No matter how gratifying songwriting can be, making meaningful music and sharing it with the world is often tedious, thankless and discouraging. With that in mind, it’s no wonder so many artists associate emotional pain represented by addiction, depression and other self-destructive habits with songwriting gains. But while it might be tempting to liken the economy of songwriting to a bank where the more misery you put in the greater the songwriting returns, it’s just not true.
The Misery Myth
From modern songwriting greats like Elliott Smith, Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse to legendary musicians active all throughout the 20th century like John Coltrane and Bix Beiderbecke, misery has been associated with musical genius for a long time.
Some of the world’s most influential songwriters have fought and lost battles with addiction and depression on the world stage, so it only makes sense that music fans and songwriters equate self-destruction with songwriting talent and potency. And because the fact that pure, unbridled sadness is something everyone longs to relate to in music has never changed, the misery myth continues to persist and thrive today.
Recognizing the Problem
The fact that lots of phenomenal musicians have tragically succumbed to their own self-destructive behaviors doesn’t mean that misery is an essential ingredient for meaningful songwriting. There’s no telling what sort of music Elliott Smith would be making now if he were still alive today. Misery didn’t enhance his legacy, it ended it.
It’s time to recognize this problem for what it really is. Glamorizing self-destruction is foolish, destructive and completely disrespectful of musicians who’ve died battling their personal demons.
Music fans and songwriters alike have a habit of holding up a few examples of depressed, self-destructive musicians as sacred musical role models while ignoring the overwhelmingly vast majority of artists with the same behaviors who never became successful.
The truth is, things like substance addiction, depression and mental illness make it nearly impossible for musicians to create music. The great songwriters we associate with misery, self-harm and addiction somehow managed to musically thrive in spite of their demons, not because of them.
Rather than imitating and fetishizing self-destruction, if you want to become a great songwriter like Kurt Cobain, songwriters should try defining what it is they really admire about him.
Separating the Music From the Myth
Things like talent, musical intuition and consistent hard work are what make songwriters great.
And while dramatic stories about addiction and suicide often elevate artists to a legendary status, a songwriter’s legacy is built off their music, not their tragedy. Misery will only hurt you as a songwriter and as a functioning human being. If you want to thrive as a musician and writer, you’ll have to learn how to write great music. Using self-harm and destruction as tools to relate and connect with your listeners will only end up making true, impactful music a more difficult and remote goal to achieve.
Creating meaningful music over the long term is almost impossible without taking care of yourself. That’s something that isn’t discussed much in our culture for the simple fact that it’s less dramatic and sexy as the misery myth, but it’s true. It’s absolutely possible to emotionally resonate with listeners while being healthy and centered.
In fact, that’s a position the majority of musicians working today operate from. If every songwriter in the music industry was perpetually high, suicidal and on the brink of death, the world would have much less music. If you want to make meaningful music, misery in all its forms something important to write about, but it alone just isn’t capable of doing the job.
Patrick McGuire is a writer, composer, and experienced touring musician based in Philadelphia.