Monday, 7 April 2014

What came first, the music or the misery?

High Fidelity Screenprint by Barry D Bulsara

"What came first, the music or the misery?  People worry about kids playing with guns, or watching violent videos, that some sort of culture of violence will take them over. Nobody worries about kids listening to thousands, literally thousands of songs about heartbreak, rejection, pain, misery and loss. Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?" 
(High Fidelity by Nick Hornby)

I didn't have what it takes to be a happy teenager.  Too many strikes - bullied, weird, clever, queer - against me.  So it wasn't that I was miserable because I listened to miserable music, not exactly.  I hadn't been all that happy before I discovered Hole, Nirvana, the Manic Street Preachers, but once I did start listening to them, it brought my own unhappiness into sharper focus. I could see my own misery reflected back to me in the lyrics of the songs and the actions of the musicians, both validating my feelings and - this is the crux - exacerbating them. The music normalised my misery and I've always wondered: did it contribute to what came next?

"I'm a creep/I'm a weirdo/What the hell am I doing here?/I don't belong here."
Radiohead, Creep (1992)

Bradford in the mid-90s was not the greatest place anyway, but if you had a southern accent that eight years of living in Yorkshire hadn't softened, a habit of coming top of the class in every subject, and "a shyness that was criminally vulgar", then it was not just dull, it was hell.  By the time I was 15, I'd worked out that I was never going to belong there and so maybe I could stop trying so hard.  I cut my hair, dyed it and started wearing the clothes I wanted to wear.  I began listening to the music I was interested in - grunge, indie, Riot Grrrl - rather than the house music that was de rigueur amongst my peers.  I quickly found that there was a comfort to be had in not just not fitting in but being declarative and open about my otherness.  I'd always been called weird, but embracing the weirdness meant it didn't hurt as much when they said it. 
"Scratch my leg with a rusty nail, sadly it heals/Colour my hair but the dye grows out/I can't seem to stay a fixed ideal."
Manic Street Preachers, Die In The Summertime (1994)

Somehow, the year I started A Levels, being weird on my own morphed into being weird with two best friends.  But rather than cheer me up and enhance my life, we plunged into one of those intense, crazed teenage girl friendships that thrive on drama and pain.  We wallowed in our misery, revelled in it. We aped the fashions of our outsider heroes, so why not ape their angst too? From Richey we learnt that to cut was divine, each slice into our flesh a rebellion against... what?  Oh we all had our own reasons to be unhappy, that's true, but the first cuts weren't made in sadness but in a twisted sort of hero-worship, egging each other on almost competitively.  And of course, once you've done it, the addiction kicks in.  A need for the adrenaline rush and the release and the sweet sweet feeling that this, this was something more real than life in a Northern town that they forgot to close down.
"Since I was born I started to decay/Now nothing ever ever goes my way"
Placebo, Teenage Angst (1996)

Alone in my bedroom, walls plastered with posters of suicidal rock stars, I would mull over the pointlessness of life and the terrible inevitability of death.  I would listen to The Smiths and the Manics, read Sylvia Plath poetry, pick at the scabs on my arms and write tortured 'zine articles.  I thought I was being 'deep' when really I was a total cliche.  I sunk into my depression and began a cycle of medication and therapy that was to go on for years. 

"So you go and you stand on your own/And you leave on your own/And you go home and you cry and you want to die."
The Smiths, How Soon Is Now (1984)

In 1996 I left for university.  If my depression at home had been somewhat brought upon myself, an experience that I almost treasured, the misery that came upon me when I moved was something else entirely.  A black wall, insurmountable.  Now that I didn't have buddies with whom to be sad, I did the unthinkable and went out on my own, reaching out blindly to find a human connection.  And I would, quite literally, go to clubs and stand on my own and leave on my own.  I would go home and cry and want to die.  I made an entirely half-hearted attempt at suicide on one such night, not so much a cry for help as a stupid drunken attempt to just feel something.  I felt a twat the next day, sitting in the dining hall with my pathetically bandaged wrist.

"For once in my life/Let me get what I want/Lord knows it would be the first time."
The Smiths, Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want (1984)

Do I think the music was to blame for my depression?  No.  A few years later I was listening to Destiny's Child and Dr Dre and I was still depressed.  An unhappy time at school as a young teenager and the fucked up biochemistry of my brain is what made me depressed.  But Laura Barcella wrote a great article on xojane recently about how The Smiths screwed her up and I do think there's something in the notion that, as impressionable youths, we took more from those songs than we should have.  That they normalised our alientation and made it seem glamorous and cool, something to aspire to.

"I'm a survivor/I'm gonna make it/I will survive/Keep on surviving."
Destiny's Child, Survivor (2001)

I'm fine now.  I get sad of course, everyone does, and occassionally I feel the black cloud hovering but I'm usually quick to get through it.  I still can't listen to a lot of music from those early days of my depression, though.  Parts of the Manics' The Holy Bible album will be forever off limits.  Olympian by Gene can still move me to tears.

When I look at the teenage girls that I teach, heavy eyeliner and long sleeves in summer, listening to My Chemical Romance and the Pretty Reckless, hanging out with other unhappy girls, I want to tell them that it does get better.  I want to tell them not to take the song lyrics as gospel.  That there's no glamour in depression, no matter what their rock star heroes seem to suggest.  That, for most of us, we come out the other side and survive.  But they'd think (with my own long sleeves in summer, all trace of teenage angst hidden), what do I know about misery?


  1. My turn to think you've taken the thoughts right out of my head and made them more eloquent. I always found it soothing to have a soundtrack to my teenage misery and my friend and I egged each other on because it was kind of cool to be/seem depressed, but smalltown life as a clever girl from Elsewhere was always going to be tough.

    1. Ha, maybe we are taking it in turns?!

  2. Great post! I think growing up and becoming an adult is such a tough time that listening to songs like these does actually help, to make you feel like you're not alone. Nirvana and Radiohead were the ones I listened to when feeling that way amongst others.. *Runs off to listen to Teenage Angst again*

    1. It made me smile that we ended up chatting about Britpop and Nirvana and Placebo on Saturday, because of course I'd been thinking about them a lot lately as I put this together. And now 6Music are having a week of Britpop stuff, which is really taking me back!

    2. Its taking me back too! Great post Janet x

  3. Apologies for the vulgarity but, fuck, this post is brilliant. I actually misread it at first and thought that each section was a quote - that's how wonderfully written it is. I think that the misery 'learned' (for want of a better word) from music is now exacerbated by the availability of misery on social media, or the possibility of misery arising from other people's extreme happiness (again through social media). Anyway, I'm pinning this post because I loved it.

    1. Thank you for your lovely comment! I agree entirely about social media - of course it can be very supportive when you feel lonely, depressed, etc. But I also see the flipside of it in the kids I teach, who send snapchats of their cuts to each other or who become terribly isolated due to bullying on Facebook. At least when I was at school, home was a sanctuary from the bullies. Today's young people have no such safe space.

  4. Wow, Janet, this is an amazing article! Does make me feel appreciative that I was so happy as a teen/young adult!x