The personal at the heart of the music business
Amy Winehouse, George Michael, Kurt Cobain, Beyonce, Kanye West…. the list of pop stars who have struggled with anxiety, depression or other mental health problems is huge. Empirical evidence backs this up: the music industry really does make people sick. Joe Penhall’s new play, 'Mood Music', currently showing at the Old Vic in London, explores some of the complex psychological issues that lie at the heart of the music business.
Mood Music opens with Cat (a young female singer-songwriter), and Bernard (a middle-aged record producer), on stage with their psychotherapists, their two lawyers hovering in the background. The narrative is presented entirely through parallel one-to-one conversations, often between each of the protagonists and their therapists, but also with their lawyers and sometimes with each other. Personal backgrounds of the characters and the events they have encountered, are gradually revealed through very clever and entertaining scripting of interleaving dialogues.
Each of the relationships on stage is unique and tells its own story, but the crux of the plot is a dispute around the ownership of the pair’s chart-topping songs. Has Cat been exploited by Bernard, or has he been the fairy godfather who brought her a unique opportunity to succeed? Or is it both? Does it count as success if she doesn’t get the credit she’s due? Or does he deserve to take the credit because she couldn’t have done it without him? Or could she?
The central tensions around ownership could be recognised by people in many other careers – I certainly saw parallels with academia at times. But Penhall also shone a light on the unique situation of those who make their living through performing or composing music, a form of communication that is said to tap into our most fundamental emotion system. As Cat points out, 'most people don’t take their work so personally, but with music it has got to get personal.'
The characters fall into familiar stereotypes, for example the female psychotherapist is dressed in a long flowing skirt with sandals, and throws around lots of well-worn phrases. Bernard and his lawyer are blatantly sexist throughout, explaining that women are impossible to work with but cheaper, and delivering phrases like, 'men write riffs, not women'. Sadly though, this is behaviour I have witnessed in the music industry and while the characters were clearly parodied, I felt that the gender inequalities were uncomfortably close to the truth at times.
Overall, I found the play funny, moving, well-paced, and very thought-provoking. It drew together serious issues around mental health, sexism, and exploitation within the music industry, as well as exploring the relevance of the deep connection between music and self. It addressed tensions around morality, ethics, ownership, creativity, and authenticity. And Penhall had also done his psychology and neuroscience homework – referring to anti-depressants by name, and giving a name-check to the reward systems in the brain. As someone who has a deep interest in music psychology but also close ties to the music industry, I felt that while it occasionally seemed a little contrived, most of it rang uncomfortably true.
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