Bus, Plane, No Sleep, Club, Another Club, Anxiety, Paparazzi, Concert, No Sleep, Photoshoot, Depression, Body Dysmorphia, Concert Bombing, Album release, Bi-polar disorder, broken marriage, Award Show, next place, trauma, another concert. We’ve all seen the headlines.
Demi Lovato suffered an overdose after years of sobriety. Lady Gaga has PTSD. Katy Perry chopped her hair off yearning to be just Katy Hudson again. Ariana Grande shared a catscan of the trauma in her brain compared to a healthy one. Julia Michaels and Selena Gomez put out a song called “Anxiety.” Britney Spears checked into a mental treatment facility last year.
What does it mean to be a public figure in the music industry dealing with mental health? How do you handle the pressures of fame and managing your career while also navigating your own experiences with Depression, Anxiety, and so much more. Before we dive in any deeper, we need to acknowledge there are a lot of layers here. There is of course a component of how the media projects a sense of perfection onto popstars. If you are a popstar, you are automatically obligated to adhere to an unspoken set of unrealistic expectations and standards. You have to be a role model, somewhat modest, sexual enough for the men to fantasize about you, but edgy enough for the women to admire you. Then of course, we need to think about how society draws lines in how we view and react to physical health compared to mental health. Think about how Selena Gomez undergoing surgery during battle with Lupus was reported compared to Justin Bieber taking solitary strolls in a park. Then, we get to the modern social media savvy popstar, many of whom have become unapologetically forthcoming and authentic in how they present themselves and their personal struggles with mental health. Finally, you have the evolution of how fans and the general public consumes all of this along with the music to get a comprehensive product by their fav. Our expectations for what makes a popstar genuine and relatable versus a snake are changing. But we need to ask ourselves, how does a popstar’s truth about their mental health impact how we perceive them? Does it help or hurt their Brand? And at the end of the day, is it any of our business?
While, as a society, we should always be striving for empathy, compassion, and kindness – mental illness remains a taboo. We have come a long way in the last several years and we are seeing more and more work being done to end the stigma around mental health. 1 in 5 Adults have a mental health condition. Youth Mental Health is worsening, with 76% of youth left with no or insufficient treatment. More than 56% of adults with mental illness don’t receive treatment. However, celebrities and popstars have the benefit of getting a platform to address some of these things using their visibility. As more public figures come forward with their stories and personal battles, more people are finding comfort in realizing they are not alone. Just like with menstruation, sexual assault, racism, homophobia and many other “taboo” subjects, we are starting to see emerging dialogue to help discuss and educate to make progress in removing stigma from mental health related issues.
Over the last two decades we have witnessed an evolution in pop music. I can remember a time when a popstar was supposed to embody perfection. The girl next door type with not a single hair out of place and a smile plastered on their face – oh, and they can also do full choreographed dance routines, meet and greets, world tours, and fragrances. That archetype of a popstar started to change with the introduction of social media. No longer was the only access to a popstar a well-rehearsed TV performance or edited interview. Suddenly, you could see what your fav had for lunch, who they are hanging out with, and what they look like with no make-up. This is where things got a little more personal. But this is also where we started to see that veneer of pop perfection crack and reveal the humanity behind pop diva personas. We, are consumers of pop music, can get so caught up in the glitz and glamour of it all, it’s hard to wrap our heads around even the most unlikely of divas struggling with mental health.
Mother Monster, Lady Gaga, might be known for her pop bangers and over the top fashion. But she has also been fighting for women’s rights, the LGBT, and one of the leaders in the fight to end stigma around Mental Health. She has been incredibly outspoken about her own struggles with PTSD and trauma. During the the SAG AFTRA Awards in 2018, Lady Gaga had some powerful words to share with the audience:
“When I speak about mental health, especially when I’m speaking about mine, it is often met with quietness. Or maybe, a somber line of fans, waiting outside to whisper to me in the shadows about their darkest secrets. We need to bring mental health into the light.”
This was one of many occasions where Gaga has used her platform to start a dialogue around Mental Health and the stigma surrounding the subject. It’s something that has definitely resonated with her Little Monsters and ultimately, it’s a bond Gaga shares with her fans that transcends the music she makes. It’s not just about bopping to the “Bad Romance” singers edgy pop records. There seems to be a feeling of comfort, security, and empathy that Gaga shares with her fans. What’s more impressive is the fact that this isn’t something that she stopped doing after she wrapped up the “Born this Way” era.
Whether she’s sitting down with Prince William, or accepting an award for her music or acting work, she constantly uses her platform to talk about those suffering with mental health issues and shedding light on how we need to come together and make a difference. Gaga founded the Born This Way Foundation and with the help of her mother, there are always initiatives in motion to make a difference in the community. “The time has come for us all, collectively, to tackle the causes and symptoms of mental illness, and provide care for those who suffer from it,” she declares in a piece she had published on the Guardian.
Anxiety, depression, and stress getting you down? Well Ariana suggests that we “just keep breathin, and breathin, and breathin.” Issa bop and issa a relatable anthem for music listeners all over the world. Ariana Grande is another example of a popstar diva, who has been very transparent about her mental health. We have seen the “7 rings” singer whipping that luscious ponytail around and commanding the stage with such a fierce presence. You would never suspect that she gets stage fright, that she worries about looking awkward while doing choreography, and that she struggles with anxiety like millions of people around the world. In the span of the last 2 years she has also had to deal with a terrorist attack, the death of an ex, and the dissolution of wedding. Despite these very difficult hardships, Ariana has kept a forward momentum in her career.
Ariana’s got a major support system in her friends, family, and dedicated fanbase. She uses music as therapy and a creative expression to process her trauma – and Ariana Grande is the queen of Social Media. With hundreds of millions of followers on Instagram and Twitter, she has candidly shared her journey with managing her mental health. Fans have questioned how Ari is managing it all and she has been an open book about her entire journey. When asked about therapy, she had this to say to a fan:
lmaoaoo this is funny as f**k but in all honesty therapy has saved my life so many times. if you’re afraid to ask for help, don’t be. u don’t have to be in constant pain & u can process trauma. i’ve got a lot of work to do but it’s a start to even be aware that it’s possible. ?
She also talked about it in interviews. She’s done hour long interviews on the Zach Song show where she talked about her struggles with anxiety and depression and how she channeled that into her records. She has done some interviews with major publications too where she candidly talked said, “When I got home from tour, I had really wild dizzy spells, this feeling like I couldn’t breathe,” she told ELLE magazine during an interview after wrapping the Dangerous Woman tour, “I would be in a good mood, fine and happy, and they would hit me out of nowhere. I’ve always had anxiety, but it had never been physical before. There were a couple of months straight where I felt so upside down.”
Strangely, success does seem to be tied to artists who can be incredibly transparent with their struggles with mental health. Following some of Ariana’s major incidents, she has gone on to release Sweetener and Thank U, Next. Two very personal albums that were passion projects that organically came together while she was trying to find a way to heal. She’s put out songs like: No Tears Left to Cry, Get Well Soon, Breathin, Ghostin’ and Thank U Next, which touch on Ari’s struggles with depression, anxiety, and loss in an incredibly raw fashion. This vulnerability seems to have translated into chart success for the popstar, who seemed just as surprised but relieved when she discussed this on the Zach Song Show.
Similar parallels can be made to when Britney Spears went through her very public breakdown in 2007. While the tabloids watched her every move, she somehow managed to make time to get into the studio and release what is still considered to be one of her greatest record, Blackout. And while the Blackout era did not get the video treatment and proper single promotion that it deserved, it is interesting to note, when she made her infamous “comeback” from the breakdown, she landed a #1 hit with Womanizer.
What does this say about us as a society? As much as trauma and mental struggles are a taboo to discuss openly, there seems to be a strange fascination with these very public figures who open up about it and let us in. Perhaps some part of it resonates with the masses, that part that makes these pop deities human and relatable. Or perhaps subconsciously there is a more sinister driver here – the public’s desire to watch someone so candidly dealing with mental health issues, fail. Regardless of the reasoning, one thing is for sure. How we look at popstars is evolving and there is almost an odd sense of entitlement to have full access to celebrities and their struggles. While, I applaud artists like Ariana for being for forthcoming, it’s also absolutely her prerogative to not share any details about her personal state of mind with millions of people.
But at the end of the day, what do you want from your popstars? Just some bops and a picture perfect persona? Or does it help to see our pop divas advocating for mental health and showing those struggling with these issues all over the world that they share a commonality.
By Mohammad Mumtaz