Suicide In Pop Music Culture Media Essay

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Growing up is hard enough for most teenagers and music has always acted as is an important crutch for them to turn to when times are hard. Music plays a vital role in youth culture and has also become a question of morality when it comes to specific music genres that may be deemed inappropriate because of the content and message their music gives out (Zillmann and Gan, 1997; Ter Bogt, 1997).

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Some believe particular genres of music are potentially dangerous to young people and the music and its performers are professed as encouraging and propagating adolescent substance use, violating the law for glorification, delinquency (Christenson and Roberts, 1998). Genres which are included in this bracket are heavy metal and rap, having a particularly negative image in the media. In past and current years, the artists of these genres have felt the heat from the authorities that deem their musical content inappropriate material for the younger generation to listen to, believing it is responsible for teen suicides and other negative behavioral (Binder, 1993; Fried, 2003).

The Questions

Suicide is a popular theme in sub-cultural styles of music. There have been many articles in the press about artists and bands that have been blamed and targeted for the 'supposed' responsibility of teenage fans committing suicide after listening to their music. But is it fair to be so blasé and blame these

artists because their music contains suicidal references? Should the finger be so starkly pointed at these artists? Is it justifiable and fair?

If not, who is to blame? The parents? Our education system? The media?

All these points will be addressed in this article and concluded thoughtfully after cross-examination and circumstantial evidence presented.

The Beginning-Elvis starts it

The beginning of this debate started when Rock and Roll, a new genre of music, exploded into the media in the 1950's. Elvis Presley was the forefather and the voice of this generation. He created a new of type of music that people had never heard before; a style of music the younger generation connected with. This voice represented their drive for life, their sexuality and belief in living their lives in the way they wanted, not their parents. This 'new way' was rejected and considered by the authorities as a danger to the youth as they tried to repress this new artist by implementing ban's and censorships.

Perhaps one of the most famous incidents of censorship was when Presley appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show. The show was broadcast with Presley only being filmed from the waist up, as his gyratory hip movements were deemed too obscene to air. The older generation shouted about their intense abhorrence and that they regarded this type of behavior to be damaging to the teen generation. They believed that it would create an epidemic and it needed to be stopped.

Yet with all this press attention focused on Presley, all this actually did was to swell the desire in the fans for him and his music. This did exactly the opposite to what the authorities wanted and propelled him to fame. They made him into the bad-boy superstar that sold millions of records worldwide by giving him his free publicity. This was the beginning of the extremism of politics in music that would occur in the future.

The 70's; a precursor to 1990's accusations

In 1972, Gilbert O'Sullivan spent six weeks at the top of the Billboard charts with the song 'Alone Again'. In this song, O'Sullivan contemplated throwing himself off a 'nearby tower' because he had been betrayed by everyone. Leonard Cohen threatened to slit his wrists in 'Dress Rehearsal Rag' (1971) for similar reasons.

Yet because O'Sullivan's appealed to the conservative Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences society, musical threats of suicide did not provoke anything neighboring on a 'moral panic' in those years. The theme of suicide was incorporated into mainstream pop culture in a thoroughly romantic fashion, just as it had been in romance novels and tragic opera where suicide was common place, yet deemed acceptable in this period.<<MTV and radio split

1981 was a turning point for dividing the younger and older generations in musical appropriateness. On August 1st, MTV began transmission. It is fair to

say that music television has assumed radio's responsibility for 'breaking' new acts (Shuker 1994, ch. 7).

Radio and MTV became divided down the middle on this generation gap. Radio broadcasts the old, the familiar and the reassuring, while music television assumes responsibility for the new, the unfamiliar and the shocking.

"FM's audience does not seem to change its tastes or look for the thrill of the new. FM's audience listened to the Eagles in the 1970s on its record players, it tuned into FM in the 1980s so it could listen to the Eagles on its car radios, and now it is the 1990s and it still wants to listen to the Eagles - perhaps so it can remember the 1970s." (Turner 1993, p. 145)

Commercial radio has emerged since the 1970s as one of the most evidently sites of cultural struggle. This is especially between the baby boom generations, for whom rock radio has become a predictable asylum from the anxieties of life. Yet their children for whom hip-hop, alternative and metal stand for nothing less than the manifestation of their status as musical outsiders.

Types of music to blame and court cases

Rock critics no longer judge music worth on grounds of composition but instead spew careless stereotypes.

Heavy metal is widely generalized to be perceived as dark, depressing music to listen to. Many of the songs are reflective of the artists 'I-don't-give-a-damn' attitude, in visual appearance and dark lyrical content. Heavy metal is the most recent target that is attracting extremist accusations that it induces its listeners to experience occultism and Satanism ranging through to sexism and racism to murderous and suicidal tendencies. (Shuker 1994, pp.260-2).

"Metal evolved in the 1970s out of mainstream 'album-oriented rock', typified by bands like Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple which, in turn, had their roots in the blues-based hard rock of 1960s acts like Cream and Jimi Hendrix. But because they were hardening musically at precisely the moment when radio and its coveted baby boomer demographic were softening into 'adult-oriented' formats, metal bands were driven underground, promoting their records by means of relentless touring and by word of mouth."<<There is no hard evidence to support that heavy metal music is actually instructing its listeners to do bad things, just peoples perceiving this music in this way because it is not 'happy', 'bouncy' music. A 1993 study showed heavy metal inspired happy feelings in most fans, with the small number of those who reported feeling worse more likely to already suffering mental health problems. Many people feel that it is a cathartic way of venting and getting rid of their frustrations.

Is it right to expect the artist to take responsibility when a teen does commit suicide after obsessively listening to their music? Is there any just cause in blaming them because their lyrics contain depressive material? Some people seem to think so.

The 80's saw an influx of court cases against artists and it was also the decade that introduced the 'Parental Advisory' stickers. In 1985, 'Parental Advisory' stickers were affixed by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) to audio and video recordings in the United States containing offensive language and/or content. Albums began to be labeled for "explicit lyrics", after pressure from the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC). It has become known as the "Tipper sticker" because of Tipper Gore's visible role in the PMRC.<<<"1985 saw British heavy metal artist Ozzy Osbourne making his first court appearance on charges that the song 'Suicide Solution' had caused nineteen-year-old John McCullom to attempt suicide, regardless of Osbourne's repeated claims that 'Suicide Solution' was written about the death of AC/DC's Bon Scott and that, therefore, it carried a positive 'anti-suicide' message. The case was dismissed on the grounds that song lyrics are protected speech under the First Amendment.

Another court case was brought against Judas Priest in 1990, in which the song 'Better By You, Better Than Me' was alleged to have caused the suicide of Raymond Belnap and the attempted suicide of his friend James Vance. What was different about this case was the fact that this case pivoted on the allegation that the band had hidden subliminal messages, buried into their recordings. The attorney for the accusation claimed that 'satanic messages could be heard when playing the music is backwards. Judge Jerry Carr Whitehead ruled explicitly at the beginning that the court was not interested in the unconcealed lyrical content of rock songs because it was protected by the First Amendment; only the so-called 'subliminal messages' were in question, he ruled, because they did not constitute an open exchange of information. The 'leading sound expert' for the prosecution, attempted to persuade the court that he had expose the backwards words 'Do it' in the song and that this was a clear provocation for its listeners to commit suicide. This case was thrown out of court when Judas Priest, defending themselves, chose a section of the song and told the jury that they would hear a certain silly phrase when they played that particular part backwards. Sure enough, this silly phrase is what they heard and the case was thrown out of court."<<<< ID SELL SUICIDE QUOTE>>>

This proved that if you are listening hard enough, you can hear anything you want to hear making this claim incongruous.

This case, and others like it, went a long way towards legitimizing the once-preposterous claim that subliminal messages are frequent in heavy metal music and that they 'exert an almost hypnotic power' (Billard 1990; Henry 1990, p. 65).

Lead singer, Rob Halford, noted in the aftermath of the trial,

"What we went through . . . we considered that simply an attack on our artistic expression. It was nothing to do with real subliminal's.'"(Burns 1990, pp. 100-14)

The 1980's saw the biggest increase in teen suicides.

Lawrence Grossberg's definitive study of American culture under neo-conservatism, We Gotta Get Out Of This Place, has woven its political agenda into the mainstream of North American life, where it now manifests itself both as a moral panic. A vote from this book states:

"In 1940, the major problems were listed as: talking, chewing gum, making noise, running in the halls, getting out of turn in line, wearing improper clothing, not putting paper in waste baskets. Forty years on in 1982: rape, robbery, assault, burglary, arson, bombings, murder, suicide, absenteeism, vandalism, extortion, drug abuse, alcohol abuse, gang warfare, pregnancy, abortion, and venereal disease" (Grossberg 1992, pp. 185-8).

Teen suicide had reached truly 'epidemic' proportions, and has continued to escalate.

The study concludes: 'Individuals born in the latter part of the twentieth century, are at far greater risk [than their predecessors] for developing [suicide-related] mood disorders and these disorders are manifesting themselves at a younger age' (Birmaher et al. 1996, pp. 1,428-30).

While it is easy for the conservatives to blame this epidemic on rock music, it is nothing but speculation and there is no hard evidence to back up their ideological views.

"A 1997 AACAP study entitled 'Precipitating factors and life events in serious suicide attempts among youths aged 13 through 24 years' concluded that the most common occurrence of serious suicide attempts were relationship breakdowns, other personal problems, and financial difficulties." (Beautrais et al. 1997, pp. 1,543-51)

Dr Barry Goldfinkel of the University of Minnesota Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Division, insists:

Ninety out of 100 kids who kill themselves meet a psychiatric diagnosis. Kids don't commit suicide just because they've been treated harshly or life's dealt them a bad hand. It's the internal process going on, not merely the fact of one's horrible existence.' (Wartik 1995, p. 23)

Marilyn Manson

In the late 90's, Goth-rocker Marilyn Manson arrived on the scene. He was one of the biggest stars that rose through MTV and one of the most controversial to date. He stormed to the top of the charts, catapulting to worldwide fame.

Manson was not your average artist. His image has been described as "a brickolage of jack boots, leather, lingerie, black lipstick, eerie contact lenses and cadaverous face paint (Hebdige 1979, pp. 102-4; Thigpen 1997, p. 68).

He has been arrested for exposing himself on stage and criticized for his indulgence in self-mutilation. His music was inexorably tangled up with criticism of his appearance and the visual content of his videos and he was the next scapegoat for the PMRC to target.

"In his opening remarks as host of the 1998 Grammy Award Show, sitcom actor, substance abuser and convicted drunk driver Kelsey Grammer promised that Marilyn Manson's 'skinny white ass' would not be appearing on the show. It was a truly extraordinary moment. Referring explicitly to his own teenage daughter, Spencer, Grammer couched this slur in the form of an inside joke for the baby boomer parents of children with seemingly inexplicable musical tastes. In so doing, he affirmed not only the intractable conservatism of the Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences but also the arrogant hegemony of his own generation within mainstream musical culture. The show proceeded to reward Bob Dylan with Album of the Year, James Taylor with Best Pop Album and Elton John with Best Male Pop Vocal Performance, while lavishing unbridled approbation upon the newest crop of corporate hit-makers, including Babyface, LeAnn Rimes, Hanson and the ubiquitous Spice Girls. Mitch Miller could not have orchestrated a more thoroughgoing tribute to the pop music status quo in America. The influence of music-based subcultures on suicide has been the subject of debate for many years."<<The above quote goes to show the hypocrisy and the neo-conservatism attitude that has settled in society,just like the text in Grossberg's book, We Gotta Get Out Of This Place.

When the Columbine High School massacre happened, it was exposed that the teenagers responsible listened to Marilyn Manson. When two girls raped a nun with a crucifix and tortured her to death, it was discovered that they too, listened to Marilyn Manson. Gesticulations were made and the finger pointed at Manson for being responsible for poisoning their minds and making them commits these murders and suicides, through his music.

Democratic Senator Joseph Lieberman called him 'perhaps the sickest artist ever promoted by a mainstream record company' (Jeffrey 1996, p. 3) and put enormous pressure on his label, Interscope to cease selling his records.

This was at the height of Manson's third album Antichrist Superstar. The album had reached Billboard Top 200 Album Chart at Number 3 and Manson had become the perfect scapegoat for the 'ethical guardians'. Much like what had happened with Presley, history was repeating itself and by his position in the charts, it is obvious to see that this press was helping sell more records than ever.

It is clear from his autobiography that Manson takes himself and his music very seriously, that his analysis of organized religion is both personal and ideological, and that his music is not intended to induce self-destructive behaviour but to inspire strength and independence. He told a panel for discussion on MuchMusic (Canada's music video network):

"I see what I do as a positive thing. I try to bring people closer to themselves. That may be further away from God but that's closer to themselves. I think that's a good thing. I think

that makes people stronger. . . I'm trying to tell people to believe in themselves because that's all that they have to believe in. I think that's a positive thing." (MuchMusic 1996)

It seems that Manson is not just a guy with a burning ambition to be an adored Rock star. He is a man that is trying to get people to open their eyes to the conformist ideals of the neo-conservative army which he believes have been trying to brain wash a nation, into believing it needs shelter and protection from themselves. He has fought back against the machine and made his messages loud and clear.

A tee-shirt for sale at his concerts summarizes his agenda concisely:

"Warning, the music of Marilyn Manson contains messages that will

Kill God In your impressionable teenage mind, as a result you could be convinced to Kill your mom and dad And eventually in an act of hopeless Rock and Roll behavior you will Kill yourself. Please burn your records while there is still hope." <<Manson published an open letter on the Columbine killings in Rolling Stone in which he reiterated the critique of American society that has been so forcefully articulated in his music:

"When it comes down to who's to blame for the high school murders in Littleton, Colorado, throw a rock and you'll hit someone who's guilty. We're the people who sit back and tolerate children owning guns, and we're the ones who tune in and watch the up-to-the-minute details of what they do with them. I think it's terrible when anyone dies, especially if it's someone you know and love . . . This kind of controversy does not help me sell records or tickets, and I wouldn't want it to. I'm a controversial artist, one who dares to have an opinion

and bothers to create music and videos that challenge people's ideas in a world that is watered-down and hollow. In my work I examine the America we live in, and I've always tried to show people that the devil we blame out atrocities on is really just each one of us.

So don't expect the end of the world to come one day out of the blue - it's been happening every day for a long time." (Manson 1999)

The Answer

In the wake of the Columbine tragedy, the authorities are franticly trying to find short term answers to the problem of teen suicides and the bloody massacres that occur along side this. This is a problem that has not been identified and many feel that they are searching for answers in the wrong place. For example, after Columbine, the teenagers were considered to be the enemy when schools in America installed metal detectors at the entrances to stop children bringing guns into school. A short term answer to a continuing problem, surely the education and up-bringing of the child are key factors, (not the tools society hands to them on a plate, ironically)?

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Tipper Gore's Parents Music Resource Center, feels that certain music groups are to blame for the suicides and have attacked the music industry. They professed to say that because one suburban teen had written down the lyrics to "Fade to Black" before taking her life that this was "evidence" and "Proof" that this music was responsible and encouraged the teen to kill themselves.

In the year 2007, the next new wave of music has arrived and instead of heavily metal being targeted, emo and hip hop are now seemingly liable. Over a decade on, have we learnt from our past mistakes in teaching our misguided youth? It seems not. Just weeks ago, the Virginia Tech tragedy occurred when another troubled teen went on a rampage, killing his classmates and school teachers and then turned the gun on himself.

Parents and schools have renounced their responsibility to these teens. In their absence, a psychiatric empire has been created to provide easy answers through medication.

A host of psychiatric drugs provided the easy solution to teen suicide. In the absence of parents and teachers who care, today's suburban teens can pharmaceutically control their feelings. But, t what price? Teen suicides may have declined, but, it seems that these medications have helped some teens externalize their depression, erupting into rage.

Of course, blaming the medication for the violence is as wrong as blaming the guns, the music or the violent video games and movies. It is not what teens hear in their music or see in the movies or video games that causes the rage. It's the teens' inability to handle their feelings of abandonment.

But perhaps people in the public eye should take some responsibility if they are communicating with people on such grand scales, as Rock stars do.

Beto Cuevas, the lead singer of La Ley, felt he had to do something when he discovered a fan had committed suicide after finding out she could not meet her idols. This was the last straw in her tragic ending but Cuevas felt he had to do something and thought, that through music, he could write a song that would reach his fans.

"In many ways it's about people helping people, I've talked to fans who said the song has left them thinking about options. It's a problem we have in our daily lives. Sometimes it's as simple as listening to someone, your children."

Troubled youths have taken comfort in the 'darker' forms of rock music- just as music lovers of all ages find consolation in the music that seems to articulate their losses, their pain and their grief. The problem lies in lacking parent and community supports.

In the wake of two Australian teenage suicides, Prime Minister of Australia, John Howard, has called on parents to support their children more. "I think the greatest thing that has to be said about this is that parental responsibility in the end is the key to behavior by children. Government can't educate parents if they don't have an instinct for responsibility. And while there are things the Government can do, there is a limit before you start running up against freedom of speech."

 

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