In The Psychologizing of Modernity, Mark Jarzombek examines the effect that popular psychology has had on design. Modern life, he finds, is so tied to what we know about human psychology and comfort that even our aesthetic concepts of what is beautiful have been changed to accommodate psychology’s major premises. Although Jarzombek does not extend his theorizing beyond art and architecture, a closer look at the lyrics in suicide-themed songs reveals a strong link between psychology and a transformed art format. A careful observer will note that popular psychological theories on suicide, as well as the commonly traded jargon of popular psychology itself, are infused into all contemporary lyrics dealing with self-destruction. In brief, psychology, in particular popular psychology, is responsible for shaping the form and format of the “suicide-themed music” of this new millennium. It is the reason why modern music has a new aesthetic design and a unique interactive format that is distinctly different from the presentations of prominent artists from the sixties, seventies and eighties. Songs about suicide penned by groups such as Third Eye Blind, Blink-182, Good Charlotte, Sugarcult, Blue October, and the ever-popular Fray have turned singers into counselors. Musical renderings often sound like a session with one’s personal psychologist or a compressed half-hour conference with a popular psychology guru like Dr. Phil. Even the lyrics are remarkably different from previous musical efforts. Tunes echo hot-line phrases, popular terminology that troubled fans can tap into when life gets hard. In brief, because popular psychology has made self-help, communication, and positive thinking a common thread in our culture, artistic vehicles like music have responded to this cultural input by changing their form to accommodate this body of ideas.
Why has music suddenly become society’s self-help tool or a teen’s conduit to self-analysis? The answer to this query can be found in the rising number of teenage deaths. An upward spiral in the suicide rate, which has just about tripled since 1960, is the prime reason behind the shift. On September 6, 2007, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that the suicide rate of American adolescents has continued to increase by eight percent, the largest jump in 15 years. In 2004 there were 4,599 suicides of Americans ages 10 to 24, an increase of 7.23 percent since 2003. That increase alone would account for music’s attempt to discourage such precipitous behavior. However, music has also been motivated to step into the breach because of its checkered past. Heavy metal was blamed for a rise in teen suicides during the eighties, so it is not surprising that contemporary tunesters would take a different stance, preferring to affirm life rather than romanticize death. Music’s fascination with suicide - a transgenerational theme that has captured the imagination of writers as varied as Shakespeare, Ibsen and Styron - is complex and intense, but more importantly, the employment of this theme has frequently anticipated and even tracked the curve and spike in youthful death statistics. Yet this is, as Jacques Attali notes, music’s peculiar fate: “Music is prophecy….It makes audible the new world that will gradually become visible.”
Indeed, as early as the mid-sixties, music foreshadowed the sub-rosa responses of teens to the pressures of life in a fast-paced modern world. The first songs directly dealing with suicide surfaced in the mid-sixties. Simon and Garfunkel’s “Richard Cory” (1966) “and “Save The Life Of My Child” (1968) are perhaps the earliest of suicide-theme medleys. Creating a mise-en-scene, these sixties composers use Cory’s suicide to generate a socio-political statement, thus endowing Robinson’s theme with richer content material. Their song is a theatre piece in which they apply Cory’s inexplicable actions to a broad economic, social, and political canvas that contains the key issues of their time. Recounting Cory’s charmed life and his inexplicable suicide, an indigent townsperson, who labors in one of Cory’s factories, berates himself and his employer for his impoverished lifestyle. The speaker obviously envies Cory his freedom and money, but unlike the Robinson poem, in which Cory’s fatal choice is the key issue, Simon and Garfunkel’s song makes us wonder if the speaker is envying Cory his wealth or the strength of character that it took to end his life. Since the worker’s life is so tough and difficult, it is not unthinkable that he too might want the same release from his hell that Cory sought. However, what he might lack is the strength of conviction and character that is needed to end his life in a similar fashion to Cory’s.
Clearly, Simon and Garfunkel are using suicide for a particular purpose. Much of the same social commentary that is part of their focus figures in another offering, “Save The Life Of My Child.” This 1968 song reflects its era’s recognition of the great divide between young and old, liberal and conservative. Exposing the extent of the “generation gap,” the song lays bare the frustrations of the suicidal youth who cannot reach out to the adults around him. The older generation projects too many stereotypes onto him, and these preconceived notions stop them from having a meaningful conversation. Some in the crowd believe that “he must be high on something” while other right-wingers hold that in general “kids have no respect for the law today.” In our modern time, such lyrics would be deemed inappropriate and politically incorrect. Most people, thanks to popular psychology, know that an action such as suicide cannot be reduced to these simplistic elements; suicide is too complex and too inexplicable for any of us to presuppose a person’s motives. We now know what was not commonly known at that time - that our modern society merely offers us parking places for our bodies, with no understanding of our hearts and minds. Not surprisingly, a society that does not understand will always intrude upon our emotions and trample upon our privacy. When the youth calls out, “Oh, my grace, I’ve got no hiding place,” he anticipates the concerns of songwriters in this, the new millennium. What is not anticipated, however, is how those concerns will be handled by this generation of artists.
Critiquing society in this way, Simon and Garfunkel opened the door to other songwriters to respond to their material. No one in the time period just after their groundbreaking musical endeavors offered the psychological support that Cory or the youth in the 1968 song would have wanted. Instead, the two important songs of the seventies used either irony or lush music to dissect personal despair. In 1970, Robert Altman’s son, Mike, penned “Suicide is Painless,” the theme to the movie and television show Mash. His dark and ironic lyrics indicate that suicide is the one empowering choice in a modern society that has gone amok. Curiously, the content contrasts greatly with the song’s light and cheery musical tone and register. Spartan in content and phrasing, this musical effort contrasts against the lush and dramatic sound of another seventies hit, Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” (1975). In this composition rich metaphors liken suicide to a seducer who ropes and ties her victims to the altar of self-sacrifice, using “a slip noose hanging in my darkest dreams.” The author of these verses is amazed that he is still alive because “you [death] almost had your hooks in me.” That amazement is part of his reaffirmation of live itself. The song uses a kaleidoscopic setting in the East End as a backdrop for the main character’s despair, and the writer supports his conflicting emotions with a three key piano range that symbolically heightens the speaker’s confused state.
These two songs had a strong listener response, but they added little insight as to why there was a rising suicide rate. However, none of these compositions could be accused of being as darkly negative about life as the music of the eighties. Romanticizing death, and ensconcing it in dissonant chords that were often jarring, the eighties gave suicide-themed music the reputation that contemporary music is still trying to expunge. Because there were countless articles by sociologists and psychologists intimating that heavy music may exacerbate tendencies towards suicide, warning labels were subsequently placed on CD cases. Offerings by Metallica, such as their “Fade to Black” (1984) or their “Welcome Home: Sanitarium” (1986) or Ozzy Osbourn’s “Suicide Solutions” (1980) were easily condemned by masses of conservative listeners who took exception to not only the sound, but the words as well. Surely phrases like “Death greets me warm, now I will just say goodbye” are frightening because they depict death as an effective escape from the tedium of life. This concept is accomplished in a manner more disturbing than Altman’s composition. Writers state that life is imbued with “simply nothing more” than “the emptiness.” This is certainly not uplifting music. It also doesn’t warn the listener about this final solution. Although these groups have protested that interpretations of their work are skewed, it is easy for any non-fan to look at heavy metal’s lyrics and find an implicit support for death as a viable alternative for living life. For example, Metallica in “Welcome Home” observes that death “seems the only way of reaching out again.” This nihilistic vision is expanded upon and underscored in “Suicide Solutions” by Ozzy Osborne. For the speaker in the song, suicide is the best of solutions:
'Cos you feel life's unreal, and you're living a lie
Such a shame, who's to blame, and you're wondering why
Then you ask from your cask, is there life after birth
What you saw can mean hell on this earth
Hell on this earth.
These negative verses impacted upon music’s image in the mainstream culture. Not surprisingly, groups emerging in the nineties attempted to change the way in which outsiders viewed suicide-themed music. The kick–off artist for this revisionist effort is Third Eye Blind, a San Francisco based alternate rock group. In “Jumper” (1997), the composer revisits the setting from Simon and Garfunkel’s “Save The Life Of My Child,” describing in precise detail the author’s attempt at persuading a jumper to return to safety. In a video that can only be termed as visually hallucinogenic, the singer replaces the mother and the crowd, both of whom loomed largely in the Garfunkel piece. He urges the youth not to do what the crowd in “Save The Life Of My Child” pushed the youth to do because of their lack of understanding and their frenzied response. The composer of this piece begs the youth not to turn into a code, or to use Simon and Garfunkel’s more poetic phrasing, not to “fly away.” The medical terminology, which reminds the listener of a therapeutic setting, is merely a gloss, an allusion in the tune to the psychiatric backdrop. The bulk of the presentation presents the new age theme of understanding, and posits the songwriter in the position of a therapist or counselor. Stating that he understands and empathizes, the speaker dons the role of a hotline attendant. He models throughout the song the appropriate behaviors recommended by TV self-help programs, attempting enthusiastically to build an understanding between himself and the jumper. He tells the youth that he knows all about the teen being different from the rest of those around him:
The angry boy a bit too insane
Icing over a secret pain
You know you don't belong
You're the first to fight
You're way too loud
You're the flash of light on a burial shroud.
Stating that he will leave if the jumper wants him to do so, the speaker makes it clear that his preference is to have the teen deal with his trauma or stress in a constructive manner.
The song is pure talk therapy. It borrows heavily from the cookie-cutter short answers offered up by a Dr. Phil or a Dr. Laura. As Alan S. Brown and Chris Logan have noted in their study of the themes in The Simpsons, pop psychology often invokes nothing more than accepted platitudes; it also places a heavy weight on such simplistic concepts as self-reflection, public confession, and the need to communicate with others. We see bits and pieces of that same subject matter in “Jumper." The speaker wishes to lead the youth towards self-understanding. He observes that the jumper should accept his nonconformity and learn from it. Once again borrowing from the vernacular of popular psychology, the speaker urges the young man to “put the past away” and move on because “Everyone’s got to face down the demons.“ Transforming an individual response into a universal dilemma, the speaker asks the youth to see himself as belonging to the body of mankind. In doing so, he also promotes a learned optimism that he believes will help him cope with his sexual difference. Learned optimism, a concept introduced by Martin Seligman in a 1991 self-help tract of the same name, posits that optimism gives us a sense of control which in turn enables us to make effective changes in our lives. By making us into happier people, we are prevented many from engaging in suicide.
In addition to these pop psychology currents, the speaker in “Jumper” also exhibits a type of approachability that textbooks assure us are helpful in dealing with potential suicides. He never lectures or minimizes the jumper’s feelings. And throughout the piece, he expresses love and support for the troubled youth in phrases that sound like a litany, an incantation chanted before a figure that has assumed a Christ-like pose:
I would understand, I would understand
I would understand, I would understand
I would understand, I would understand
Because the speaker is familiar with how to handle a suicidal person, we quickly sense that this representative of modern society is markedly different from those figures portrayed in Simon and Garfunkel’s earlier effort. Unlike the world that watched the youth fly off the ledge, the viewer in “Jumper” has, because of pop psychology, developed the empathy that is needed to tell a potential suicide how to leapfrog over the past.
Acting perhaps on insight or premonition, Blink-182 released “Adam’s Song” (1999) in the same year that the Surgeon General published the warning signs of childhood depression. Since then the list of symptoms associated with teenage depression has become part of our popular culture, each of the warning signs enumerated on TV, radio, and in popular magazines. “Adam’s Song” oddly enough is a primer on depression, an enumeration of each warning sign in compressed detail. The lyrics tell us that no matter how hard Adam may laugh, his depression doesn’t lift. He spends more and more time alone in his room while assuming guilt for all the tiny wrongs committed in his childhood. Indeed, if we didn’t know the signs of depression before listening to this song, we certainly pick up on them because of it. Adam even verbalizes his intentions as a threat: “You’ll be sorry when I’m gone.” He’s into punk and grunge, paraphrasing Kurt Cobain and Nirvana’s “Come As You Are” when he describes the confused and conflicting emotions that drive him towards death: “I took my time, I hurried up, the choice was mine.” He might even be imitating Cobain; we are never sure about this motivation. In contrast to Adam, the band in the song, which serves as a counterbalance to the youth, pushes through the debilitating depression of their road trip. Their awareness of the world being “wide” and ripe with opportunities for happiness helps them to withstand the joylessness of a life lived on the road. In the end, it is their music which lives on and which affords Adam the immortalization that he never achieved in his short life. By affirming that life has highs and lows, Blink-182 initiates a dialogue with their fans. When they talk about their choice, they make it clear that suicide is not the best option.
When their fans wrote to them about suicide, Good Charlotte answered their letters with “Hold On” (2003). This is an unusual song that undertakes, in every sense, a dialogue with the listener. At the start of the music video that is coupled with the song, Good Charlotte turns to psychological statistics to get their viewers’ full attention. A script runs across the page, announcing that someone dies in a suicide attempt every eighteen minutes. Statistical data and the refrain that urges one to “hold on” are interwoven into the testimony of those who remain behind as “the survivors” when their loved one dies in a suicide attempt. Light on lyrics, but heavy on the emotional content of the survivors, “Hold On” is not so much a song as a call to action. It mixes together the elements of a public health message with rock music, employing a heavy use of learned optimism, a key concept from the pop psychology menu. It repeatedly insists that life "gets better than you know.” Restating Blink-182’s position, the lyrics themselves urge optimism in the face of difficulties: absentee parents, parental abuse, and that sense of ennui and depression that is associated with modern life. They also note that there is universality to all this pain: “We all have the same thing to go through,” a proposition offered up by Third Eye Blind in “Jumper.” This is the human condition, Good Charlotte observes, and it is how we handle it that makes the difference. Urging us to never lose hope, Good Charlotte believes that we all belong to the human family, the faces and stories at the start of the video. This sense of belonging, which pop psychology advances as an important part of our self-discovery, is meant to help us through our troubled times. After all, we want to leave something important behind when we die, something more than the legacy of pain that is clearly depicted at the start of the video.
Is this sense of belonging - a sense of loyalty to our peers - enough to give us hope and sustain us? Anyone who listens to radio or TV knows that medication is another popular fix that we can turn to when we are in emotional pain. In “Sign Off” (2004), Sugarcult addresses and analyzes an omnipresent fear that if the medication fails, suicide might be the answer to that loss of control:
if the medication works
could i be the way i was?
Indeed, the very efficacy of prescription therapy reminds us of the curious lead-in at the start of Blue October’s “Hate Me” (2006). This song chronicles the personal experiences of the lead singer, Justin Furstenfeld, who suffers from depression. Opening with a voicemail from Furstenfeld’s mother, who is expressing her concern about his personal safety, this intense tune chronicles the author's failures with depression, drink, and self-destruction. The writer has only survived because of his mother’s keen reliance upon popular psychology which has led her to freely offer her love to her troubled son, allowing him to thus weather his “suicidal hate.” Discussing his mother’s attempt to give him some self-esteem, a pop psychology cure, the writer praises her for her insights: “You made me compliment myself when it was way too hard to take.” Nonetheless, for him to achieve real adulthood he must break away from the nest in which he has been nurtured by his loving parent; he must undertake what pop psychology has indicated to be the appropriate next step. Needing to take responsibility for his own mental health, the author begins the lonely journey towards self-actualization. He analyzes himself enough and his failing enough to make that first step towards wholeness as a “grown man” and not a “boy.”
Contemporary music has thus become deeply interactive with its listeners. It has also decided to talk frankly about issues that are percolating throughout the fabric of the popular culture. Psychology has fueled this change as writers attempt to counsel their listeners about ways to cope with modern life. The dialogue has only started, but its intent is clear. We only need to listen to lyrics to see where modern music is headed. When Fray in “How To Save A Life” (2005) describes how a counselor operates, he also provides the astute listener with a game plan for music’s operation in the future:
Step one you say we need to talk
He walks you say sit down it’s just a talk
Modern songs are aiming to do more than just “lay down a list of what is wrong”; they are indicating to us just how we can make things more right in our lives. Even if we object to pop psychology as providing overly simplistic solutions to the complexities of life, the marriage between music and psychology has a laudable purpose: to restore our emotional health. In our cars or in our bedrooms, with our stereos and iPods just inches away from our fingertips, we can commune with our chosen therapist. For this is what feelings sound like. And sometimes, with great insight, this is also the best medicine for our minds.
From guest contributor Susan Orenstein