Mental Health: Billboard Staffers Pick Songs That Have Been Personally Meaningful thumbnail

Mental Health: Billboard Staffers Pick Songs That Have Been Personally Meaningful

With George W. Bush in the White House and the United States marching towards war, there was a lot to be angry about in 2002. The headlines were dark, and Bright Eyes frontman Conor Oberst was feeling darker. “Let’s Not S–t Ourselves (To Love and To Be Loved)” — the final track on the band’s fourth LP Lifted or The Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground – finds Oberst’s rage over politics and bad reviews leading him to a hospital room, where he wakes after a suicide attempt. His father sits at his bedside and offers the song’s titular sentiment of unconditional love, one which has long served as salve for a heavy mind. The simultaneously rousing and critical 10-minute opus is a hero’s journey of emotional catharsis – and proof that sometimes the best way to feel better through music is to just scream along with the lyrics. — KATIE BAIN

T. Rex, “Cosmic Dancer” 

Like many people, when I’m feeling sad or anxious, I have a tough time finding music to listen to. Anything too sad will only make me wallow, and anything too sunny-sounding or motivational just leaves me frustrated by my own gloomy feelings. But “Cosmic Dancer,” the velvety, elegant, life-affirming classic from British rockers T. Rex, is the only song I’ve come across that strikes the perfect balance.

To the tune of soaring strings and steady, warm guitar strums, frotnman Marc Bolan describes dancing through life from “womb to tomb” with the repetitive rhythm of a religious mantra — maybe because the song title has something to do with the Hindu god Shiva, whose “cosmic dance” symbolizes the endless life cycle of creation and destruction. But you don’t have to be on the same page about reincarnation as Bolan to feel soothed by the idea that your existence is only a small part of something much greater, or simply to melt into the song’s swaying melody. Everything is connected! Everything is meaningless! Now come on, let’s dance. — TATIANA CIRISANO

Muna, “It’s Gonna Be Okay, Baby”

There’s something slightly off-putting about being told “everything will get better with time” when you’re in the middle of a personal struggle. When I’m battling against my own personal anxiety or depression, it’s a refrain I hear occasionally from the people I’m close to — and every time it feels, at best, impersonal. While time does tend to heal most wounds, the thing that gets left out of the equation is how you feel in the moment. Sometimes, the best thing to do is simply acknowledge that things, as they currently stand, are painful. But when I first heard Muna’s stellar closer to their sophomore album Saves the Day, “It’s Gonna Be Okay, Baby,” suddenly that message took on a new life. I no longer felt like the saying was a simplistic, underdeveloped colloquialism meant to placate the listener. It felt invigorating in a way that I didn’t expect.

The key to the track’s titular message lies in its speaker. Written and sung by Katie Gavin, the song’s structure is simple; written as a letter to her younger self, the song’s verses see Gavin listing off various things that she knows for a fact “will” happen to her, some good, some bad. On the chorus, she simply states over and over again that “It’s gonna be okay, baby.” The lyrics are stark in their appraisal of the various circumstances a younger Gavin finds herself in, illustrating with crystal-clear songwriting the different vignettes she finds herself in, including New York City, a dorm room, a pool party and more. With a thin layer of autotune masking complex emotions in her voice, she matter-of-factly states that she will both “think about suicide” and watch “all [her] dreams come true” over the course of her young life.

Empowering and joyful messages that are often found in pop music are valid and meaningful ways of allowing yourself to step outside of your current situation. But sometimes, acknowledging the pain of your past and present in order to look ahead to a brighter future can be an even more important emotional journey to take yourself on, as Muna so elegantly proves with this edifying song. — STEPHEN DAW

Florence + the Machine, “How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful”

My father passed away unexpectedly in July 2015, about two months after Florence + the Machine’s stunning third studio album How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful was released. I’d been obsessed with the record already, but suddenly, the title track in particular felt like a prayer.  For most of the song, Florence Welch’s vocals are powerful, booming. But on the bridge, she turns sweet and somber as she offers a suggestion: “Maybe I’ll see you in another life/ If this one wasn’t enough/ So much time on the other side.” It makes me think of my dad every time I hear it — no, this short life wasn’t enough, but I do find peace in thinking we might meet again in another one. — GAB GINSBERG

Mac Miller, “Come Back to Earth”

I’ve always found more solace in songs that don’t proclaim to have all the answers. Maybe it’s because that’s what I’m seeking in a listener when I’m discussing my mental health; I’ve certainly tried to avoid professing that I have very many when I’m supporting a friend. Logically, perhaps it’s counterintuitive — solutions are good, right? But every situation is different, and as I’ve become more comfortable openly discussing such topics with those close to me, I’ve personally found myself in a healthier headspace when everyone in the discussion understands that going through a period of struggle is perfectly fine, too.

In the chorus, Mac Miller says, “I’ll do anything for a way out of my head,” and the lyric hits me in the chest every single time I hear it. There are moments when every individual thing rattling around inside of my head feels like a metric ton, and I’m buried under all of it. For me, it helps immensely to try to take one weight off at a time; looking at the whole pile is simply too daunting. When I listen to “Come Back to Earth,” I hear Mac doing the same, swimming one lap at a time and hoping for the sun to break through the clouds. There are going to be plenty of big waves and rain showers in the interim, and that’s to be expected, but at some point it happens. — JOSH GLICKSMAN

Frou Frou, “Let Go”

Ideal mental health should encompass a sense of positivity, but also a sense of peace. There’s a comfort that I find in every inch of “Let Go” that maybe makes me a dork — yes, I do think of the final scene of Garden State every time I hear it, sue me — but also keeps me returning to it whenever I need a warm blanket of music to wrap inside. The message here aims to reduce the pain of change, and Imogen Heap’s voice completes that objective, convincing the listener that whatever fresh hell is waiting outside of his or her bedroom door, there’s still beauty in the breakdown. “Let Go” has helped me when I’ve had a rough day, and also a rough year. Good call by you, Zach Braff. — JASON LIPSHUTZ

Madonna, “Holiday” 

There are undoubtedly more complex songs about respecting and expressing yourself than Madonna’s “Holiday” — many hailing from none other than Her Madgesty — but sometimes when the circumstances seem grim and unending, a light-as-air plea for respite and happiness sticks the landing better than sophistication. The chirping synths, elementary dance club beat and joyous, yearning vocals aren’t the soundtrack to the titular holiday as much as they are the soundtrack to asking for a break from life’s troubles. And this is no doe-eyed anthem for that popular will o’ the wisp world peace: modestly and realistically, all she’s asking for is “one day out of life.” This is a song for licking your wounds, taking some self-care and returning to the fray to fight another day. — JOE LYNCH

Third Eye Blind, “Jumper”

Feels laughable, right? The monstrously popular fifth single off Third Eye Blind’s self-titled debut — kicking off immediately with its chorus, nowhere to hide — which approaches a friend’s potential suicide attempt in such literal terms, and with such lean-in inflection (“Uh wish yew would step back from that ledge my frennnn….”), that it almost feels like it’s begging you to make a meme out of it? Maybe there are some respected veteran singer/songwriters that could pull it off, but surely not 3EB frontman Stephan Jenkins — who, by nearly all accounts (particularly those of his former bandmates), lands somewhere on the spectrum between narcissist and egomaniac — on his very first album.

And yet. “Jumper” not only escapes punchline status, it remains one of the most resonant pop songs of the turn of the century. And it’s because for all of Jenkins’ historic self-involvement, his lyric understands something that few in the history of pop have ever really grasped: Nothing in the world is more powerful or beautiful than empathy when you really need it. “Jumper” offers no self-important wisdom from its narrator, makes no effort to either judge or assuage its title character about whatever’s troubling them — Jenkins has said he wrote the song about trying to help a friend who had been raped, but no such details are provided here, nor are they needed. “Jumper” doesn’t really offer anything to its on-the-precipice subject, except one oft-repeated three-word message: I would understand.

What would Jenkins understand? Most literally, that the friend, having been talked off the ledge, might not want to see him again afterwards — which Jenkins says was the result of the situation with his real-life friend, who felt too ashamed to continue their friendship after. While that’s a powerfully selfless sentiment in itself, the three-word refrain means so much more than even that: It’s a promise to someone in need that the world isn’t completely cold to their struggles, that they’re not beyond personal connection, that maybe for a day, they can put the past away. It’s such a crucially, fundamentally and overwhelmingly human statement — and one that I’ve needed, on both sides of similar (if less urgent) situations — that it makes me teary just to type it. — ANDREW UNTERBERGER