It could be the hit of the summer: “Sweet but Psycho” by Ava Max. It’s the same type of upbeat pop hit we’ve heard from Katy Perry and Ariana Grande. And it’s climbing the charts. The song details the actions of a girl who is “sweet but psycho.” The song mostly features reasons she might be considered “psycho” — she might grab a police officer’s gun; she rips off guy’s shirts; at night, she screams “I’m out of my mind.” Of course, the song also mentions several times that she’s “hot.” So, I guess we’re to assume that makes it OK that she’s also been described as a “psycho.” The music video makes the song even more problematic. It features the singer, Ava Max, violently abusing men. It suggests she killed one man and lights another one on fire. But she’s really attractive while doing it, so I guess we are supposed to be OK with her vivid, awful depiction of what she feels a “psycho” is.
In an interview with Vanity Fair, Ava Max gave a vague, unconvincing explanation of the use of the word “psycho” in this song. Max explained: “It’s all play-pretend. It’s like, well, guys think we actually are [psycho] … It’s mocking. [At first, people] think I’m actually calling them psycho, but then it’s a deeper meaning. And obviously the music video is very drastic, and I want theatrics. I want to give people a show and an experience. And every music video is gonna be an experience for you guys, and I definitely want you to see the real message behind it.”
“I think we all have different personalities … and even in relationships, we can be called psycho, and we can be called sweet, based on what the person feels about you. And it’s so irritating, because you’re like, ‘Stop labeling me,’ and so I really think people relate to that.”
It’s hard to tell if she is completely oblivious to the hurt the word “psycho” has caused people, or if she is a brilliant tactician, dancing around the question without really addressing the use of such an offensive word. Either way, she does nothing to account for or excuse using a known derogatory term 18 times in the song.
And yet, this song continues to play on radio stations around the globe.
Am I being too sensitive? Maybe. Two radio stations in my area that play this song have said, even though they understand my concern, the song is very popular so the messaging can’t be that offensive. And it continues to play, every time reinforcing for every listener that “psycho” is an entirely appropriate word to use to describe someone. Let’s be clear – it’s not.
We as a society have come to a place where we understand that certain words shouldn’t be said in public. Successful artists, authors and educators — such as Beyonce, Kendrick Lamar and Ta-Nehisi Coates — continue to use a slur to describe African-Americans. Often, the reasoning is that they want to take back the word and the power it holds, but radio and TV stations realize that listeners don’t always see the intention of the use of the word, and even if they did, some would still find it offensive. So, it is censored in the media, as are slurs to describe other races, genders and sexual orientations. Artists should have the freedom to use the words they need to properly express themselves, but in my opinion, the public should not have to worry about turning on the radio and hearing terms that are deeply offensive. And in large part, because of the censoring of certain words, that isn’t a problem. Unless, of course, you have a mental illness.
“Sweet but Psycho” is not an anomaly. Taylor Swift’s new song “Me” uses the word psycho. “Hot N Cold” by Katy Perry described someone as having a “love bipolar.” “Beautiful Girls” by Sean Kingston lamented that girls who are too beautiful make him suicidal. Sadly, it is still acceptable to use words that stigmatize and trivialize mental illness. So those with mental illnesses are bombarded daily with words and images that show just how powerful stigma is, and how little the general population knows about mental illness. The result is fewer people feeling safe about speaking about their illness, fewer people reaching out for help and fewer people getting the treatment they need.
It’s just one song. Maybe I will find one radio station willing to take it off the air. But even if I do, that doesn’t “solve” stigma. Language is powerful, and I sincerely hope that one radio station leads to two, leads to even more. And perhaps, at some point, artists will know that if they choose to use derogatory words to depict race, gender, sexuality or mental illness, they will be censored on publicly available media — not in the name of restricting their expression, but in the name of everyone being able to safely consume media.