I was listening to “Today’s Top Hits” on The Bad Music App yesterday, because I am such a serious music aficionado that I mostly just let media corporations tell me what songs are good now, and this began to play in my ear as I washed the dishes:
Numb Little Bug is your standard pop power ballad, but I’m a sucker for a girl on a piano (Gen Z’s less-weird Regina Spektor?) and I’m fascinated by the ways that mental health discourse and society’s affect get filtered through our popular music.
How does a mass appeal song reflect our shared emotions back to us? What does it say about our society that a song about feeling “like you’re not really happy but you don’t wanna die / like you’re hanging by a thread but you gotta survive” has 46 million plays on Spotify?
Em Beihold is one of those artists who got big by going viral on TikTok, which is apparently (sadly, tragically) the new path to a music career, and she’s not the only artist I’ve seen making popular songs explicitly about mental health and medications — it’s been a trend for a while now.
Ariana Grande had Breathin, Lil Uzi Vert had XO Tour Llif3, and Joyner Lucas put out an entire concept album about ADHD in 2020.
Numb Little Bug surprised me though, because the message feels a bit more socially critical than your generic it’s-okay-not-to-be-okay stuff that inundates me on social media, and that gives me hope.
She’s skeptical about her meds (I don't feel a single thing / Have the pills done too much), says the world feels so big that it might break her, laments the psychic pain of having to pretend you care about bullshit when you don’t (*cough* capitalism), and yearns to connect:
I just wanna see / if you feel the same as me.
Musicians taught me how to understand my feelings. Before I had any psychiatric language or labels, I had songs and lyrics. There are albums that I literally credit with my survival, music that I leaned on in times when I had nothing else. I still think musicians understand and describe my experiences better than medical professionals ever could.
It’s also a lifeline for those of us who get psychiatrized. Lucas wrote in an Instagram post that being diagnosed with ADHD as a kid was an othering experience for him, and that music was the only way he could be heard:
“Creating music was and always has been my only therapy. It’s the only way I ever knew how to express myself. I was tired of being cut off every time i spoke or had a opinion.. I figured if I made music then you would have no choice but to listen to me and hear me out.”
Art gives us a depth that psychiatry can’t, and a shared emotional language that doesn’t require any training to understand.
We could say Beihold is singing about dissociation (Like your body's in the room but you're not really there) or depression (Like you have empathy inside but you don't really care) but I think those diagnostic words suck all the meaning out.
There aren’t really any medical words that can encompass what it feels like to listen to a song and connect with its emotion. That’s inexplicable, and it’s a sort of magic when words and numbers fail us.
The emerging field of neuroaesthetics is trying to quantify the creative encounter, but does knowing that it’s your medial orbital frontal cortex lighting up when you perceive something beautiful really tell you anything about what you’re experiencing?
We could scan Lucas and Beihold’s brains while they perform and take a picture of their bloodflow, but listening to their work will still tell you ten times more about their experiences than an fMRI.
I used to be one of those indie music snobs who cringed at pop music, but I’ve since realized that mass media is important. Listening to what’s popular tells us about the collective affect of a society, the things we’re all feeling together. I also used to be one of those rationalists that preferred logic over feeling, but the artist in me has since realized that neuroscience will never be enough.
This song about being a little bit tired of sinking / tryna stay afloat is resonating with the masses for a reason, and it’s not just because it happens to light up our frontal cortex. It’s because we’re all little bugs trapped in the same machine, suffering in the same ways, yearning to know we’re not alone in it.
so true! music saved me multiple times when psychiatry failed at doing what it promised. i had never heard of Em Beihold, she reminds me of, yes, Regina, but also Kate Nash, which i had kinda forgotten about
Ooh I love this too. Echoing mariam -- this made me think of the song Group Therapy by Elohim. Makes me want to curate a playlist ...