‘My headphones, they saved my life!’1 Björk’s lyrics take me back to bus journeys to and from school as a 12 year old, staring over a shifting suburban landscape. Leaving the chatter of my peers behind, I let my mind wander and my heart soar. Tears for Fears, Whitney Houston, Aerosmith and the like kept me company while giving me a language to play with themes of love, desire, rage, longing and loss.

Thirty years later, I find myself face to face with a teenager who I’ll call Troy*. I’m told he left a suicidal message on social media last night. As the new school counsellor, I am sent to check in with him.

Understandably, he is in no mood to offload. Enduring the awkwardness, I ask what he likes to do in his free time. ‘Go on my phone,’ he answers tersely. When I ask if he listens to music, he nods. Little did I know, this was the beginning of a yearlong conversation, not only about music, but also about those untamed and, at times, seemingly unbearable feelings which inspire it.

What happens when we, as counsellors, invite the young people we work with to share their favourite music with us? Popular music has long been a crucial resource for young people in their quest for self-definition and survival. Bringing songs into the counselling room is a cunningly straightforward way to engage with, and at times reflect upon, emotions and situations which are difficult to access or discuss directly. Relationships, romance, sex, self-worth, abandonment – even therapy itself – have been poignantly and astutely addressed by music that our clients are already listening to. Listening to it together can help build therapeutic relationships and make it possible to recognise, accept and cope with some of the thornier issues of growing up.

One grey afternoon, Troy peers through his shiny black hair at his phone. He angles it towards me as he clicks ‘play’ on a video of Hollywood Undead’s song, Believe. A strained male voice croons:

‘I can’t believe
that when I breathe
there’s one good thing
inside of me’

In the video, the lyrics are inscribed over a neglected urban landscape in graffiti-style text. The mood is uncompromisingly bleak. The next line, however, offers a glimmer of hope:

'So close to me
That memory
Of that one good thing inside of me
Just one good thing inside of me

I think immediately of object relations theory, itching to interpret the song with Troy. As the song concludes, I find myself remembering a recent conversation with my supervisor who suggested I be curious, not only about the abandonments which have hurt Troy, but also the nourishment he has found in various places – from his nan, his half-brother, a special staff member at his youth club. By giving him the chance to revisit and describe those good enough’ experiences, we might reinforce what psychodynamic thinkers would call his internal good objects;3 strengthening his sense of self-worth, even as we acknowledge the pain of his disappointments.

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But Troy isn’t interested in conversation right now; he’s getting the next song ready. ‘Have you heard of Billie Eilish?’ he asks. ‘No.’ I reply, raising my eyebrows curiously. His eyes grow wide as he explains, ‘She is amazing. I’m a bit obsessed with her right now.’ Troy clicks play and I’m treated to a raucous, sultry-voiced ode to being the Bad Guy. A driving beat accompanies Eilish as she swaggers and struts in postures much more reminiscent of assertive male rappers or happy, hyperactive children than the passive, familiarly sexualised female pop stars we have come to expect. The tune is infectious and the imagery is hysterical: she stares at the camera, past the bulging beerbellies of towering ‘tough guy’ men, which contract to the rhythm as she asserts her dominance in no uncertain terms. Troy knows all the words and is singing along, his face radiant with the playful confidence which permeates the song.

I think about the conversations Troy and I have had over the past weeks and wonder if this song is especially powerful for him because, in his day-to-day life, he never gives himself permission to be bad. He has taken on the mantle of the ‘good son,’ bringing a smile to his mother’s often mournful face, making up for the hurt caused by an absent father, protecting his younger siblings from the grasp of social services and the threat of family separation. I think of sharing this insight with him, but decide not to. As Nick Luxmoore argues ‘…timing is everything’ when it comes to the delicate art of interpretation.4 Prematurely offered, accurate observations about patterns in the client’s life can be worse than useless. This is especially important for school counsellors to keep in mind, pressured as we are, like all school staff, to find solutions, fix problems, and demonstrate our efficacy in the face of tightening budgets. But I resist the urge to rush in with my explanations of why Troy might be fond of this particular song. Instead, I play along wholeheartedly, bobbing my head to the beat, letting Troy see my wide smile as I find myself loving the ‘bad,’ aggressively self-satisfying sides of Billie Eilish’s character. She pronounces:

‘I’m the bad type
Make your mama sad type
Make your girlfriend mad type
Might seduce your dad type
I’m the bad guy

If Troy’s life were different, I might not take such pleasure in this song, or Troy’s enjoyment of it. But the contrast between Troy’s saintly aspirations and Eilish’s playful, selfserving naughtiness is stark, and it moves me. Troy is eager to suppress the ‘bad’ feelings I imagine simmering beneath the surface: anger towards his mother; grief and rage about his father; jealousy of peers, whose parents are physically and emotionally within reach. Troy has not openly articulated any of these feelings, at least not yet. But his delight in identifying with Eilish’s ‘bad’ side could be a springboard, a jumping-off point into a bigger project of welcoming both the unconscious and conscious ‘bad’ feelings which all of us are entitled to feel.

My guess is that Troy has, since infancy, learned to channel all feelings of displeasure, disgust, unhappiness, misery and disappointment back into himself, fearing the damage that an angry outburst might do to his fragile and unsupported mother. A renunciation of anger may indeed have been important for him to survive his childhood. These days, however, his inability to rage at anyone other than himself often leaves him feeling depressed, anxious, and unable to carry out simple tasks of daily living. These paralysing feelings melt away, however, when he sings along with Eilish – usually alone in his room, but now, with me. Can I use this in service of our therapeutic relationship? Later, we might have a philosophical discussion about all of this, weaving together a narrative of his life, past and present. But for now, the work seems to be acknowledging, embodying and even celebrating feelings which, in normal circumstances, are forbidden.

Songs, like other forms of artistic expression, help us address what Winnicott called the ‘strain of relating inner and outer reality’.6 Freud saw the arts as a sphere in which people could derive joy and satisfaction by ‘sublimating’ those instincts which civilised society demanded they repress.7 A popular song, perhaps with accompanying video, offers an ‘intermediate space’ in which a listener can project their own desires, fears, and dilemmas. Most importantly, it allows us to broach heavy subjects playfully . Barwick describes play as ‘a precondition for standard therapeutic work.’ Building on Winnicott, she argues that ‘if patients cannot play, the therapist’s task is to ensure that they can.’8 The term ‘playlist,’ in such a context, takes on added significance: it provides a scaffolding of meaning, chosen by the young person, which can be used in service of the therapeutic relationship.

Just as a humanistic play therapist stands alongside a client building a world in a sand tray, we can witness our clients’ playful engagement with popular culture, in this case mediated by YouTube and a smartphone. As Debbie Lee argues, there is value in welcoming students’ phones into the consulting room, inviting young people to walk us through their experiences with a device which is often deeply embedded in their lives.9 Rather than demanding they engage with us purely on our own terms, we can meet young people in a cultural terrain in which they are the experts, and from this position learn more about their world and, hopefully, demonstrate that we may, in time, be worthy of their trust.

Responding together to music also allows for safe but genuine therapist disclosure, which, as Mick Cooper observes, has been associated with positive therapeutic outcomes.10 If we are prone to strong emotional responses to music – as I am – and if our young clients are also ‘into’ music, this topic offers a wealth of conversational material. We can express delight, disgust, confusion, love, and irritation for songs on the radio, songs our parents like, or songs kids sing. A young person might tell me she was about to kill her brother for singing Baby Shark for the 10,000th time; I might confess to feelings of murderous rage every time I hear the song Let it Go, from Frozen. Sometimes I share a song I love, or some lyrics, with a student. One of my favourites is a line from Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah:

‘Well maybe there’s a God above
but all I ever learnt from love
is how to shoot somebody who outdrew ya’.11

I remember writing down the name of the song on a slip of paper for a student to look up in his own time, after he was talking about struggling with a breakup. I don’t know if he listened to it, but I listened to the songs he mentioned to me and discussing them the next week helped us to think together about the intense feelings which were colouring his life. Music videos on YouTube, either 'official' or made by fans who add lyrics and illustrations with widely available video editing apps, offer emotionally charged imaginative spaces, serving myriad purposes. They may offer an escape into a fantasy of colourful parties filled with friends and admiration, for example, as depicted by K-pop stars BTS.12 They may offer the pleasures of identifying with someone strong and seemingly unstoppable, such as Lady LeShurr in her Queen’s Speeches.13 Troye Sivan’s Blue Neighbourhood trilogy depicts the joys and sorrows of a same-sex adolescent relationship in a hostile context; its cinematic visuals and radio-friendly sound, however, put these experiences squarely within mainstream popular culture.14 All of these videos were introduced to me by students, who showed them to me in answer to simple questions about what they’d been listening to lately. Whether or not we analysed their content deeply (and usually we didn’t), these songs introduced themes into our conversations in a non-threatening way. Students could watch and see if I cringed or recoiled. When I didn’t, they were emboldened to share more of their own stories in their own words.

Young people also turn to online music for solace, to feel less alone in their suffering and, sometimes, help process and contain it. One student I worked with, who I will call Sylvia, couldn’t remember the name of a particular song she wanted to play for me, so she just typed ‘depressing song’ into the YouTube search bar. A range of suggestions popped up including just what she was looking for. It was a ‘nightcore’ version of NF’s song, Mansion.15 ‘What is ‘nightcore’?’ I asked, marvelling at this unfamiliar term. Surprised that I had never heard of it before, she introduced me to the genre. One can find ‘nightcore’ versions of most (relatively recent) pop songs, simply by adding the term to a title search. They have been remixed and feature extremely high-pitched vocals (think cartoon chipmunk), often accompanied by moody, anime-style illustrations and lyrics appearing on screen, so viewers can sing along. I was flabbergasted and fascinated by what Sylvia showed me. ‘Who creates this stuff?’ I wondered aloud. ‘I dunno,’ she answered. ‘Lots of people, I guess.’ She explained there were different YouTubers with their own channels, which you could subscribe to, but she usually just searched for a particular song. I was struck by the aesthetic: childlike, yet often sensual, perhaps particularly appealing to an adolescent struggling with a loss of innocence and everything that entails. She described listening when she couldn’t sleep, which was a lot of the time. I pictured her alone at night, ear-pods in, lit only by the eerie glow of a smartphone. ‘Is that comforting?’ I ask. She nodded and smiled slightly.

Fast forward to another session with Troy. He plays me a different song by NF, this time a tear-jerker called How can you leave us?16 Troy explains that the song is dedicated to the rapper’s mother, who died from an overdose. ‘You really haven’t heard of him?’ Troy asks incredulously. ‘He’s American, I think.’ I later do some research and discover NF is short for Nathan Feuerstein. His songs have made it into the Billboard top 20 in the Christian, Gospel, and Rap album charts. He prides himself on being real with his fans and being honest about his struggles with depression and anxiety. ‘He’s had a really, really difficult life. What I have been through is nowhere near as bad as what he’s had to go through,’ Troy assures me. I look at him silently for a moment. I am thinking of his description of clinging on to a bedstead when social workers came to take him away from his mother when he was four years old. Troy has a way of minimising what he’s been through. My anger on his behalf urges me to challenge Troy, but I hold my tongue. He adds, quietly, ‘Still, it’s a beautiful song. It really speaks to me somehow.’ ‘I can see how it might,’ I reply, and leave it at that.

I can’t help but smile when a gospel choir starts singing, with enthusiastic vigour, ‘Therapy! Therapy session!’ during the next song Troy plays for me. It’s from a song called, you guessed it, Therapy Session, on NF’s 2016 album of the same name.17 Luckily, I don’t have to hide my surprise or my amusement. ‘It’s just too perfect,’ I explain. We listen to the song together, which challenges NF’s critics who say his music is a bad influence for being too depressing. He counters that kids come up to him at shows and tell him his music has helped keep them alive. He defiantly asserts:

‘I am aware it’s aggressive
I am not here for acceptance
I don’t know what you expect here
But what you expect when you walk in a therapy session?’

Cue gospel chorus.

I am amused by and grateful for this song in equal measure. The amusement comes from the delightful incongruity of the street-smart, tough-guy rapper aesthetic and the very word ‘therapy,’ uttered both by NF himself and the gospel choir. The mean streets to which NF and other rappers allude are more often associated with violence, sex, and the narrator’s ability to use both to solidify his own personal power. Did NF’s appropriation and celebration of therapy make it easier for Troy, my client, to imagine crossing the threshold of the school counsellor’s office? If so, I thank him. NF destigmatises anxiety and depression by adding them to the list of challenges he has overcome, and similarly destigmatises therapy by claiming it as a resource which belongs to him.

Listening together to young people’s favourite music – fuelled by the enthusiasm of the young person and the genuine curiosity of the therapist – can be illuminating and energising. It can ease the therapeutic dyad into deeper conversations. It affirms the young person’s expertise and invites him or her to speak from a position of authority. It can also offer respite, breathing space, in otherwise overwhelming sessions. For the right client and the right practitioner, listening to and discussing music can open up all kinds of possibilities. In popular music, young people already have a language for addressing the messy business of living and loving. Striving to learn this language, I have found, is a powerful way to build and sustain deep and effective therapeutic relationships.

*Troy is a fictionalised composite invented for the purpose of this article.


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