We often note a relationship between mental illness and creativity, but connecting illness and the creative process is way out of scope for a lit major. Representations of insanity in art, like The Yellow Wallpaper, Wuthering Heights, or Lust for Life, are more my speed, and popular music is full of these references. My “crazy” playlist pulls songs with “crazy”, or related terms, in the title, and brings up forty-four songs, ranging from the AfganWhigs to ZZ Top. Some, like Jimi Hendrix’s “Manic Depression” or Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid”, are obvious references to real conditions, but most are more abstract: “Crazy”, “Crazy Baby”, or “Crazy Love” are pretty ambiguous. So what do these musicians mean by “crazy”? I see four different meanings, depending on what is so described.
First, it’s important to understand that “crazy” isn’t usually intended to indicate a mental illness. This raises questions about stigmatization, perhaps subject for another day, but also corresponds to the general public’s misconception of mental health problems. “Crazy” here equals wild and uncontrollable, or confused and anxious, irrational, or just generally not thinking clearly. It isn’t a life-long condition, but something temporary, attributable to a specific cause (usually a girl), and is either good or bad, depending on the stage in a relationship.
On to the crazy music. We’ll start with “Crazy Love”: Van Morrison tells us that love, itself, is a maddening, nonsensical state—an oft-repeated trope nicely echoed by Paul Simon in “Crazy Love vol. II” (I don’t want no part of your crazy love). Ah, but love isn’t crazy. Love is a concept. People are crazy, at least in the second and third types of song.
“I’m crazy” songs, like “Crazy He Calls Me” (Billie Holiday), “Crazy” (Patsy Cline), “Crazy for You” (Madonna), or “Crazy About You” (Whiskeytown), address the unrest or devotion inspired by an object of desire. This is about the all-consuming passion that strips away reason, leaving the speaker at love’s mercy. The corollary is a “you’re crazy” song, like Icehouse’s “You Gotta Be Crazy”—you must be insane to want me, or “Crazy Baby” from The Blasters. In these, the other’s insanity is either an attractive feature (the wild child is more likely to put out, after all) or the only explanation for her attraction to the singer.
Finally, we have the call to action: “Let’s Go Crazy”, as Prince says. This is the most obviously conflated use of crazy; no one would say “Let’s Get Schizophrenic”. This kind of crazy is really just a disregard for consequences, a call to get wild and do things we normally wouldn’t consider.
So we have four kinds of crazy music: love is crazy, I’m crazy, you’re crazy, and let’s get crazy. None of them actually deals with mental illness. The sheer number of references, though, suggests that we all experience something like (some mild form of) insanity on occasion, and even that such states are desirable. A pity this doesn’t lead to a better understanding of, and greater sympathy for, those with real mental health issues.