Music & Misery: Fighting Depression with Billy Talent

Music & Misery is a new series at LYFSTYL Music investigating the curious connection between our emotions and the music that makes us feel like everything is going to be OK. Have a favourite song or artist that always hits you right in the feels? Hit us up on Twitter @LYFSTYLMusic

“What came first, the music or the misery? People worry about kids playing with guns, or watching violent videos, that some sort of culture of violence will take them over. Nobody worries about kids listening to thousands, literally thousands of songs about heartbreak, rejection, pain, misery and loss. Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?” – Rob Gordon, High Fidelity

For me, the music came first. My first concert experience was an all-Canadian triple bill featuring Billy Talent, Metric, and Death From Above 1979. As a child growing up in suburban Surrey, I had little to be miserable about, but by the time high school and the prospect of growing up reared its ugly head, I found things to be angry about.  As (a seriously lack of attention from) girls, grades, and football games provided fodder for me to stress over, I found music to be my most reliable escape.

Of the trio of acts who provided my first musical experience, Billy Talent was the band that I viscerally connected with. While the ferocious energy of Death From Above was just as undeniable as the attraction I had towards Emily Haines and the music of Metric, the closing quartet spoke to me in a language I hadn’t heard before. At least, not in person. I remember being tired and dehydrated from dancing and defending my spot in the front row, but I had no regrets that night. I was hooked.

Ben Kowalewicz became an instant hero, and I memorized his lyrics with a dedication that far surpassed anything I had previously mustered in the sake of school work. The connection transcended the emotions involved in my daily routine. What I didn’t know at the time, however, was that the connection between his lyrics and my daily routine ran deeper than that show at the Croatian Cultural Centre.

When I look back at the lyrics of many songs on Billy Talent’s self-titled debut, it is clear they are the most accurate musical representation of a pain and frustration I had yet learned to articulate as a teenager. From the opening track ‘This Is How It Goes’ Billy Talent is a relentless audible expression of disappointment with the status quo, featuring narratives of heartbreak, suffering, and abuses of authority. And despite a relatively happy and comfortable upbringing I had found a way to relate to it all.

“Take a look at what we’ve become, nothing more than silhouettes of
A pretty family on a postcard, picture perfect, I don’t want it!” – Billy Talent, This Is How It Goes

It began innocently enough. I clung to ‘The Ex’ when I was dumped by my first girlfriend. Later, when I rebelled against my family’s efforts to pose as the pretty family on a postcard, ‘This Is How It Goes’ became my go-to. When I learned to question the religion I was taught in school, I outcast those who believed as people ‘Living in the Shadows’. When I worried about my popularity and simultaneously began to question what is was worth in the first place, ‘Line And Sinker’ was there for me.

“Today I don’t feel pretty, and I’m tired of trying to fit right in. Don’t think you’re so great, because being great must suck.” – Billy Talent, Living In The Shadows

As the material got darker, I found new levels of frustration, new reasons to be upset. But it wasn’t just my own problems I became ensnared with, I was loaning my fury out to other causes. The sex worker in ‘Standing In The Rain’ and the ex-military maniac in ‘River Below’ seemed to have bigger issues than I did, and so I tried to relate. It seemed like the right thing to do.

For whatever reason, it is incredibly cathartic to hear someone else articulate all the deep, dark shit we keep inside ourselves. At the very least, it helps to know someone else has felt the way you do when you’re having a low moment. But when the going really gets tough there’s nothing like hiding in a pair of headphones and escaping for a little while. If you’re like me, however, the negative emotions will come back.

And that’s OK. You’re not alone.

The music may have come first, but lately the misery seems to be taking on a bigger role in my life. I don’t exactly know when it started, but somewhere during my transition from a teenager to an adult, it has become clear my body is not producing as much serotonin as it should be. To doctors and other professionals, this situation is often referred to as clinical depression, but I just call it life.

Some days I wake up with what feels like a full tank but others it feels like I’m running on empty, unable to turn my engine over, roll out of bed, and give a fuck about the day. On those days, music seems to be of the few things that can give me a lift, or at least distract me from my misery long enough to do something worthwhile. I’ve tried more traditional therapy methods, but I just seem to relate to musicians more than I do mental health professionals.

This is one of the many reasons I struggle to support Bell Let’s Talk Day, a day in which Canadians are encouraged to talk about mental health issues, especially over the Bell telecommunications network. I feel mental health issues are something all humans deal with to varying degrees, and to label anyone willing to talk about their mental health as “depressed” or “diseased” or “sick” or anything other than human completely misses the point. Therefore, I have chosen to adopt the positives of the campaign (An increased public dialogue about mental health issues) with my own preferred form of therapy, music.

I do this not to advocate music therapy as a lone form of treatment, but rather to promote its positive effects. There are so many questions that remain unanswered when it comes to mental health. I can’t say with confidence that anyone has the answer or cure you might be looking for, but I do know that music has the power to sooth the human soul when it is in pain.

No matter how bad you feel, and no matter how sure you are that things will never change, there will always be a song ready to cheer you up, if only just for a little while. And if that isn’t enough, I can often be found on Twitter @KevinVanstone. Let’s talk.