Music Can’t Be Everything: James Blake and the Myth of the Suffering GeniusAugust 7, 2018
By Lucy Myers
CW: Mental health, depression, anxiety
This article discusses mental health issues such as depression and anxiety. If you are struggling with these issues, please know that you can contact Beyond Blue for help here.
“Yes, James Blake is still sad.”
The subtitle for Pitchfork’s review of James Blake’s new single ‘Don’t Miss It’ is pretty straight -to-the-point. Blake is commonly seen to occupy a very certain space within the music industry—the tortured genius who cries his music into existence. “I could ignore my busy mind / I could avoid contact with eyes,” Blake sings, a slight metallic effect on his voice while the piano plays gently in the background, as he lists all the things he could potentially do if anxiety kept its grip on his life before reaching the realisation of the song—that he’d miss it. By reducing Blake’s confession to being “sad”, Pitchfork largely ignores the point of the song,as it ultimately becomes about managing and living with his anxiety, and the things he can now experience without fear.
Then, Pitchfork reported on Blake’s comments about his experiences with depression and anxiety during touring his first two albums at a symposium for the Performing Arts Medical Association, quoting that he had experienced an “existential depression” each day during the tour. Blake’s mental health is ultimately summed up to being the strange life of touring, of only being “surface level” interactions with other people. What Pitchfork don’t quote from the source article from Billboard, however, is crucial.
“There is this myth that you have to be anxious to be creative, that you have to be depressed to be a genius,” he said during the panel. “I can truly say that anxiety has never helped me create. And I’ve watched it destroy my friends’ creative process too.”
This quote does what Pitchfork doesn’t and ultimately ignores—it connects the music industry to its destructive processes that ultimately destroy the artist. Blake’s depression and anxiety are ultimately reduced to being an anomaly by Pitchfork, as he remains the sadness in an otherwise appearingly positive industry. His music is seen largely as that, with The Colour of Anything being described as “a scrapbook of confessions of sincere emotion”. The feeling of isolation is a key theme that runs through the album, with how that weight of mental illnesses creates a barrier between himself and the rest of the world most explicitly mentioned in Put That Away and Talk to Me, (“I’m not livin’ here, I’m not livin’ here anymore”). In fact, the album’s finisher, ‘Meet Me In The Maze’, ends with the daunting but beautiful “music can’t be everything”, in direct contrast to how Pitchfork—and the industry as a whole—posit the role of the artist. In his newer releases, ‘If The Car Beside You Moves Ahead’ and ‘Don’t Miss It’, Blake is reminding himself and his audience that recovery is slow and jarring (“even though it feels as though you’re dead, you’re not going, you’re not going backwards backwards”), but it ultimately has its reliefs (“when that dull pain goes away”).
The Pitchfork reviews ends with “Maybe he needs a night out”, implying that Blake’s emotional state is temporary, and that it is something that needs to be fixed in order for him to make ‘better’ or more marketable music. Blake turns that on its head in the panel; it’s the excessive touring, it’s this belief that the high pressure conditions of the music industry are for the artist’s benefit, that this is what creates the mental strain that leads to depression and anxiety. Blake, earlier than this year and consistently, has fought against the ‘sad boy’ image, arguing that his music acts as a form of communication of his emotions, and by limiting that communication to being just him crying on stage reduces the legitimacy of his emotions and says that he ultimately shouldn’t feel them. Ultimately, what the article is implying by saying that that James Blake’s “mopiness of it all is starting to feel cloistered” is that his emotions, created by the industry he exists in, have had its time in the sun—and it’s time for him to get over it and for him to simply stop being “mopey”.
But Blake isn’t the only artist that has spoken about the mental pressures of the music industry, and definitely not the only artist that has been affected by them. The truth is that at least one of your favourite artists has probably talked to some length about how the pressures of the industry have taken their toll on them. The incredibly high profile death of Avicii earlier this year came after his candid detailing of the pressures of constant touring had on his mental health and the subsequent substance abuse and health problems, bringing to light (only temporarily) the demands the industry places on artists. I can remember Sky Ferreira’s detailing the sustained difficulties of creating, releasing and touring an album – especially which the pressure coming from a label that seemingly doesn’t care about her mental health. Furthermore, Oliver Sim from The xx has described how alcoholism and a party culture created by the pressures of touring tested his relationship with his bandmates to the point of almost breaking. Even Flume describing the anxiety that came with the pressure of his self-titled album and how that ultimately hindered his creative process while creating Skin. When so many artists begin to describe the conditions of their industry as toxic and ultimately detrimental to their health, questions have to be asked and the industry’s processes should be scrutinised.
Ultimately, the industry creates the conditions and then forces the artists to bend to it, exploiting their labour in order to create money for the industry itself, and not for them. By describing Blake’s music—what is rather explicitly a description of anxiety—as “mopey”, it limits and confines the experience to Blake reacting inappropriately to the industry, as opposed to the industry taking advantage of Blake. There’s a disconnect between describing Blake’s account of his experiences with mental illness, and what they expect his art to be. If their art is profitable, then therefore the drain it has on Blake, Flume, Ferreira or Sim, or that it did on Avicii, is seen as a personal fault of their own. That’s not how mental illness works, and by exploiting the anxiety—by expecting it to create work and then blaming the artist when they don’t—it ultimately exploitates the artist once again. By saying James Blake is “still sad”, ultimately Pitchfork have once again ignored the conditions of the industry they write about, and are blaming the artist for being exploited by the industry. It shouldn’t have to be said: Blake’s mental health—as with any creative artist, or anyone at all—is paramount to their industry. If an industry is detrimental to it, then the change needs to come from within the industry, and the processes need to change to protect and cater to the artists that create the music we listen to. The ‘suffering genius’ myth ultimately just perpetuates a culture that breeds mental illness and cuts artists, both established and emerging, off from accessing help and support, and then blames and isolates the artist for their own emotions.
Blake said it best: “music can’t be everything.”