A Conversation About Darkness With Rufus Wainwright

A musician explores dark emotions through his music.

Posted Oct 20, 2020

“Hatred on the horizon 

Must be assumed for the ascension 

Shatter the scepter 

Lower the drawbridge 

Drain the moat 

Empty the catapult” 

—From “Devils and Angels (Hatred)” by Rufus Wainwright

On this week’s episode of The Hardcore Humanism Podcast, we had the pleasure of talking with singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright. Wainwright has been making rich, textured “Baroque Pop” music for over 20 years and recently released his seventh studio album, Unfollow the Rules (2020). Rolling Stone calls the album “a stately pop throwback full of his signature vocal grandeur.” The Guardian says, “…sumptuous…a lush, engaging study.” And he has recently begun an 18-show series of live stream concerts called “A Rufus-Retro-Wainwright-Spective” that showcases his 20-year career

Tony Hauser, used with permission
Source: Tony Hauser, used with permission

During the conversation, we talk about a frequent topic of Wainwright’s music—experiencing, contemplating, and expressing feelings of “darkness.” “Darkness” is often a term that is colloquially used to describe intense negative emotions, including depression, anxiety, and anger.

In more mild cases, depression and anxiety can be experienced as mood states—often temporary and not overly intense. But in more extreme cases, as with people who experience mental health conditions such as major depression, panic disorder, or post-traumatic stress disorder, darkness can cause severe suffering. Further, darker emotions can also underlie people’s engagement in harmful behavior, such as excessive substance use, violence, or even suicide. Wainwright has publicly discussed enduring dark emotions, and during our conversation, he discusses his struggle with severe depression and addiction, as well as the suicides of his contemporaries, such as Kurt Cobain and Elliott Smith.

One of the most difficult and elusive issues facing people who struggle with darker emotions is how they can be effectively managed. For many people, the natural tendency is to want to avoid and suppress intense negative emotions. And, indeed, when we have more fleeting negative feelings, this may be an effective strategy. As an example, one study of 60 participants examined the effects of acceptance as compared to suppression on the intensity of duration of a sad mood. The results suggested that suppression was actually effective in reducing short-term mild sadness.

However, this approach may backfire over the long haul, and particularly when people are facing more intense stress and sadness. For example, one study of 247 women newly diagnosed with breast cancer examined the relationship between the tendency to engage in emotional suppression and depression levels, among other measures. The results showed that participants who engaged in higher levels of emotional suppression were more likely to have more depression symptoms. In fact, emotional suppression and avoidance appear to be such a common theme among individuals who struggle with mental health issues that many are calling for treatment of avoidance and suppression to be a “transdiagnostic” approach across mental health issues.

So, if avoidance of darker emotions is harmful, how do we cope? In general, managing these issues involves learning how to experience them in a way that allows someone to better tolerate the intensity of the emotion. As an example, empirically-supported cognitive-behavioral treatments of panic disorder involve exposing an individual to the feared panic and teaching coping strategies such as relaxation breathing techniques to help that individual reduce their anxious reaction. In theory, when guided by a trained practitioner, individuals allow themselves to experience just enough panic to provide a useful therapeutic opportunity, but not so much that they become overwhelmed, thus confirming their belief that their anxiety is unmanageable.

But this is a difficult line to walk, particularly when people are struggling on their own when confronted with darker emotions and are unsure of how “deep” to go in the experience. This is where artists like Rufus can be so powerful in helping people engage with, confront, and express negative emotions. Research strongly suggests that music therapy, in the form of listening or playing music, can have a positive effect on mental health.

For example, one meta-analytic review of nine studies, including 411 participants, found that adding music therapy to “treatment as usual” significantly improved reduced depressive symptoms among participants. Part of the reason is that music allows people to encounter darker emotions in a way that feels safe and manageable, which in theory could help individuals learn how to tolerate and cope with the experience of depression and other difficult emotions.

Listening to Rufus explain how he understands and connects with these darker emotions can help us explore ways to manage and cope with our own struggles with darkness. 


You can hear Dr. Mike's conversation with Rufus Wainwright on the Hardcore Humanism Podcast at HardcoreHumanism.com, Apple Podcasts, or your podcast app