'Sweet but Psycho' is a problematic song and here's why.
Updated: Mar 9, 2020
By Clodagh Meaney
If you're a regular listener to Top 40 radio, or similar on Spotify, chances are you've been subjected to the song Sweet but Psycho by Ava Max.
This is Max's debut single, and unfortunately for her, it's anything but pleasant. It feeds right into a misogynistic "crazy girlfriend" narrative, as well as stigmatising those who suffer from psychosis or other mental illnesses.
As a sufferer of mental health issues and an advocate for de-stigmatisation, I wanted to take a further look into the problems deep rooted in the song and pop culture itself.
I spoke to Courtney Smyth, who has years of experience with mental health systems in Ireland. As well as this, Courtney is a mental health advocate with a BSc in Psychology. She has been involved with youth mental health charity Reach Out and written many articles for Headstuff on social issues surrounding mental illness and stigma.
'Songs like Sweet But Psycho just pull back on the advances artists are making. We’ve been taking massive steps forward recently. Look at Ariana (Grande) and Thank u, next. Look at all the feminist artists out there standing up for themselves.
'I’m not blaming Ava Max specifically, but all the people involved in making that song, the writers who collaborated and wrote the lyrics and composed the music all had a duty to think about whether portraying a woman as dangerous, fun and likely to cut your clothes up (hello, misogynistic stereotypes) has a place in the music scene in 2018. I don’t think it does.'
But it's not the first time mental health has been undermined or misrepresented in pop culture, Courtney explains:
'The representation of mental health issues in shows such as Pretty Little Liars tend to be incredibly problematic, and there is still a culture where in shows people who display behaviour that is socially unacceptable are labelled mentally ill.
'A recent study showed that there was an increase in suicidal behaviour from teenagers after the release of 13 Reasons Why, which was irresponsibly filmed and went against the World Health Organisation's media guidelines on reporting suicides, and they ignored the advice of a youth mental health charity. It was irresponsible and glorified suicide in a way that was worrying and led to copycat suicides.
'There’s been a severe uptake in recent years of individuals being willing to talk about mental health issues, but if we stop short at only allowing depression and anxiety to be normalised, we are letting a huge percentage of the population down.'
What elements of this particular song are causing the problem? Take a look at some of the lyrics:
Grab a cop gun kinda crazy
She's poison but tasty
Yeah, people say "Run, don't walk away"
'Cause she's sweet but a psycho
A little bit psycho
At night she screamin' "I'm out, out my, out my mind"
But what exactly is psychosis? And why is it so important not to use these phrases so flippantly?
'Psychosis in itself is not an illness or a disorder, but rather a symptom, and it is characterised by factors where the person experiencing psychosis has an impaired relationship with reality. These include delusions — false beliefs — auditory, visual or sensory hallucinations, confused or disturbed thoughts, disorganised speech, and a lack of insight or self-awareness during the episode of psychosis,' explains Courtney.
'According to the HSE, schizophrenia is one of the most common serious mental health disorders, and in 2012 an article published suggested that 120,000 people in Ireland are living with psychotic disorders or schizophrenia. This means that it is highly likely someone you know either experiences psychosis, or has a loved one who does.
'"Psycho" is a flippant term that erases the experiences of people who actually do live with psychosis and further stigmatises the condition. It is colloquially used as a synonym for “crazy” and is used to label any behaviour that is considered socially or personally unacceptable. All this does is create a culture of shame around serious mental health conditions."
Last year, UK activist Phil Hill successfully petitioned a number of retailers to remove items of clothing with slogans such as "Cute by Pscyho" from their stores.
'Why did people think it was OK exploit mental health to make money? Why was a mental health disorder being passed as "fashion"?
How could there still be such a lack of understanding of mental health that someone would design this and others would by it? And ultimately, why was mental health STILL not getting the respect it deserves?' they told Happiful.com
The song has taken psychosis and tried to make it edgy. The music video depicts a woman, poisoning a man, and following him with an axe while wearing a wedding dress.
Oh, she's sweet but a psycho
A little bit psycho.
She'll make you curse, but she a blessing
She'll rip your shirt within a second
You'll be coming back, back for seconds
With your plate, you just can't help it.
'There were any number of words that could’ve been used instead of psycho and I think there’s enough collective knowledge being stockpiled to know that psycho isn’t acceptable.
'Notwithstanding that, I think we’ve moved far past the idea that women are crazy, and continuing to perpetuate it as a quirk or fun feature that will have men running after these women brings us back to the suggestion that women only act and do things for male pleasure and the male gaze, and that they like “crazy” when there is a prospect of sexual gratification, but when that is off the table, “crazy” is negative. We don’t need it.'
'As recent as this year, See Change called for people to stop using words like “psycho” and “schizo,”' said Courtney. 'This includes songs.
'Using it in a song normalises it, it puts it into people’s vernacular, it encourages the use of the words, it does harm.'
I decided to stand up to this song, and began a petition to radio stations and music television stations in Ireland to remove the song from their playlists.
When I posted the petition to Twitter, fans of the singer were quick to reply explaining to me that 'Melanie Martinez has done worse.' First of all; I haven't a clue who that is, second of all, two wrongs do not make a right.
'Absolutely awful song that rolls the mental health narrative back about 20 years. Being “psycho” isn’t a cute personality trait, it’s a mental disorder and people with psychopathic tendencies need help, not to have their difficulties trivialised in a catchy pop song' said one petition signer.
Every year on World Mental Health day, tropes of people post 'It's ok not to be ok' and other similar mental health mantras to their social media feeds. While we're making way as a nation to break down stigma when it comes to depression, suicide and anxiety, we also need to be at the forefront of advocating for all mental disorders and standing up for the right thing.
You can sign the petition here.