How to enjoy popular music when popular music isn’t enjoyable

Graphic by Diamond Pham

CW: Mentions of drug use, mental illness, suicide

The release (and immediate popularity) of the mixtape WRLD on Drugs got me thinking: Is everyone around me really as depressed as I think they are?

The week WRLD on Drugs came out, it became impossible to avoid the collab between Juice WRLD and Future. Between Instagram stories, Spotify playlists, and Soundcloud reposts, it felt like everyone was projecting the drugged out melodies of the two popular rap artists.

The truth is that this week was pretty similar to every other week, because lately, it feels like Top 40 songs are all pretty sad. Gone are the days of carefree bumps like “California Girls,” “Just Dance,” or the all-time classic “Baby” by Justin Bieber (feat. Ludacris).

Now, don’t get me wrong, I am quite alright with moving on from the “feat. Ludacris” phase of the 2000s, but what happened to having a good time? Lyrics like “Just dance, it’s gonna be okay, just dance, spin that record, babe” have been replaced by: “You left me falling and landing inside my grave, I know that you want me dead (cough), I take prescriptions to make me feel a-okay.”

The aforementioned lyrics come from the currently third most popular song in America, “Lucid Dreams” by Juice WRLD.

Juice WRLD isn’t the only current artist churning out melancholy music. “ZeZe” by Kodak Black, which was No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart on Oct. 27, features lyrics: “Pop pills, do what you feel, I’m on that zombie.”

Earlier in the year, the number one song in the United States was literally titled “SAD!” and the chorus went: “Suicide, if you ever try to let go, uh, I’m sad and low, yeah, I’m sad I know, yeah.”

Don’t misinterpret this as my rejection of pop culture. Self-expression is more than valid: It is generally the reason behind creating art in the first place. My problem here is with the ingenuine nature of creating “bangers” about serious topics for the world to consume and pay artists before discarding the song (including its lyrics). The media just moves on to the next hot song that crops up a few days later.

Rap used to have a reputation for bringing light to the realities of life (think N.W.A’s social commentary on being black in America), but now it often feels as if lyrics are stated for attention with little to no backing behind the words.

For example, in a Genius Lyric video interviewing rapper Comethazine on his hit song “Bands,” where he raps, “I’m rocking Goyard and Supreme,” he admits in the interview “I don’t actually own any Goyard or Supreme.”

Plenty of rappers lie about their money, but these lies are generally harmless. Talking about mental illness and death, however, may not be as harmless.

The weirdest part, though, is that all of these songs are catchy and, quite honestly, fun. How a song about suicide can be fun is honestly beyond me, but the juxtaposition of extreme emotions in situations where emotions are not meant to be felt deserves attention, which it certainly receives. The shock factor may be the casual nature of dropping lines like these. Songs like “SAD!” are blasted on speakers for kids to party to. Kids are getting wild to songs about wanting to die.

Maybe this interest in the macabre isn’t abnormal, though. Rap has gained popularity on mainstream charts fairly recently, but popular music has had its more emotional moments through the decades.

“How Am I Supposed To Live Without You,” released in 1989, goes: “How am I supposed to live without you, how am I supposed to carry on, when all that I’ve been livin’ for is gone?” This sounds a little bit like “SAD!” without the suicide element.

So, has music just recently gained the shock factor of casual drug use and suicidal intentions?

Popular rap music, maybe. Rock music, on the other hand, has a history of violence linked to its lyrics. One specific case that comes to mind is the teen whose death was linked to their consumption of the Ozzy Osbourne song “Suicide Solution.”

Unlike rap, heavy metal and screamo never topped numbers on American pop charts, although rap songs with similar, heavy themes do today.

But why are these messages appealing to the masses? Surely not everyone is out here popping pills and wishing they were dead. In fact, teen drug abuse is statistically lower than ever, and teen opioid abuse is the lowest it’s been in 10 years.

Hip hop is what people are listening to, and maybe the downbeat message itself isn’t why people are listening. And because hip hop is doing well on the charts, it just happens that the lyrical content of music is leaning more toward topics that have always been popular in the hip hop community.

Referring to drugs in music gives artists “a certain notoriety… and adds to the allure and mystique,” reports Davey D, journalist and San Francisco State adjunct professor.

Moreover, this may be intensified by the difficulties facing musicians who attempt to stop their addictions. Harold Owens, the senior director for MusiCares Musicians Assistance Program, says: “There is a stigma in the hip-hop community about coming clean and discussing [their addictions] in a genre that many feel has helped promote drug use.”

In a scientific study done by the Academy of Finland, analysts reported that: “Anxiety and neuroticism were higher in participants who tended to listen to sad or aggressive music to express negative feelings, particularly in males.”

If the Billboard Hot 100 is chosen by which songs the most people are listening to, then we can conclude Americans are in some serious trouble.

Ella Boyd is a first-year from Maine who attends Scripps College. She traded alpine skiing for writing for the student paper, and enjoys creating art through film, music, and poetry.

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