(Note: All underlined words/sentences are links which can, and indeed should, be clicked on.)
Shortly after it was released in October last year my friend Anna introduced me to Brandy Clark’s debut album, 12 Stories. Up to that point I had been at most a dabbler in country music- with a fairly healthy collection of Johnny Cash and not much else- but it was 12 Stories which got me hooked. To be specific it was track Number 8 which actually got me hooked; ‘Take a little Pill’.
“Mama got depressed, when daddy was a -dying, so the doctor gave her something, to help her with the crying” she begins in a voice like powdered milk, and then you’re in, wound into her story of miserable, broken people addicted to psychiatric medication because they can’t fix their miserable, broken lives. When I listened to it first, by the time she got to “What you can’t cure, you can medicate” I was half in love with her, and wholly convinced that there is yet to be a better statement of the aims of the anti-psychiatry movement. Not because she talks about being addicted to medication, which other musicians frequently do and have been doing since at least the 1960s but because what she’s implicitly criticizing is the pathologization and medication of valid human experiences such as grief and loss. Because sometimes the appropriate response to an unbearable situation just is that special brand of human suffering which lamentably gets carved up and and labelled by psychiatrists as depression or catatonia or schizophrenia and the like. Because people who respond in this way are not “infirm” or “sick”, but gloriously human.
But this is not the only song on the record which has “anti-psychiatry” themes. “Crazy Women” tells the story of a justifiably furious woman, so sick of being cheated on that she drops a lit cigarette in the gas-tank of her boyfriend’s car. Said boyfriend attempts to save face by telling his friends that “she was depressed, borderline bipolar, a bitch with PMS,” but the narrator makes it clear that she does not endorse his use of psychiatric labels to undermine and explain away his girlfriend’s anger, and demolishes him in the second half of the verse (“He cheats and lies, then plays the victim”.) “Crazy women” the chorus finishes “Are made by crazy men.” Even if you do accept ‘crazy’ as a legitimate label, the “craziness” here is not just something which the man in question simply had the bad luck to stumble upon (“he don’t know why they always seem to pick him”) but something he partially created by placing her in a situation she found intolerable. To compare for size: “Crazy women are made by crazy men (and the rest of their crazy families)” is essentially the central thesis of R D Laing’s seminal book “Sanity, Madness and the Family.” Or as he later put it when at his most trite: “Insanity – a perfectly rational adjustment to an insane world.”
As well as these, the first track, “Pray to Jesus” almost functions like the other half of “Take a Little Pill”. “Pray[ing] to Jesus and Play[ing] the Lotto” in the opportunity-deprived community the narrator identifies herself with, are the only two real ways of possibly “chang[ing] tomorrow”, the implicit third being by living in a tomorrow wholly demarcated by the prescription medication you’re on. These three ‘solutions’ share a problematic root: “in a world where ‘personal’ problems reign supreme, ideologies of personal salvation will only present strategies that depoliticize, and that will exclude from the concrete field of action macro-political reality and the repressive systems that mediate this reality to the individual.” (David Cooper, 1974 who coined the term “Anti-Psychiatry”) What’s wrong here is the poverty and hopelessness that these people live in, and that is not personal problem, but a collective social one.
I thought up to this point that perhaps Brandy Clark was a lone voice in the wilderness of rhinestone studded cowboy boots and twangly guitars associated with country music, but it turns out that country music has been pushing the anti-psychiatry message for quite some time. Here’s a few obvious examples:
“When he said he loved another, I was crazy with jealousy
That’s ’cause I was crazy over him and I couldn’t stand to set him free
And I couldn’t stand to lose him and I cried and cried for days
And he said that I was crazy but he just put me in here to get me out of his way.”
This song, told from the perspective of a woman locked inside a psychiatric institution also includes the excellent line: “It’s not my mind that’s broken, it’s my heart.” No need to explain how anti-psychiatry fits into this one.
For thinking that my love could hold you
I’m crazy for trying
And crazy for crying
And I’m crazy for loving you.
This isn’t obviously anti-psychiatry propaganda until you view it in the context of the immensely popular “Crazy, He calls me” released by Billie Holiday 13 years previously. In the earlier, but strikingly similar, song Billie is responding to someone who accuses her of being crazy; “Sure, I’m crazy, Crazy in love, [she] say[s].” Viewed in this way, the Patsy Cline (well Willie Nelson, but who’s splitting hairs) song takes on the aura of half of a dialogue, she is sarcastically responding to an anonymous accuser: Sure I’m “Crazy, for thinking that my love could hold you”, something we are clearly supposed to both understand and identify with. In doing so she undermines the force of “madness” as a negative judgment that can be inflicted on people; he accuses her being crazy and she responds that by this metric most of us also are, and voluntarily identifies herself as such.
“Illusions in a twisted mind to save from self-destruction,
Hmm, it’s the rubber room”.
In case you missed the applicability of this to R.D. Laing from the quote above, here’s another of his: “The experience and behavior that gets labeled schizophrenic is a special strategy that a person invents in order to live in an unlivable situation.”
“All my family problems disappeared overnight
We’re all taking Zoloft and everything is fine
My sister’s teen angst just flew out the window
Mama’s so happy she cries all the time.”
Again, no explanation needed.
“Then upon some sunlit day
They figure there’s no need for you to stay
They’re pretty sure you can’t be cured
So they send you on your merry way.”
On the clear failure of psychiatric medicine to treat and cure, and the misery of being confined to a psychiatric hospital.
I’m strapped to this fucking twin bed
And I won’t get any cookies or tea
Till I stop quoting Nietzsche
And brush my teeth and comb my hair.
A pretty good illustration of the idea that saying someone is mad because they like quoting Nietzsche and have dubious personal hygiene is a) an essentially normative judgment and b) Obviously wrong. (Obviously.)
“I’ve been thinking about
Going off the deep end
My man can’t get no overtime
And the baby ain’t been sleeping.”
The housewife in question here is taking a load of pills, but the remainder of the song makes it pretty clear the problem is with her life, not “in her head.”
(I have deliberately excluded the entire genre of songs documenting the grim situations which lead people to alcohol or drug dependence, the genre which ‘Sam Stone’ is a clear front-runner in. When I asked my aforementioned friend if she had any recommendations for songs, she replied that if I was including alcoholism in my remit, surely I’d have far too many since “so much of country is about reasons to give yourself over to drink, i.e. because the world is horrible.”)
I think its obvious that the overwhelming trend of country music being “anti-psychiatry” is far from being sheer coincidence.
Country music (and this is from the perspective of an uninformed initiate) seems to be, at bottom, about telling stories: “Country music, I believe, are ordinary stories told in an extraordinary way, certainly by extraordinary people in most cases” (from Ms Parton herself.) In this anthology of artists’ responses to the question of what country music is, at least half of them centre their answer on “story-telling” and the ones which don’t mostly talk about its honest portrayal of “real life.”
This puts it head-to-head with the standard psychiatric mode of explanation: that some people’s actions and words are just caused by misfiring neurons, or chemical imbalances, or faulty genetics. That madness is a disease like cancer- one with no rhyme or reason to it, which can just be hacked out of an individual’s life leaving them intact, and that this is the limit of what you can fruitfully say about it.
Because story-telling, especially story-telling from the perspective of people we might typically refer to as being “mad” (i.e inextricably “other”) is in the business of giving deeper levels of explanation for human actions. It’s about providing a first-personal perspective on a situation we wouldn’t otherwise have first-personal access to, making things comprehensible, saying why a character did something, what it felt like to do it, what it led to afterwards.
In fact the single country song I’ve managed to find which is “pro-psychiatry”, ‘Psycho’ by Eddie Noack, ends up only making this connection (between country music and anti-psychiatry) clearer. In it the narrator kills loads of people for no particular reason, and then repeatedly asks his mother if she thinks he is a ‘psycho’. “Seems I was holding a wrench, Mama. Then my mind walked away.” His actions are totally inexplicable from his perspective, he doesn’t really understand why he’s doing them and he certainly doesn’t attempt to explain them to the listener. It’s just something his ‘mind’ does, not something he does. The only way this “story” (and I mean the inverted commas in the strongest possible way) manages to fill out a whole 3 minutes and 33 seconds is because the narrator kills an entire laundry list of people. It’s quite possibly one of the least interesting, least emotionally engaging country music songs I have ever stumbled across. I’m not at all against accidental killings in songs; in fact Cash’s “I hung my head” is one of my favourites of his, but here he deals in depth with the emotional fallout from mistakenly killing a stranger. However the “Psycho” of the title is an impressively dull and two-dimensional character to attempt base a “story” around. There’s nothing to understand or engage with about him, because him being “mad” ends up meaning that his actions are essentially incomprehensible.
Here, mental illness is the end of the conversation, nothing more can be said about it from the sufferer’s perspective, and this kind of mainstream psychiatric thought is death to any kind of interesting story. It robs the story of its meat, of what makes it a story (the possibility of empathy, even if not sympathy) and since we’ve already established that country is in the business of story-telling, reducing things to this level of explanation necessarily makes bad country music.
Ultimately, I can’t help being struck by just how neat and predictable it is that an album called “12 Stories” should bring these themes and connections to the foreground in such an obvious way. But also by how startling that it contains so much that is just, quite simply, beautiful. Because, despite this stupidly lengthy post, that’s really the most important thing to say about it.