2008-07-16

Insane Musicians and the Proper Attitude Towards Disease

"Mentally warped". "Completely bonkers". "Insane and weird".

No, they're not insults. They're positive judgements of music, in this case the musical output of hip-hop producer Shondrae "Bangladesh" Crawford. The thing with Bangladesh is, I wouldn't be totally surprised if he actually turned out to be mentally ill somehow. I've looked at some video interviews, and he got this great weirdness about him: slow, deliberate diction, looks away from the camera, half-closed eyes with really long eyelashes.

Probably it's nothing, but if it was, would it matter? If his musical output was indeed a sign of mental illness, should we really be encouraging him by buying his records?

I once listened to a radio documentary about a schizophrenic woman in the sixties who painted pictures as part of her therapy. The reporter told the story of how she'd been moved around through different institutions, how her foresighted therapists had managed to secure funding for the then-controversial painting therapy, about her life and eventual death.

What they deliberately did not talk about was her art. I think that's a fairly sympathetic attitude towards the mentally ill - obviously allow them to express themselves, but don't say positive things about output that, to them, obviously represents their horror and angst at their disease. Don't encourage the disease, encourage their recovery from it.

In that light, the way the record-buying public has treated some mentally ill people is completely shameful. Take depression. For Ian Curtis and Nick Drake, their mental illnesses were ultimately fatal, yet here were people all along their way, encouraging their behaviour, applauding their depressiveness. I would definitely say that the audience of Joy Division especially was complicit in the eventual suicide of Curtis - they should have done everything they could to try to make him not make as depressive music, yet instead they were just standing there, lapping it up.

And what about drug addiction? Only tangentially a mental illness, but how many musicians haven't been encouraged (again often fatally) by the success of their drug-romantic records? DJ Screw made records about taking drugs and people bought into it big-time, and there he was a few years later, dead from a codeine "syrup" overdose. How much haven't people (of all social groups) been celebrating records made under the influence of such horrendous drugs as cocaine, heroin, amphetamines?

It's a shame because the musical output of the mentally ill and drug addicts can often be very good and artistically of a high standard, and certainly gets celebrated a lot in pop culture. Just in the sixties not buying into "diseased records" would have to mean, among other things, not buying most records produced by Phil Spector. And probably also not buying Pet Sounds. But could it be worth it if we were actually saving lives?

For my part, I certainly hope Bangladesh's "insane beats" are not, per se, the output of a mentally ill person. If they were, I'm not sure I could quite look at them the same way again.

7 comments:

Mike said...

I think that art of whatever form is an expression of the human experience. The reason people found value in Ian Curtis' work with Joy Division wasn't because they wanted him to die, but because they related to what he was feeling.

The fans weren't demanding more depressive songs, they either found that they were helped by feeling less alone, and the knowledge they weren't the only ones feeling like that, or they just liked the music. I think blaming fans for a musicians death is incredibly unfair. If even those close to him didn't think he was suicidal or couldn't help him how could a fan?

I absolutely agree that we shouldn't encourage mental illness as a means to produce art, but being able to see through art what people are going through by their art, is really valuable.

Birdseed said...

I think you're underestimating peer pressure. If your popularity is based on a certain way of acting (because people are "relating to what you're feeling", maybe) then changing your behaviour is not an easy thing to do. Criminals and drug addicts who try to clean up their acts often report that the most difficult thing is that their social circles and their networks of affirmation are encouraging them to fall back into bad behaviour, and I think that's probably true of these musicians as well.

As a thought experiment, imagine Ian Curtis going on to write disco lyrics about happy dancing and readily available sex. Do you think people would still buy into it?

D.D:. said...

Slow diction and half-closed eyes sounds like the result of syrup sipping. Maýbe now, having made this years most popular beat (A milli), he can step up the drug game and afford some coke?

Birdseed said...

I don't know the relative price of crack vs. syrup on the street, can anyone enlighten me?

quan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
quan said...

Isn't syrup popular precisely for being hella cheap? Or am I thinking about "tippin on 4-4's"?

Yeah, I feel pretty crap for listening to artists like Amy Winehouse. But it's hard to resist human nature. Sinners are ultimately more entertaining than saints. I think it's cool in music because music can be that type of diary thing and you might exaggerate in music or otherwise open up real deep without actually being that depressed relative to the average. But when you start to see the depression/illness in real life too, or on TMZ, I agree someone's gotta step in.

edit: Finally checked the links. Thanks

Gavin said...

The mentally ill as more authentic goes back to the romantics I think (probably can find the origins of the bohemian artistic drug addict there too). I don't know if people like artists like Curtis and Screw because of their mental illness or drug addictions, but I'll agree that those things tend to come front and center in the critical discourse, which is unfortunate. But there has to be something in the music to make people want to talk about it in the first place.