clinical effectiveness of music interventions for dementia and depression in elderly care (MIDDEL): Australian cohort of an international pragmatic cluster-randomised controlled trial.” The Lancet Healthy Longevity: 3.31. 1 March 2022.

Cipriani, Gabriele, et al. “Art is long, life is short. Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes (1746–1828), the suffering artist”. Medical Hypotheses: 117. August 2018.

Coelho, Eduarda Maria Castro, et al. “Exercise with music: An innovative approach to increase cognition and reduce depression in institutionalized elderly.” Rev Psicol Deporte 29 (2020): 49-56.

Garrido, Sandra, and Emery Schubert. “Music and people with tendencies to depression.” Music Perception: An Interdisciplinary Journal 32.4 (2015): 313-321.

Greenwood, Tiffany A. “Creativity and bipolar disorder: A shared genetic  vulnerability.” Annual Review of Clinical Psychology 16 (2020): 239-264.

Kwon, Lois, et al. “Trends in positive, negative, and neutral themes of popular music from 1998 to 2018: observational study.” JMIR pediatrics and parenting 4.2 (2021): e26475.

Leubner, D., & Hinterberger, T. (2017). Reviewing the effectiveness of music  interventions in treating depression. Frontiers in psychology8, 1109.

Lund, Helle Nystrup, et al. “Music to improve sleep quality in adults with depression-related insomnia (MUSTAFI): study protocol for a randomized controlled trial.” Trials 21.1 (2020): 1-10.

Mestas, Manina. “The ‘Werther Effect’ of Goethe’s Werther: Anecdotal Evidence in Historical News Reports.” Health communication (2023): 1-6.

Wallace, David Foster. Infinite Jest. Hachette. February 1996.