More than simply being earworms, the best songs are those that resonate within.
For more than 50 years, artists from The Beatles and The Beach Boys to Jay-Z and Demi Lovato have attempted this with heartfelt explorations of mental health, with the hope of inspiring listeners to seek support.
Sometimes this is done through evocative and metaphorical wordplay, while at other times, these implorations are stark and direct.
Here are 10 songs, spanning pop, rock, electro and hip-hop, which bravely tackle stigmas surrounding mental health with empathy.
1. ‘Help!’ by The Beatles (1965)
This may sound like a timeless pop nugget, but beneath the ebullient melodies is a cry for help. The title track for The Fab Four’s 1965 album, John Lennon wrote the song to express the growing anxiety he felt as a result of the band’s fame.
In subsequent interviews throughout his solo career, Lennon would reflect on the track and describe it as an attempt to face his struggles and chart a way by reaching out for help.
2. ‘Now I’m In It’ by Haim (2019)
The most important relationship you can have is the one with yourself. That’s the crux of this brooding ballad by the big-selling pop group.
As the lyrics unfurl, we find out that singer Danielle Haim is pining for peace of mind, rather than a significant other. “Can’t get a read of myself,” she sings. “Need to change the situation.”
3. ‘1-800-273-8255’ by Logic (2017)
With hip-hop firmly established as one of today’s most popular genres, a rapper’s word is powerful. And perhaps none is more moving than Logic’s 1-800-273-8255.
Named after the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline in the US, the track shifts perspectives from a caller to the hotline to the adviser on the other end, before concluding with a soulful outro provided by young RnB star Khalid, who provides the refrain: “I wanna feel alive.”
According to the hotline, the organisation received a near 30 per cent increase in calls in the three weeks following the song’s release.
4. ‘Today’ by The Smashing Pumpkins (1993)
The dreamy nature of this power ballad disguises its darker subject matter. Written during bouts of panic attacks, singer Billy Corgan said the song was composed to remind himself to persevere and leave future worries behind.
“Today is the greatest day I’ve ever known,” Today begins. “Can’t live for tomorrow. Tomorrow’s much too long.”
5. ‘Skyscraper’ by Demi Lovato (2011)
Written not long after Lovato checked herself into a US treatment facility, the poignant lyrics trace her recognition that it was time to seek help.
“Go on and try to tear me down,” the chorus states. “I will be rising from the ground, like a skyscraper.”
6. ‘Smile’ by Jay-Z featuring Gloria Carter (2017)
When Jay Z speaks, the streets listen.
And what they heard in this career highlight is not trademark braggadocio, but a sobering look at what lies beneath that confident exterior, which includes the revelation he was seeking therapy.
“In the shadows people see you as happy and free, because that’s what you want them to see,” Jay Z raps. “Living two lives, happy, but not free.”
7. ‘Head Above Water’ by Avril Lavigne (2018)
When the Canadian pop star returned after a six-year hiatus with this title track from a new album, many fans assumed her time away was spent unwinding after more than 15 years of recording and touring.
It turned out, however, Lavigne was engaged in a battle with Lyme disease. The rock ballad recalls the singer’s efforts to remain positive despite her worsening condition.
“My life is what I’m fighting for, can’t part the sea, can’t reach the shore,” she says. “And my voice becomes the driving force. I won’t let this pull me overboard.”
8. ‘You Still Believe in Me’ by The Beach Boys (1966)
“I know perfectly well I’m not where I should be,” Brian Wilson sings in one of his most heart-rending The Beach Boys compositions.
The song may be fashioned as an address to a spurned partner, but it also functions as Wilson’s love letter to himself.
Over swelling strings, harpsichords, clarinets and the lamenting notes of a piano, he accepts his fraying mental health with the resolve to be kinder to himself.
9. ‘24/7″ by Kehlani (2016)
Kehlani released this electro-pop single with lyrics gleaned from therapy sessions. More than the uplifting melodies, it’s her conversational lyrics about self-acceptance and resilience that hit home.
“It’s all fine to not think you’re fine,” she says. “Or have the wish to feel any better.”
10. ‘Everybody Hurts’ by REM (1992)
Part of their masterful album Automatic for the People – a brooding song cycle about life and death – REM wanted to write a song for struggling teenagers.
As a result, Everybody Hurts is home to their most direct and heartfelt lyrics.
Over a rolling acoustic guitar, the song picks up steam with Michael Stipe imploring listeners to forge forward and seek support when faced with seemingly insurmountable setbacks.
“Don’t let yourself go, because everybody cries,” Stipe says, his voice quavering. “Everybody hurts sometimes.”