“Songs can be incredibly prophetic, like subconscious warnings or messages to myself, but I often don’t know what I’m trying to say till years later. Or a prediction comes true and I couldn’t do anything to stop it, so it seems like a kind of useless magic. As if the song is somehow speaking through me in its own language. And I am a conduit but totally oblivious to its wisdom.”
Music and I share a very complicated relationship. I’ve always loved listening to music just as much as the next person, and the music I listened to growing up definitely helped shape me as a person. But a part of me has also always been afraid of music and what it does to me. With me and music—and with me and a lot of other things—it’s all or nothing. Blast the song as loud as you can or don’t play it at all. Sing along to every word at the top of your lungs or don’t sing it at all—it’s always been the way I’ve enjoyed music the most. But at the same time, music has had a tendency to overstimulate me to the point of me becoming scared of listening to music. Scared of listening to upbeat, catchy songs during the week when it might stick in my head to the point of not being able to sleep at night. Scared of the feeling I get from listening to a song that’s just so good that I immediately begin to wonder how long the feeling will last. I’ve often listened to the same songs on repeat in hopes that it will solve all my problems and make everything okay, to the point where I’ve heard the songs so many times I never want to hear them again. It’s like I hear a song I like and my brain’s immediate reaction is, “Let’s cling to the happy feeling this song gives us because it rids us of uncertainty and listen to nothing but this until we literally hate it.”
It’s only been within the last few years that I’ve really discovered the upsides and downsides to the power that music has over me. In the past, when I was just a student with no other real-life responsibilities, I didn’t listen to music as much because I thought that it was often toxic for me since it had a history of overstimulating me to the point of not being able to sleep at night. Once I tried to let go of those rituals in order to simply allow myself to listen to music whenever I wanted, it was then that I truly discovered the miracle (and sometimes, the curse) of music. When I was younger I would generally only listen to the same few artists and whatever new catchy pop song that I liked on the radio. It was only once I removed the previous limits I had set for myself when listening to music did I really realize that, if you look hard enough, there is a song, album, or an even entire artist for every emotion. Sometimes that forms a connection so strong that you can feel as though the artist is singing about you directly, especially when you are feeling down and that song or album helped you feel better or better understand your emotions.
As a result, throughout my lengthy journey with depression and anxiety over the last few years, a variety of music that was often new to me at the time, since I hadn’t bothered to look into it in the past, became the soundtrack to my struggles. As much as it helped me, it doesn’t mean that it didn’t also have a tendency to plague me, since music does still tend to overstimulate me. I do still tend to cling to certain songs that make me feel a certain way in hopes that I can maintain that feeling forever, to the point of it being unhealthy. But I know my new limits with music much better now, and they are much healthier than they were during a time when I was convinced listening to music was a pleasure I didn’t deserve and my indulgence in listening to music that Tuesday was what made the train late. I know and understand the power that music holds over me much better now, and with that knowledge I can now both know where to draw the line, and also use it to my advantage. That’s where the idea for my playlist of mental health songs came from. Over the course of about two years of forming overly emotional connections and dependencies on certain songs, I decided to turn that into something positive and create almost a scrapbook of feelings, both past and present, in hopes that those feelings through songs may also help somebody else. Looking back, there have been a few albums in particular that I believe have saved me from myself, and I’m sure going forward there will be many more. I also believe that certain things like books, movies, and music have a habit of coming into our lives when we need them most and when we are least expecting them to, so I thought I would share some of those albums in hopes that, again, those feelings through songs may resonate with and help somebody else in need.
Taylor Swift, Red
During the days where I could only allow myself to listen to music that I knew wouldn’t overstimulate me too much, I would turn to slow, mellow, and calming songs—the complete opposite of upbeat earworms. Listening to this kind of music would also often make me feel sad when I thought I wasn’t sad; a warning sign I missed back then. During a period of deep depression, I felt that there was very little music that matched the noise inside my head. When I was feeling down, I didn’t want to hear happy songs because it felt like I was forcing myself to feel something that I was not. Similarly, I didn’t always want to hear sad songs because sometimes it only made me feel worse and I wasn’t ready to confront my feelings. I needed something in the middle. One day I turned to Taylor Swift’s Red album, since I knew it was mostly mellow and calm songs that wouldn’t overstimulate me, and it ended up being everything I needed and more. I didn’t necessarily relate to the lyrics of heartache and breakups, but the level of emotion and confession in the songs—in the vein of confronting how you feel—was exactly what I needed to hear. I listened to the album start to finish, over and over again. It didn’t solve my problems, but it made me feel so much better even if for just a short while.
Shania Twain, Now
I grew up listening to Shania Twain. She was the first artist I ever loved. Listening to her old albums, even with the catchy and upbeat songs, is always calming and therapeutic for me since it brings back such fond memories of being young and singing from the backseat or listening to her Greatest Hits CD on my Discman player. I never would have guessed that I would have been well above legal drinking age by the time I got to hear new Shania Twain music again, when she released her latest album Now in 2017. At first, I wasn’t a huge fan of it. Sure, her vocals have changed and sure, it was never going to be the same as her old stuff. But I didn’t comprehend the number of sad ballads about the breakdown of her marriage, losing her voice, and the ensuing depression she battled. I didn’t understand those emotions because I believed I’d never felt them myself. Flashforward a few months later when I was really going through it with my mental health, and I again needed something else to quiet the voices in my head. After making my way through all of her old albums and the feeling of nostalgia failing to make me feel whole again, I decided to listen to Now another time and it was as if I was hearing it for the first time, since I understood it so much better now. Twain said that she had told the producers of the album to forget and ignore all of her old material, saying she wanted a more “organic approach” and that she was “reflecting on the darkness.” I think it took me going through my own darkness to understand and appreciate the approach she was going for. It made me love and admire Shania Twain so much more than I already did for going through hell and back and still managing to stand up again, keep breathing, and keep going. Now will always have a special place in my heart.
Not to sound too dramatic or anything but I think Rainbow has singlehandedly saved my life on more than one occasion. I wasn’t a huge fan of Kesha back in the days of Ke$ha. I liked the catchy singles, but her music didn’t give me enough to form a long-lasting connection with her as an artist. Of course, we would soon learn there was a reason for that when Kesha filed a still ongoing lawsuit against her former producer, Dr. Luke, in 2014 alleging physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. While a judge denied her motion to be released from her recording contract that obliged her to work with the man she accused of abuse, Kesha was able to finish work on the album she had been working on for several years and managed to release it through her label in 2017. Rainbow chronicles everything from her battles with depression, to not letting the bastards get you down, to learning how to let go. It has been the soundtrack to way too many of my breakdowns and reminds me that if Kesha can get through all that, then I can get through this.
Britney Spears, Glory
During a particular period of high anxiety (and probably my first experience with high anxiety) and depressive episodes, listening to Britney Spears was one of the only things that sparked joy for me, in anything. Her album Glory had just come out a few months before, and a few months before that I had just gotten my driver’s license and it opened up a whole new world of adult responsibilities that I wasn’t emotionally mature enough to handle yet. Listening to Glory whenever I drove made everything seem easier and distracted me from whatever else was going on in my head at that time, too. Nothing about the songs or lyrics on the album have to do with anxiety or mental health necessarily, but listening to the same album over and over again felt familiar and made me feel comforted and rid me of feelings of uncertainty, at least for a little while.
Alessia Cara, The Pains of Growing
This album has also definitely saved my life on a number of occasions. Or not even that it saved my life, just the fact that it came into existence at the very moment I needed it the most always feels so special. I became a big fan of Alessia Cara about a year before The Pains of Growing came out, listening to her first album Know-It-All backwards and forwards. I felt such an instant connection with her music and her as an artist, since her lyrics and her personality just make me feel understood and appreciated, especially in terms of being an anxious introvert. So many times in my life I’ve been told I just have to get over parts of my introverted personality for the sake of living in this world and listening to Alessia Cara reminds me that the world is hard for other people, too. That’s what The Pains of Growing is all about for me. It puts such particular feelings into words that are so often invalidated or not even discussed at all. Growing up is hard! Getting over yourself is hard! Being an adult human being is hard! Being a human is hard! These are all realities everyone seems to know, but it still helps when we say it out loud and treat it like something that can be embraced and celebrated.
Olivia O’Brien, Was It Even Real?
Was It Even Real? might have only come out just over a month ago, but it’s already helped me in profound ways. I discovered Olivia O’Brien last year by chance when one of her music videos popped up in my recommended videos section on YouTube. I was instantly taken aback by the dark but honest tone of her lyrics—another artist who puts particular feelings into words that we often don’t want to say out loud. I listened to her first EP, It’s Not That Deep (which may or may not have ended up being the inspiration for the name of this blog…don’t call any copyright lawyers on me), which led me to form a connection with her as an artist. She’s said in interviews that she has suffered from depression since she was seven years old, and has used songwriting as an outlet for her feelings for as long as she can remember. Was It Even Real?, O’Brien’s full-length debut album, deals with themes of heartbreak, depression, anxiety, bad habits, self-destructive habits, and learning to love yourself—with some catchy bops about boy problems, too. It also just feels real, despite what the title suggests: the truth is, as much as we’re told we need to love ourselves first and let go of all negativity and bad habits and whatever else, we still find ourselves unable to let go because those things are hard. It also celebrates the reality of accepting our bad habits and our depression or anxiety because fighting the feeling often gets you nowhere. From where I stand now with my own mental health, the album has reminded me that all of these things are important, even if they’re hard.
Kacey Musgraves, Golden Hour
For me, Golden Hour was one of those albums that took several listens and some time to grow on me before it took its full effect. I listened to it when it came out last year since it came highly recommended, even though I’m not a huge country person, and I only liked a few songs. This year, after it won Album of the Year at the Grammys, I decided to give it another listen and it took awhile for it to grow on me. Like I said, a lot of the time, certain things come into our lives when we need it most and when we are least expecting it—books, movies, music, and others. I think that sometimes it takes going through a certain experience or suddenly being at the mercy of a certain emotion to appreciate a particular book, movie, or album the way in which it may have been intended. Earlier this year, while working through some things and making some realizations for myself, mental health-wise, I think I finally heard Golden Hour the way in which it was intended. You can tell a wide range of emotions went into this album, and it probably takes feeling a wide range of emotions to understand it the most. In the time since, when I have found myself feeling too much (a.k.a. pretty much all the time), Golden Hour helps bring me back down to earth. It reminds me that I’m holding too tight to my umbrella again, because there’s always been a rainbow hanging over my head.
“If you could see what I see, you’d be blinded by the colors
Yellow, red, and orange and green, and at least a million others
So tie up your bow, take off your coat, and take a look around
‘Cause the sky is finally open, the rain and wind stopped blowin’
But you’re stuck out in the same old storm again
You hold tight to your umbrella, darlin’ I’m just tryin’ to tell ya
That there’s always been a rainbow hangin’ over your head ”
—Kacey Musgraves, “Rainbow”