Hear Us Out: Matchbox Twenty’s ‘Unwell’ Is More Relevant Than Ever

Matchbox Twenty frontman Rob Thomas spoke with VICE about what the song means for him today.

08 November 2021, 8:25am

If there’s anything the pandemic has taught us, it’s that it’s OK not to be OK—an important lesson about mental health that Matchbox Twenty frontman Rob Thomas learned too well back in the early 2000s, when he set out to write “Unwell.”

The song was released in 2002, as part of the album More Than You Think You Are, and went on to become one of the biggest pop songs of the aughts. After years as a karaoke staple and with images of the song’s original lyric sheets becoming an NFT, it’s become more relevant than ever in 2021. 

“It wasn’t long ago that there seemed to be some stigma attached to just saying ‘I don’t think I’m OK,’ so people, instead, wouldn’t open up and wouldn’t get help,” Thomas told VICE. “‘Unwell’ is really just a song saying ‘I don’t think I’m OK.’”

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The song’s title is self-explanatory. Its lyrics describe the feelings of sickness, self-doubt, insecurity, and isolation that often accompany panic attacks, something that Thomas revealed he experienced for a long time.

“It was about self care and [how] you’re not comfortable in your own skin and the world sees it, and you feel like a freak,” he told DJ Steve Aoki in a video uploaded to the band’s Instagram account. 

“And now with social media... that’s more prevalent than it’s ever been.”

“All night hearing voices tellin’ me / That I should get some sleep / Because tomorrow might be good for somethin’ / Hold on, feelin’ like I’m headed for a breakdown / And I don’t know why.”

Lyrically, “Unwell” is about Thomas’ deeper personal experience coping with anxiety. “[It] was about my becoming increasingly uncomfortable in everyday situations and seeing the change happening,” he said. 

“Right around the time I wrote it was also the time I had started to have small panic attacks. They only worsened over time, but the song was about me just realizing that I had this job where I was comfortable in front of thousands of people, but felt like I was standing outside of myself in a crowded room.”

And out of all the lines in the three and a half-minute song, his favorite is “tomorrow might be good for something.”

“It’s hopeful,” he said. “But certainly the low bar of hope.”

“​Unwell” was a musical departure from the band’s signature rock style. Photo: Courtesy of Randall Slavin​, Atlantic Records

Anxiety is one of the most common mental health conditions affecting millions of people of all ages. Experts say it could manifest in negative feelings like stress, worry, and fear, and often leaves people feeling overwhelmed. In more serious cases, some experience psychological distress. This has been especially prevalent during the pandemic, with never-ending lockdowns and constant bad news cycles triggering worries and loneliness. 

Thomas, the frontman of one of the best-selling rock bands of the ‘90s and early 2000s, reeled in his own anxiety and panic attacks in order to perform in front of thousands at sold-out shows and stadium tours around the world—he eventually talked about his condition through music. 

“It’s especially important during this time when our collective anxiety has risen to such a level. Most of us know that we don’t feel alright but just the fact that we are talking about it is a big part of the battle,” he said. 

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Thomas has had his fair share of challenges and grief during the height of the pandemic. He lost friends and family members, and now worries about his wife, who’s been coping with underlying health issues that have prevented her from getting the vaccine at the moment. 

“It’s been a challenge at times, for sure,” he said. “Even with me being vaccinated, we have to be careful.” 

“Most of us know that we don’t feel alright but just the fact that we are talking about it is a big part of the battle.”

Compared to more famous Matchbox Twenty hits like “Push,” “Bent,” “If You’re Gone,” and “Disease” (which was written by Mick Jagger and Thomas), “Unwell” was a musical departure from the band’s signature rock style, slower in pace and opening with a banjo. 

“When I originally started it, I had it as a much more upbeat kind of song. Thankfully, Paul [the band’s drummer and rhythm guitarist], heard the demo and immediately said that it had to be more of a ballad,” Thomas recalled. “We loved the song but knew there was a chance it may not do well.” 

It was a musical risk for the band, but one they knew they had to take—and it ultimately paid off, topping Billboard charts, peaking at No. 5 on the Hot 100, and receiving a Grammy nomination.

“When the song was in the charts, it was a lot of hip-hop and R&B surrounding it, and here came this song from a band with a banjo as the lead instrument.” 

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Today, it’s still played on the radio and its music video on YouTube—which follows Thomas through an episode while being pursued by A Clockwork Orange-esque characters—racking up more than 69 million views.

“It’s heartening,” Thomas said of the song’s success and resonance today. “To be somewhere all these years later and still hear any of our songs on the radio or being played by a band is amazing.” 

The official music video for “Unwell.” Did you see the Carlos Santana easter egg?

Now it lives on in internet history, as well as a 2021 remix by DJ Steve Aoki and singer-songwriter Kiiara, featuring Wiz Khalifa, titled “Used To Be.” Thomas, who gave his seal of approval, even makes a vocal appearance on the acoustic version

“Kiiara is someone who has dealt with her own struggles at a very young age. I believe she recognized herself in the general meaning of the chorus,” Thomas said, adding that he immediately warmed to the cover and was “more than happy” to duet with her on the acoustic version.

“I think when artists, musicians, or writers touch on something that a listener or reader connects with, it speaks more to the fact that we are all the same in so many ways,” Thomas said. 

Now the band is looking to hit the road again, hopefully in 2022.

“The idea that we live in a time where people in the public eye—musicians, sports stars, actors, writers, civil leaders—speak openly about their struggles with mental health, it helps normalize the feeling.” 

Follow Heather Chen on Twitter

Tagged:

mental health, anxiety, rob thomas, Matchbox Twenty

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