By Mike McMahan, LPC
Anyone who has been following the story of Metallica for years knows the band has had its share of ups and downs. From the highs of their rise from the thrash metal underground in the 80s to the release of Metallica (a.k.a. The Black Album), which remains one of the top-selling albums of all time, to the lows of James Hetfield’s struggle with alcoholism that almost tore the band apart in the early 00s. That struggle is documented in the film Some Kind Of Monster, which, if you read this blog and you haven’t seen it… stop reading and go watch. Much of the film is focused on group therapy the band undertook to keep the Metallica ship afloat. The band caught a lot of flak for it, but I found it extraordinarily brave that they were willing to open up to the world about the fact that they are regular people with real problems. There was an undeniable element of Spinal Tap at parts, but the film is a real achievement.
Point being, Metallica knows therapy. Recently, vocalist/guitarist Hetfield gave an interview and said: “There are times when I'm happy; there are times when I'm not as happy. I think I'm a human most of the time. Music is therapy for me. I get to write lyrics, I get to get crazy thoughts out of my head and onto paper, and other people read them and say, 'Wow! I understand that.' So it makes me feel okay.”
There is almost nothing bad about listening to and enjoying music. It’s one of the most harmless vices in life, as long as you don’t blow out your ears. And these days, with Spotify, it doesn’t even sink your wallet. But music listening is not therapy, though it is therapeutic. What’s the difference? Well, psychotherapy is a very specific process, even though how the therapist chooses to apply the theory is more of an art. But if you’re going to therapy, you shouldn’t just feel better. You should be able to cope with life’s challenges more effectively in the future, even when not in therapy. A good therapist will help you set goals and change your way of thinking to help you get there. Are there times when you might not be aware of what the therapist is doing? Quite possibly. Though there is an ethical component to being a therapist, you can’t break everything you’re doing with the client down. It takes away the magic, so to speak. The client comes to change his or her life, and the therapist wants to make them aware of how. But there is still an element of subtle manipulation.
So is it possible that music can be therapy and therapeutic? Maybe! There are music therapists who help people learn to communicate better by using exercises based around listening to music. I’ve seen them work with children, asking them to choose a “hello” song to describe their feelings, to write songs that capture their emotions. But this can work for adults, too. Something I like to do with clients is ask people to consider why they like a certain song. “I like the way it makes me feel,” is often the answer. Is it the lyrics? The melody? The people or situation you were in the first time you heard it? This is a way of reflecting on the past and possibly identifying things you enjoyed or (even better) strengths you may have forgotten that you can apply to the present.
What’s your favorite song ever? Where were you when you first heard it? If your past self could come to your present self via the song as a time machine, what would your past self say was the most important thing you learned from the era when you first heard the song? What traits of your personality are important to keep in mind and will make you more the person you want to be right here and now?
Mike McMahan, LPC is a therapist based in San Antonio, Tx.
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Therapy Goes POP
Perspectives on therapy and mental health as viewed through the lens of popular culture