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Published on November 8th, 2015 | by Alan Cross

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The Ever-Popular Tortured Artist Effect: Mental Illness in Music

The notion of the tortured doomed soul making music is something that goes back centuries. But is this romanticizing of mental illness as a positive creative force a good thing? No. The Guardian takes a look at music-making and the myth of the tortured genius.

From Billie Holiday to Kurt Cobain, Jeff Buckley to Lana Del Rey, we enjoy the music of suffering and sadness, songs that help us through our worst moments – broken relationships, melancholy, mania. Summed up by John Cusack’s indie-sad lad in the film of High Fidelity – “What came first? The music or the misery?” – we espouse the miserable and the hopeless.

However, the musicians behind the songs are often an afterthought. Or if not that, they’re subject to the notion that their depression is a creative spark and their mental illness the driving force behind compelling art. As someone who has suffered from severe depression, the romantic notion of the doomed artist is not all that. You put on weight and then lose it, you sleep too much or too little, and the myriad other symptoms dictate that it’s not the gladiola-swinging, woe-is-me fest it’s talked up to be. But does this connection between art and angst have any foundation?

Research earlier this year linked high childhood IQ to an increased risk of experiencing bipolar traits in later life. “There is something about the genetics underlying the disorder that are advantageous,” said Daniel Smith of the University of Glasgow, who led the study. “One possibility is that serious disorders of mood – such as bipolar disorder – are the price that human beings have had to pay for more adaptive traits such as intelligence, creativity and verbal proficiency.”

Marjorie Wallace, chief executive of Sane, a mental health charity, considers this concept potentially harmful, given that not all cases of bipolar disorder are the same.

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About the Author

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 30+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.


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