Grammys 2018: how this year's nominees tackled the issue of mental health

Nearly all of the major awards up for grabs contain songs that are frank in their discussion of mental health, depression and anxiety

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 09:  Kesha performs in concert during the Rainbow tour at Hammerstein Ballroom on October 9, 2017 in New York City.  (Photo by Noam Galai/Getty Images)
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Modern popular music is moving away from sheer escapism. Increasingly we find a growing batch of both young and established acts tackling difficult topics, and arguably none is more relevant than mental health.

While the 60th Annual Grammy Awards ceremony on Sunday night (United States time) has already been hailed as a game changer due to the prevalence of hip-hop and R‘n’B acts in major award categories (down to an overhaul of the voting process to counter accusations of irrelevance), the real revolution seems to have taken place within the nominated artists themselves.

Nearly all of the major awards up for grabs contain songs that are frank in their discussion of mental health, depression and anxiety.

While genres such as rock and folk share an affinity with murky subjects, the emergence of hip-hop as a platform to discuss matters of the heart and mind is influential.

With the genre firmly established as the most dominating and its artists headlining nearly all the major European and North American music festivals, a rapper's word is powerful. And perhaps none are more moving than Logic's 1-800-273-8255.

Nominated for the prestigious Song of the Year, and its title named after the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline in the United States, the track shifts perspectives from a caller to the hotline to the advisor on the other end before concluding with a soulful outro provided by young R‘n’B star Khalid, who provides the refrain: “I wanna feel alive, I don’t even wanna die anymore.”

While sublime, Logic's song is not a surprise if you have been following the work of the introspective rapper. This is why fellow artist Jay-Z's 4:44, another song nominated in the same category, hits you like a thunderbolt.

For a rapper renowned for an icy cool demeanour, the evocative song – which is basically an apology letter to his wife, pop star Beyoncé – has him questioning his masculine ideals: “Like the men before me, I cut off my nose to spite my face, I never wanted another woman to know, Something about me that you didn’t know, I promised, I cried, I couldn’t hold, I suck at love, I think I need a do-over.”

One of rock'n'roll's hardest men Josh Homme also uncharacteristically showed some cracks on Villains, the latest album from Queens of the Stone Age.

Nominated for Best Rock Album, it is the fourth song, the bruising rock ballad Fortress, that is the most revealing.

Addressing his three young children over spidery riffs, he advises them to not lock up difficult feelings and embrace the insights they often gift: “Every fortress falls, It is not the end, It ain’t if you fall but how you rise that says who you really are.”

On that score, expect some of the night’s biggest applause if Kesha wins any of the two awards she is nominated for.

Her fantastically eclectic third album Rainbow, which is up for Best Pop Vocal Album, details her survival from substance abuse and eating disorders caused by one of the most acrimonious legal battles in the music industry of recent years, in which she accused former mentor and producer Dr Luke of various allegations, including emotional abuse.

The album is full of raw and emotionally charged lyrics regarding healing and forgiveness (of others and self); those themes are best exemplified in the gospel tack and album centre piece, Praying, which is up for Best Pop Solo Performance: "I'm proud of who I am, No more monsters, I can breathe again."

Not all the emotional lyrics prevalent in this year’s Grammy Awards nominations come from a personal experience, however.

Indeed, this is what makes Aimee Mann albums such a bewitching listen. In a laconic dig to critics who often describe her songs as sad, she went all in on her ninth release and created her starkest set of songs yet with the Best Folk Album nominee Mental Illness.

But Mann is simply too good a wordsmith and humanist to create songs wallowing in despair.

With characters ranging from an adrenaline junkie and a con artist to a faded celebrity, we identify with all their foibles because we also have the capacity for self-destructive behaviour: "Just a little bit of what I need, To soothe an appetite that I can't feed, Isn't that good for me?" she asks in the plaintive piano ballad Good For Me.

Sadly, the artist responsible for some of rock's most powerful lyrics regarding human frailty won't be in attendance on Sunday. The suicide of Chris Cornell in May continues to reverberate in the tightly knit US rock community. The last solo release before his death, The Promise, is up for Best Rock Performance.

It contains a heartrending plea for those on the margins: “No matter the price, Promise to survive, Persevere and thrive, As we’ve always done.”


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