A toxic cocktail of pressure, adoration and expectation in the music industry is creating a ticking mental health time bomb.
Justin Bieber’s Purpose world tour started on March 9, 2016 in Seattle, the first date in a series of 150 gigs scheduled to take place across 40 countries. Purpose is Bieber’s fourth global tour, the first of which kicked off in 2009 when the Canadian popstar was just 15-years-old.
Expected to conclude on October 7 in Singapore, over a year and a half after it started, the Purpose world tour was abruptly halted on August 3. In a detailed Instagram post Bieber explained he had cancelled the final 14 dates, because he had let “bitterness, jealousy and fear” run his life.
In the post the popstar described his desire not only to have a sustainable career, but for his “mind, heart and soul to be sustainable” as well, enabling him to eventually become the man, husband and father he wants to be. The post received over one million likes from Bieber’s 90.5 million followers.
At first glance this message may come across as surprisingly heartfelt for a man considered by many to be a spoilt pop brat. But whether you are a fan of Justin Bieber or not, it is hard to deny the impact unrelenting schedules and being on the road for nearly two years straight can have on a person’s psyche.
Couple with that the pressures of growing up in the spotlight in a society that never switches off, where your every move is analysed on social media. In August 2016, for example, Bieber abruptly deleted his Instagram account in response to fans abusing his then girlfriend Sofia Richie after the singer posted a picture of them together, something most other 22-year-olds could surely do in peace.
Of course Bieber is not squeaky clean. This year alone the Canadian pop sensation has been banned from performing in Beijing by the Chinese government, which stated that his “bad behaviour” had caused discontent amongst the public and his exclusion from the country would purify “the arts”.
This statement could refer to an incident three years earlier when a police mugshot emerged of a chirpy and cherubic Bieber following his arrest for drunk drag racing in a rented Lamborghini in Miami.
Bieber has undoubtedly used his fame to fuel a lifestyle that is at times self-indulgent and juvenile, but growing up in a bubble of celebrity has a long track record of warping the individuals concerned. The world of celebrity is characterised by intrusion both from paparazzi and fans, who are more than happy to cross the line of acceptable behaviour in a bid to get closer to their idols.
When this level of intrusion escalates the outcome is not always pretty. In late July Bieber hospitalised a photographer after running his car into him on the street in Beverly Hills and in November was caught on camera punching a Spanish fan in the face who had reached into his car. Obviously violence is never the answer, but put any ordinary citizen in the same position with a stranger trying to get into their car and I defy them not to react.
Another young musician who has been refreshingly open about his mental health issues is former One Direction heartthrob, turned solo R&B star, Zayn Malik.
In an interview with Vogue in July, Malik opened up about his crippling anxiety, which so far has prevented him performing any of his solo material live in concert. During the interview he described the struggle of “trying to work through” his anxiety surrounding his public perception and his desire not to appear pretentious or arrogant, coupled with a fear of saying the wrong thing.
It was this anxiety that caused Malik to cancel his appearance at Capital’s Summertime Ball in June last year, just minutes before he was supposed to appear on-stage.
Malik took to Twitter to explain and apologise to his disappointed fans: “The anxiety that has haunted me throughout the last few months around live performances has gotten the better of me … with the magnitude of the event, I have suffered the worst anxiety of my career.”
Malik’s battle with anxiety is clearly ongoing. In June this year the singer cancelled a string of dates in Japan, refunding fans rather than attempting to reschedule the tour.
It is also alleged that one of the reasons Malik quit One Direction back in 2015, the first band member to leave after a five-year stint, was because he was close to burn out following an “endless” schedule of touring.
Thrust into the spotlight at just 17, a shy boy who looked visibly uncomfortable with dancing and performing on X Factor’s primetime Saturday night slot, it is hardly surprising that with his four bandmates out of the equation the stage feels like an even lonelier place.
Driven to the edge
It is not just young stars who are vulnerable to the pressures of negotiating a mental health crisis in the world’s spotlight. Kanye West’s high profile breakdown last November, at the age of 39, saw the rapper cancel 21 dates of his Life of Saint Pablo tour after being admitted to a psychiatric hospital.
West’s admission was deemed a “psychiatric emergency” and was connected to reports the rapper and fashion mogul was suffering from sleep deprivation and exhaustion.
In the run up to his hospitalisation, West’s behaviour became increasingly erratic. He was forced to cancel a gig in LA after performing just three songs following an on-stage rant. First he slammed commercial radio for the amount of airtime being given to artists like singer-songwriter Frank Ocean. Next he turned his attention to former friend Beyonce, claiming she only agreed to play the MTV Music Awards after she was assured by organisers she had won the award for video of the year.
West then lambasted Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg for not donating $53m to him to “get out of debt” and described Hilary Clinton as a cautionary tale for people who follow “old models”.
Despite the open criticism of Clinton, fans may still have been surprised to see West endorse Donald Trump’s presidency in December by turning up at Trump Tower in New York to discuss “multicultural issues”.
West’s bizarre behaviour may have provided scintillating tabloid fodder, but it is important to remember that the world was witnessing a nervous breakdown, played out publicly and in searing technicolour.
For Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell and Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington, years of living in the grip of a mental health crisis came to a tragically different conclusion.
The outpouring of grief was raw when news broke in May that Cornell, one of the founding fathers of the American grunge scene, had committed suicide at the age of 52 during Soundgarden’s North American tour. Cornell had battled with drug and alcohol abuse issues, entering rehab in 2002, as well as periods of depression and agoraphobia.
In the wake of Cornell’s suicide, close friend Bennington spoke publicly about his intense sense of loss, penning an open letter a day after the news broke in which he said he could not imagine a world without Cornell in it. The Linkin Park frontman honoured his friend’s life by singing a rendition of Jeff Buckley’s ‘Hallelujah’ at Cornell’s funeral.
Then a matter of two months later Bennington was found dead, having committed suicide on what would have been Cornell’s 53rd birthday. Fans and fellow musicians took to social media to pay tribute to a talented singer whose voice, at times pain-filled and vulnerable, had given metal a fresh, emotional dimension.
The experiences of today’s musicians highlight the fragility of mental health. Clearly the appearance of “having it all” does not make anyone immune from depression, anxiety and ultimately reaching crisis point.
Rather than being able to work through their struggles in private, the likes of Justin Bieber and Zayn Malik have to balance the pressure to be perfect, camera ready, agenda-setting popstars with their own insecurities and instabilities. Living life in the spotlight may be considered a privilege, but it is also a steep learning curve. It would do us all good to consider the struggles of the person behind the music once in a while.