When The Limelight Swallows You Whole
Alanna McArdle announced her split from UK indie-pop band Joanna Gruesome in June this year. Here, she opens up about the pressures which led to her decision, discussing the relationship between performance, gender and mental health.
I was told recently that it must have taken a lot of guts for me to leave a band that was so smoothly riding on the path to success: that most others would find that decision unthinkable. One of the rarest opportunities a musician can be offered, gone in an instant.
I suppose this is a question that comes to many lips when people disappear just as they reach what seems to be their peak, but it wasn’t the question I asked myself when I made my decision to leave Joanna Gruesome after a steep decline in my mental health at the beginning of this year.
What I struggled with was not the potential lack of success, but the potential loss of identity. After so many years I realised that slowly the band had become me. Leaving it meant an instant void of personhood; up until my departure a feeling that I only existed through press photos, live videos, my own voice etched permanently on record, reviews that told me how I looked, how I sang, how I must have felt, had crept up on me.
However, this need to sponge up identity started long before the band. Struggling with bipolar disorder meant that I couldn’t reliably say how I felt at any one time – the constant fear of a total switch in personality, and the realities of such a switch, left me confused about who I was.
When I first started writing music I was writing out my depression. I used my lyrics as a sort of catharsis, trying fruitlessly to place and form my own identity. The illness I wrote from was very real, but in being a girl, I found my lyrics reduced by others to that dreaded and gendered word ‘confessional’. I became a ‘singer-songwriter’: yet another emotional, hysterical woman.
"I became in the eyes of others a mere representation of a girl and no longer a girl in my own right"
I suppose the lyrics I wrote, ripped almost straight from my diary, invited strangers to feel as if they knew and thus judge my personal life. Lyrics about sadness are perhaps the lyrics that people can and will project their own experiences onto the most. But there was a blinding irony in how the lyrics I wrote, so intensely personal and true to myself, were then diminished by these projections.
I wrote with an aim to ground myself and find relief from my illness, but in allowing them to be consumed by others I saw their meaning become confused. I found myself caught in that age-old stereotype; I’m a woman and therefore expected to be emotional, maybe even dramatic. I became in the eyes of others a mere representation of a girl and no longer a girl in my own right. This disassociation was mirrored in my physicality: taking the form of depersonalisation, a common symptom of bipolar disorder, which is characterised by a sort of split between body and mind. I’ve been thrown into watching myself perform actions rather than living them. I have floated above my body, seen myself speak, desperately out of control of what I’m doing. But there is also a certain sense of disassociation involved in how women are taught to act from a young age: always watching ourselves, always being hyper-aware of how others view us before we turn our minds to how we view ourselves.
My illness, my gender, and my musical career merged perfectly to turn me into a mirror for others. As my mental health deteriorated and the spotlight on me increased, I lost the energy to turn the mirror to myself. I had become fair game at this point, already having been the target of online abuse countless times, having my photo taken, my voice recorded, and in turn all my flaws exposed without my approval or editing. And so people could project onto me their insecurities, their passions, and their traumas.
"I became empowered in the knowledge that I too could turn myself into what I wanted"
The explosive intersection of how one can lose their sense of identity when struggling with mental illness and how women are taught to behave according to rigid societal expectations led to a desperate confusion. In leaving the band that seemed to have defined me for so many years, in taking a temporary step back from writing and performing, I thought I would lose myself. Instead I saw that it was during this period of fronting the band that my identity had been warped, muddled and eventually lost. But what women are subject to as musicians and performers – the intensified scrutiny of our appearance, the undermining of our musical and lyrical endeavours – and the concurrent aggravation suffered by those of us with mental illnesses does not have to define us.
What I learned from this step back was that I didn’t have to play into these stereotypes; I didn’t have to accept others people’s views of me as my own reality. After years of struggle against the rigidities of gender roles and an illness as disorientating as mine, this is no easy feat. Yet I was able to turn the mirror held up to me for the projec- tion and distortion of others’ back onto myself. In accepting that people – in music and in life – will always turn you into what they want, I became empowered in the knowledge that I too could turn myself into what I wanted.