Feature | Music, Mental Health and Masculinity.

Why Idles, PEACE and Music are more important now than ever before.

For me, the release of ‘Samaritans’ by Bristol punks IDLES in the summer of 2018 could not have come at a better time. I was in the middle of a pretty lengthy depressive episode and, had recently been prescribed antidepressants for the first time. Rarely leaving the house, apart from to walk my dog, with thoughts of dropping out of uni became increasingly louder. IDLES receive a lot of the credit with helping me come out of the slump.

Despite society making all of the right noises about mental health awareness, we haven’t quite reached the end yet. If you’re male and show emotion, Piers Morgan will be on hand to call you a snowflake. By the time IDLES started releasing singles from sophomore album Joy As An Act of Resistance, it was no secret that they had no time for the performative macho bluster. Who have been popularised by the likes of Morgan and Donald Trump. Yet ‘Samaritans’ was still a pivotal moment. Both an attack on ‘toxic masculinity’, along with a commentary on male mental health specifically. Stressing that it’s okay not to be okay.

IDLES and their fan community show just how important a safe space can be.

Throughout Joy, mental health and masculinity, and the relationship between the two, are recurring themes. We get lyrics such as ‘I put homophobes in coffins’ [‘Colossus’] and ‘This snowflake’s an avalanche’ [‘I’m Scum’], while the entirety of ‘Never Fight A Man With A Perm’ is about a man who embodies all the tropes of toxic masculinity. The idea that vulnerability and compassion are desirable qualities is ingrained in their work, and in the views of their fans.

In contrast to the often toxic fan, or ‘stan’ culture, we see too often on social media. The IDLES fan community are a shining light. The official ‘AF Gang’ Facebook group has over 13,000 members, and operates as part fan club, part support group. A quick scan on the group will reveal, amongst the news of IDLES being nominated for the British Breakthrough Act at the BRITs with usual gig announcements. Along with people sharing their struggles, victories and thoughts. As much as the idea of ‘safe spaces’ has become something to mock by Morgan and his ilk, IDLES and their fan community show just how important a safe space can be.

I was waiting for someone on Digbeth High Street, wearing a fur coat. Two Irish guys came up to me and were like. ‘You’re a queer, come here and let me kick you in your balls.’”

Of course, IDLES aren’t the only band throwing a middle finger up at gender norms, and men expressing themselves emotionally. A number of songs by indie stalwarts Peace address similar issues. ‘Perfect Skin’ and ‘I’m A Girl’(from their 2015 album Happy People), are emphatic statements against unrealistic beauty standards and toxic masculinity.

From Under Liquid Glass’, released in conjunction with mental health charity MQ in 2017, is another example. In a 2015 interview with NME, lead vocalist Harry Koisser spoke of an experience he had where “I was waiting for someone on Digbeth High Street, wearing a fur coat. Two Irish guys came up to me and were like. ‘You’re a queer, come here and let me kick you in your balls.’”. Koisser is amongst a number of frontmen – alongside the likes of Matty Healy of the 1975, Oscar Pollock of Sundara Karma and Tom Rees of Buzzard Buzzard Buzzard – who have ignored Gallagher-esque macho swagger in favour of a something less archetypically ‘masculine’.

Speaking to writer and journalist Ally Fogg, he points out that there’s a clear generational shift in our thinking; “I suspect if you were to ask younger generations of men (particularly those now in their teens & early twenties) they would have markedly different attitudes than my generation would have had, 30 years ago”. Furthermore, he explained, “society still expects men to be strong, to be self-sufficient, to struggle & suffer without complaint”. He considers the way that we as a society “construct masculinity, inculcate masculinity in boys and police masculinity in men”. Seeing these factors as core issues we are facing. It’s something that IDLES themselves acknowledge, with the repeated verse of; “Man up/Sit down/Chin up/Pipe down/Socks up/Don’t cry/Drink up/Don’t lie/Grow some balls”. Mimicking routine phrases often said to boys and men.

Is the real question whether society is any more prepared to hear what men are saying about their emotions and mental health?

With so many of our greatest musicians, from Ian Curtis to Kurt Cobain, having suffered with mental health issues. It’s scarcely believable that it’s taken so long for a dialogue to really start. But it’s always better late than never. With ‘Samaritans’ IDLES have tapped into something that more people are starting to feel strongly about. Only recently, Blaenavon frontman Ben Gregory updated the band’s social media channels with a candid post revealing his own journey with mental health. It was heartening to see the outpouring of support from the music community. Echosing the reaction I’ve received when speaking out about my own struggles on social media.

Ultimately, as Fogg puts it, “Is the real question whether society is any more prepared to hear what men are saying about their emotions and mental health? … The way we diagnose issues of mental health & distress remain profoundly gendered.” To that end, the importance of bands such as IDLES and songs such as ‘Samaritans’ right now cannot be understated. Smashing the stigma against male mental health issues can save lives. It saved mine.

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