Whether the example is Ariana Grande’s anxiety bops or Post Malone’s anthems of addiction and paranoia, mental health has become one of the central topics of today’s popular music. But is that really so new? The strangeness of the brain has long been a songwriting muse, and sounds often articulate what’s going on in one’s head better than words can. Folk singers and emo rappers alike have documented the extremes of depression, while an aesthetic of “insanity” has inspired such wild sounds as Pink Floyd’s guitar solos and Nicki Minaj’s cackles.
But the paradigm on the rise today is not simply about feeling mental strain; it’s about mastering it. A month into 2020, two major pop stars have released albums that document distress in carefully controlled fashion, with a sound that squirms in the margins but stomps militarily in the center. On Selena Gomez’s Rare, the former Disney star emerges from years of personal turmoil to coo in the terminology of therapy and self-care. On Halsey’s Manic, the newly ubiquitous radio titan journals through her bipolar disorder with kaleidoscopic, if highly stage-directed, musical diversity.
Since the 2016 release of her album Revival, Gomez has faced very public struggles: treatment for lupus, a hugely scrutinized breakup with her longtime boyfriend Justin Bieber, and a battle with anxiety and depression for which she checked into a psychiatric facility. In recent interviews, she’s talked about feeling better after having shut off social media, taken antidepressants, and discovered dialectical behavioral therapy. Now comes Rare, whose lyrics address mental health mostly in terms of overcoming: “All the trauma’s in remission,” “Me and this spiral are done,” “Put a gold star on my disorder.”
The attention to struggle at all is striking from Gomez, who has a knack for communicating serenity and lightness. Her silken and conversational voice may not be powerful, but savvy producers know how well it can entrance, rather than rev up, a listener. Past singles such as “Come and Get It,” “Bad Liar,” “Good for You,” and “Hands to Myself” were suspenseful seduction routines: You sensed something exciting being contained. For Rare, though, she’s shimmying in post-recovery freedom, and the feeling doesn’t quite rise to the level of joy. As she draws short, elliptical melodies, the songs’ instrumental elements tend to fidget. An ominous bass tone will enter midway through a track, deepening a bridge, and leave. Nothing gets too heady, scary, or ecstatic, though. The thermostat is set to 72; the listening is easy.