Perfect Sound Forever


By Trevor McNeil
(March 2013)

Themes of suicide, and hysterical over-reactions to them whether real or imagined, have been part of music for a while. Particular genres, especially hard rock and heavy metal, have been suspected of trying to get kids to kill themselves for years. One of the most infamous cases of this is the fervor over Ozzy Osbourne's hit "Suicide Solution" (1980). No stranger to controversy -- (allegedly) biting the head off a chicken with do that -- parent's groups and other such moral crusaders came down on the song, many without actually having heard it and insisting that it was encouraging suicide. How very ironic it is that, despite the reputation of both Ozzy and heavy metal in general and the name of the song itself, "Suicide Solution" is not actually about suicide. Rather it is a metaphor for the "slow death" of alcoholism with which Ozzy has had a well-publicized long standing struggle with. It's a theme which a cursory glance at the lyrics ("death is quicker with liquor") makes clear.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is "Don't Fear the Reaper" (1976), a suicide anthem that is rarely taken as such. This is likely due to the upbeat tempo, harmonized vocals and the presence of a now-iconic cow bell (thanks to a Saturday Night Live skit). It also has a far more hopeful tone than most songs on the subject of taking one's own life, making it sound somewhat agreeable.

Another case in which delivery belies intent is Harry Nilsson's "Without You" (1971). With the melodic, harmonized vocals and piano into, it would be very easy to mistake this for a run-of-the-mill power ballad, albeit with the rather lovely addition of stings. Once again it is in the lyrics ("I can't live/If living is without you/I can't give/I can't give anymore"). Sounds akin to "I can't go on living like this" to me.

A case in which the intention is clear but overridden by catchiness of the tune is "Jumper" by Third Eye Blind (from 1988). Granted, the word 'Jumper' could refer to several different things, though again, the chorus ("I wish you would step back from that ledge my friend/You could cut ties with all the lies that you've been livin' in/And if you do want to see me again") paints a picture of someone trying to talk a distraught friend down off a literally ledge. Most likely, of a building.

As stated, heavy metal is no stranger to suicide as a theme or controversy as a result of it, Metallica's "Fade to Black" and Silver Chair's "Suicidal Dream" are key examples. Another notorious case of that is "Last Resort" (1998) by Papa Roach, a song with lyrics so controversial that, despite getting heavy rotation, had many lines cut. These include "don't give a fuck if I cut my arm bleeding" with the key word ‘life' out of "would it be wrong would it be right?/If I took my life tonight" and ‘suicide' from "mutilation out of sight, and I'm contemplatin' suicide." Bad as this may seem, there is a larger context to the song that many critics missed. This is a song about suicide but not one that particularly encourages it- instead, it is a statement of frustration and identification with suicidal feelings of young people. There are lyrics that are disturbing, such as "I never realized I was spread to thin/Til it was too late and I was empty within" and the chorus "Losin' my sight/Losin' my mind/Wish somebody would tell me I'm fine", but more because of the sadness and desperation they convey than any negative message they might carry.

Another subset of the suicide theme is the dedication song. Strong examples include "Adam's Song" by Blink-182 (from 2000) and "Sandy's Song" by Amanda Palmer. Not only are they both examples of some of the best work by both artists, they are both very good songs and quite affecting in their own way.

Both take the form of narrative story-songs, each track is approached in a slightly different way. In the case of "Adam's Song," sing Mark Hoppus presents a first-person style narrative of an isolated but hopeful man ("I never conquered, rarely came/16 just held such better days"), who overcome with depression ("I never thought/I'd die alone/I laughed the loudest/Who'd have known?") decides to kill himself but does not want anybody to suffer ("please tell mom this is not her fault").

"Sandy's Song" tells the tragic story of Sandy Swain, a disturbed family friend who lived with Amanda Palmer's family for a while when Amanda was in grade school and how Amanda found the body. Starting when Sandy was already living there, it is clear from the beginning that something is not right ("the last thing I'd recall/Her body standing on the stove/Sandy wiping her grey eyes/I was pleased and frightened to see a grown up woman cry") . From there it goes to the day itself ("I had rushed home from school/to see my favourite show/And as it happens, it was deadly cold that day") and the discovery ("my little abdomen took sick/Sandy hanging from the light/Her Levi's wrapped around her neck"). Clearly upset Amanda is unguarded about her reaction ("it was a sight to see/Old Sandy finally seeing me/And though she couldn't speak/I had a sinking feeling/That she would have said ‘oh darling, more mascara'." "She looked so peaceful in the air/The light bulb shining in her hair/Her face was free, it frightened me but she looked happy/I guess she found the difference") and is clearly somewhat traumatized ("And then I thought about the joke/Where the man keeps up his rotting wife" "and then a car drove up/and I remember sleeping/And I remember sleep/And they wrapped her up and drove her away/And now I have this crazy fantasy/What if, Sandy, died in front of me?" ). In addition to being a tribute song, it is also one that takes an outside view to the act, showing how it affects those around the deceased.

Also in this theme is "Jeremy" (1992) by Pearl Jam. Based on a newspaper article Eddie Vedder read about a high-school student who killed himself in front of his class, the lyrics are constructed as a narrative, placing Vedder as one of the children who teased the fictional Jeremy, in part driving him to his extreme act.

Another song that does this, though in a different way is "Since You've Been Dead" (2009) by Austrian goth-punk quartet Kitty in a Casket. No strangers to horror and death topics and imagery, for Kitty in a Casket to write a song that mentions suicide if far from surprising. What is surprising is the form that it takes. Starting of like a basic kiss-off anthem there is something of a message, contrasting metal and physical reactions ("Now that you're dead/I don't feel a thing/Though I still wear your ring/All of the time/You made my life a living Hell/To tell you the truth/I don't care/Not at all but my body won't move/To tell how I feel/I feel nothing at all/Will the soul never heal?"). Then there is the chorus ("Going crazy/Losing my mind/I need you more than my life/So guess what/I might kill myself/When the time is right"), echoing the main sentiment of "Can't Live Without You" but with a different sort of energy. What is likely going on is a satire of both love songs, particularly devotional ones, and how love can often lead to confusion.

Also in this theme is "Better Off Dead" (1994) by legendary punk band Bad Religion. Written from the point-of-view with a conversation with God, the main narration consists of apologies for everything that has gone wrong in the world and sounds very serious ending with "the next time I create the universe I'll make sure you participate." Then there is the chorus ("but until then/we're better off dead/A smile on the lips and a hole in the head/We're better off dead/Better than this/Take it away cause I don't want to live!"), which puts a different sort of spin on things. Not only is incitement to mass suicide across humanity, rather than an individual instance, it is presented as a viable and even preferable alternative to the current state of affairs. A sort of ultimate protest song.

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