I want to consider a topic seriously, minus my usual snark. It’s not a feel-good topic; if anything, it’s the opposite of that.
Why do successful, widely-admired artists keep killing themselves?
This is admittedly well outside my usual beat, but I think it’s an important question that we as music-lovers (and just as decent human beings) need to ponder. I may be discussing artists unfamiliar to some Copper readers; we can consider this an opportunity to practice Larry Schenbeck’s Values #1 and #2.
Chester Bennington, the animated lead singer of Linkin Park, recently killed himself by hanging. A few months ago Chris Cornell, survivor of the grunge era and lead singer of the bands Soundgarden, Temple of the Dog and Audioslave, killed himself after a Soundgarden performance—also by hanging. Cornell was 52, and a mentor to the 41 year old Bennington; Bennington took his own life on what would’ve been Cornell’s 53rd birthday.
Both had long struggles with depression and drug abuse, as anyone familiar with their music knows. Drugs did not directly contribute to their deaths.
As this Rolling Stone article indicates, Bennington’s forthright presentation of his anger and pain helped many listeners, relieved to find that they were not alone in their struggles. That was a blessing, but also a burden.
Bennington was said by many to be a kind, caring person, thoughtful of the feelings of others. Linkin Park was a meld of rock and rap, the first band whose videos were viewed a billion times on You Tube. They fostered a generation of hybrid bands, such as My Chemical Romance and Evanesence.
The media loves underdog stories: folks who have overcome affliction, adversity, illness, addiction.—Well, hell, if we’re honest, we all love those stories. So when someone like Bennington or Cornell seems to have overcome their horrible upbringings—Bennington survived sexual abuse and drug use starting in high school— and shared the stories of their issues with drugs and depression in a way that helps others, those guys are heroes. And rightfully so.
But what kind of pressure does that put on them? Are they continually anxious about disappointing those who have supported them, and those who have found support in their stories? The facts seem to indicate that yes, it creates tremendous pressure upon them, on top of that created by the continual struggle of staying sober and sane.
There is a reason why addicts and alcoholics who have attained sobriety say they are “recovering” addicts and alcoholics, and not “recovered” addicts and alcoholics: the process of maintaining sobriety is continual. It’s a battle every single day, and there is no guarantee of continued success. Coupled with the equally-precarious battle to maintain an edge over depression, it must be tremendously stressful. There is a reason why the first tenet of 12-step programs is to admit to being powerless to control the addiction.
We’ve seen all this before, of course—whether it’s the suicides of Kurt Cobain and Bobby Fuller (23 and 51 years ago, respectively), or the self-destructive behaviors that lead to the tragic deaths of Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, Michael Jackson and who knows how many others. It seems that the sensitivity that allows many to be expressive, communicative artists, also makes them vulnerable to depression and self-destruction.
That’s not exactly a news-flash—yet rather than maintain a caring watch over such souls, we are disappointed in them when they fail, and express shock when they die. That seems to convey a naively hopeful attitude that once a troubled artist attains some level of control over their demons, that it’s a done deal. It just ain’t so.
I come from a family in which many of us have depressive tendencies and issues with anger. Some have had issues with alcohol. Imagine the stereotypical long-winter flattened -affect Upper Midwest behavior of A Prairie Home Companion, or closer to truth, Fargo. Combine that with a highly-competitive Type A nature—and that’s pretty much the picture.
I personally have battled severe depression many times in my life—things have been okay for several years, thanks, but it’s still a battle to be positive, every single day. A very smart counselor told me a long time ago that “emotions will lie to you”—and I can say without irony that such is the truth. When I become emotionally-overcharged, I have to ask myself, “Does that make sense? Is that a reasonable reaction?” Many times the honest answer to myself is, “No, it’s not. Dial it back, Leebs.”
It would be presumptuous and untrue to say that I understand how Chester Bennington, Chris Cornell, and Kurt Cobain felt. I can’t and won’t say that. What I can say is that I understand emotional struggles, I understand depression, and I understand the pressure I have felt at certain times in my life to live up to the expectations of just a few dozen people. The idea of having thousands or millions watching me, often critically, feeling their judgment as well as their support—is absolutely overwhelming. No matter what level of wealth or adulation accompanied it, there is no freaking way I would want that.
My daughter Emily is a sensitive and at times troubled soul, a writer and insightful observer of mankind with all its glories and deficiencies. She’s 23: and yes, she was born shortly after Cobain’s death. Just as her generation has always known the Internet, they’ve also grown up with the specter of a depressive popular artist who killed himself. That may sound a little melodramatic, but I don’t think it is: for millions of us, our worldview changed after the death of JFK, became less hopeful and more cynical. In a similar way, for millions to whom his music and messages were meaningful, their worldview changed after the death of Kurt.
The deaths of Cornell and Bennington may have a similar effect, likely lessened by the precedent of Cobain. Emily said of Bennington, “he was my generation’s Kurt.”
I can’t argue with that. I listened to Linkin Park’s music, and was affected by both its messages of hope and by its portrayals of pain. I related to Chester Bennington’s anger and angst. A Linkin Park concert that Emily and I attended was one of the most moving experiences that I’ve had in my life, of any kind. And no, I am not an easily-swayed emo tween.
I asked Emily what she thought propelled Bennington and the others to kill themselves. She put it in her typically- succinct, shorthand, no-nonsense way:
“The pressure of Fame. The pressure to deliver and be okay. Overlooked mental illness and trauma. No acceptance or understanding for it (which) therefore (forced them to) keep a lot of that same company, which introduces misery loves company. Opening doors for drug use and further depression, leading into suicides.
“His suicide letter was in his songs. Just like Kurt.”
I can’t add anything to that.