You’ve probably heard Ava Max’s chart-topping song Sweet but Psycho by now. Heck, it’s been sitting at number one in the UK for as long as 2019 has been a thing, so it’s probably ear-wormed its way into your mind on a loop.
Like it or lump it, Sweet but Psycho is a musical success, by any record label’s standards. But mental health campaigners and sufferers have come together to send an open letter published today (Monday January 21), saying the sonically saccharine song’s message has left a bitter taste in their mouths.
You can listen to the lyrics and watch the video below:
The gold-certified track was the last number one of 2018 and the first number one of 2019 in the UK charts, and has peaked at the top spot in 15 countries since its release in August last year.
Thus, Ava Max is the latest in a long string of pop stars who’ve found fame through online streaming services such as Spotify, and the music video for the so-called catchy tune sits pretty on the trending list with 85,530,429 views at the time of writing.
In other words, Ava is pop music’s new ‘It Girl’ and she’s destined for big things.
But with great power comes great responsibility, they say.
And some campaigners, as well as MPs, have put pen to paper to say the song and its accompanying music video is a sign of the music industry forgoing their responsibility to accurately represent mental illness and maligning sufferers for the sake of a catchy song and a quick buck.
The national suicide prevention organisation Zero Suicide Alliance has penned an open letter signed by patients and politicians to ask the UK’s broadcasters to ‘redress the potentially lethal effect of stigmatising language’ in pop culture which examines mental illness and ‘reconsider the way they refer to mental health issues’.
Referring to Sweet but Psycho, the letter warns:
The track’s lyrics and associated promo video (which features scenes of irrational violence and threat that involve a baseball bat, darts and knives) casually underline negative perceptions of mental health – in short it’s a package that helps to encourage and support stigma.
We understand this may not be intentional but even when it is not intended, perpetuating existing stereotypes has a disproportionately negative influence that reinforces stigma; and stigma is bad. It’s oppressive and alienating with life-threatening potential.
Stigma encourages people to close down, preventing them from seeking help. Worse still, stigma can stop suicidal people from reaching out when they are at their lowest, most vulnerable point.
Julie Roach, 54, has battled mental illness for some years. Roach told UNILAD she is opposed to the use of the word ‘psycho’, condemning it as a ‘derogatory label’.
The Liverpudlian mum adds the video and lyrics suggest you should ‘step back from someone who’s got a mental health issue’ because they’re volatile – indeed, during the refrain, Ava sings the words ‘poison’ and ‘mean’ in reference to the titular character.
Despite being in good mental health now, Roach recalled:
When I was a woman going through my mental illness and wanting to [take my own life] and crying out for help I would’ve hated being called a psycho. I wasn’t a psycho. I was a woman who was struggling.
Discussing the aesthetic glamorisation of mental illness in the video, she added she feels it is ‘dangerous to young girls to suggest they can paint their faces, as a mask, and hide their mental health issues’.
There was some debate over the nature of the video for Sweet but Psycho, with Roach musing the depictions could be a metaphor – albeit quite a lazy one as music videos go – for the turmoil inside a troubled mind.
Roach recalled she too was in a mental state where she’d been ‘screeching and shouting and saying derogatory things’, she reasoned.
Despite this, the video does rely on some tried and tainted stereotypical aesthetics associated in the past with mental illness, and certainly doesn’t reflect everyone’s experience of poor mental health, Ben Harris, who works at The Life Rooms in Bootle, told UNILAD.
Harris, who suffered mild psychosis as a teen and has been diagnosed with a schizoaffective disorder in adulthood, said he was inhibited in opening up after seeing Frank Bruno dubbed ‘bonkers’ in the press.
He says this video – fictional or not, art or reality – is tantamount to ‘potentially inhibiting’ a new generation of listeners and claims ‘the term “psycho” doesn’t do anything for anyone’, especially those with much-maligned mental illnesses like schizophrenia.
Even in the song title, he adds, the lyrics give listeners a ‘binary choice’ implying people are ‘either nice or a complete psycho which over-generalises’ us all, let alone suggesting those with mental illness are inherently bad.
However, Ava Max previously spoke to Genius about the meaning of the song, saying Sweet But Psycho is an attempt at ‘really reclaiming the word’.
The chorus, like, almost mocks the girl. This girl feels out of her mind. She feels psycho but she’s not. It’s kind of like she’s being gaslighted in this situation.
I think it’s okay to show all of your sides and not get judged, in a relationship, especially. In this instance it was a girl who was misunderstood. Really, she’s strong and independent and outspoken.
While Max’s whole brand is an-almost caricature of female empowerment – all the way up to her lopsided self-titled ‘Max Cut’ which she claims is a ‘daring and unique’ representation of strength – other marginalised sections of society have a valid complaint in that they are affected by her chart success.
Her argument is a good one.
Many women and men are dubbed psychopathic in their relationships – often unfairly – by bullies and those whose aim is to belittle.
But her argument is shallow, only applicable to playground bullying and does not account for the day-to-day stigma mental health sufferers experience when they are tarnished with the same brush used to construct this very pop song. Just as films, artists, and other singers have done repeatedly in the past when these phrases didn’t make us recoil so much.
Even if the lyrics were written in a way intended to mock the use of the term – and all the complex assumptions it carries – its popularity on a superficial level is troubling.
Indeed, the singer’s website allows fans to ‘decide’ whether they are “sweet” or “psycho” by uploading their photograph to the World Wide Web. How’s that for reductive?
Even in her own statement defending the lyrics, Max seems to say the woman in her song is societally acceptable because she isn’t mentally ill, but rather she’s being gaslighted by her boyfriend – a traumatising experience which in no way should be presented as any more desirable than a battle with your own brain.
It shows a deep misunderstanding of the term “psycho”, which has been appropriated in common parlance as a throwaway insult, but which, for those with mental ailments, has much darker roots.
Max’s argument doesn’t acknowledge the hurt she has caused some individuals by utilising the outmoded and outdated word “psycho”.
The fact remains, psychopathy – demonised as the illness may be in the media and beyond – is a genuine mental disorder with a means of medical diagnosis.
So when Ava Max implies it’s cool or even empowering to be ‘a little bit psycho’ and ‘owning it’, she’s downplaying a very real mental illness experienced by one per cent of the population who would never choose this.
Dr Arun Chidambaram, Mersey Care’s Deputy Medical Director told UNILAD:
When the theme is mental illness, we request artists to be more considerate and sensitive, as, even when it is not intended, perpetuating existing stereotypes has a disproportionately negative influence on stigma.
The lyricist has clarified that she has not described mental illness, but the public who access the work of art would not have read her clarification and is likely to interpret the lyrics and the imagery in line with existing negative stereotypes.
It’s worrying that mainstream art continues to perpetuate myths like the association of mental illness with violence.
Luciana Berger MP, President of the Labour Campaign for Mental Health and adviser on mental health to Liverpool City Region Mayor Steve Rotheram, said:
How we talk about mental health and the language we use is incredibly important. We have to stop stigmatising people with mental ill health, referring to them as “psycho” or any other of the derogatory terms that are still too often used.
We wouldn’t do it about someone who has a serious physical health condition and it isn’t acceptable for mental health.
Most importantly, by stigmatising those with mental health problems we are preventing them coming forward to access health services, which is crucial to their hopes of making a full recovery or successful management of symptoms.
You might argue the song is merely Art – with a capital A – and that Art does not have to be accurate or sensitive to the requirements of everyone, subjective as the concept of Art may be in its function as a commentary on society.
But what would we all think if Ava replaced “psycho” with the term “depressive” or “schizophrenic” or even the deeply offensive term “schizo”?
Mocking, or not, I think it’s time we let go of the term and moved on from its archaic associations about mental health. What do you think?
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Thank you to EVERYONE who was involved in the creative process for the amazing artwork including @amberprk @lebedeva_does_it @davidsolomini @ryhutchfilm and for helping create/write such a bop!! @_cirkut @madisonemikolove @tixmusic @iamseanmyer and I wanna especially thank my incredible A&R’s @mikecaren & @angpag for being so supportive!! I wanna also thank @arjanwrites for being a #1 supporter from the start!! Also all of my Atlantic records/Apg fam!! @artistpg @brooks.roach @theandrewmarc @erinuzza just to name a few… luv you guys!!💗💗💗#Sweetbutpsycho
If you’ve been affected by any of these issues, and want to speak to someone in confidence, please don’t suffer alone. Call Samaritans for free on their anonymous 24-hour phone line on 116 123.
Save a life. Take the free suicide prevention training provided by Zero Suicide Alliance today.
UNILAD has contact Ava Max for comment and is still awaiting reply at time of writing. If you have a story you want to tell, share it with UNILAD via [email protected]
A former emo kid who talks too much about 8Chan meme culture, the Kardashian Klan, and how her smartphone is probably killing her. Francesca is a Cardiff University Journalism Masters grad who has done words for BBC, ELLE, The Debrief, DAZED, an art magazine you’ve never heard of and a feminist zine which never went to print.