The Days He Tried To Live: What Chris Cornell’s Death Says About the Music Industry and Human Suffering.
Musicians and Mental Health; when a Brand is a Human.
I had returned from an insight retreat at Spirit Rock Meditation Center, and the next day I received a text from a dear friend of mine “thinking of you, I’m sure you heard Chris Cornell died.”
I hadn’t heard, and there was deep resistance to reading the words. I had left the retreat in a state of peace and I knew learning what was on the other end of the message would devastate me. My first response was “What. No.” And my next step was to look on the news for more. This lead to hysterical crying. I considered Chris Cornell one of my favorite souls whose songs have been closely with me for 25 years alongside those of Kurt Cobain, Scott Weiland and Layne Staley. These guys suffered greatly, yet it is clear that finding an end to their suffering was on their minds. Having just returned from an insight retreat it is so deeply on my mind the teachings of Buddhism, a person who taught millions of people about suffering and the end of suffering, also known as “Nirvana”. Take a moment to think about that.
Taking one’s own life is a quick and painful way to ‘end one’s suffering,’ and often the way people cope with suffering is to avert from it and turn to substance, which changes the construction of the brain. A big part of the process are the people in the sufferer’s life, who either enable the suffering by contributing to co-dependency or serve as a support system, which can look different for different people. Sometimes the best help is getting someone to treatment, other times it is to back away from the person entirely, recognizing the co-dependency and illnesses that are enhanced by the relationship. And in some cases, the support system has to step back entirely and accept that it is ultimately the sufferer’s choice to stay with treatment, and stay with the path toward the end of the suffering.
A hometown friend of mine on Facebook asked why musicians suffer the greatest in this regard and whether or not success has anything to do with it. Success is a huge factor, however for this particular articulation, I am choosing to focus on the concept of brand and how that affects the human being behind the product and how it affects the personal suffering.
The underling concept of a ‘brand’ is defined by the value customers put on the brand and the business behind the brand must maintain that value for the market.
What happens when the brand is a person? The music industry happens.
The entire career of a brand that is a human being who operates in the music industry is based on his or her ability to present various ‘products’ that stem from creativity, which stem from a person and his or her own emotional experience with life itself. Instead of say a performance based on a competition with a set of rules, as in sports or politics. That element of creation means it comes from a human experience. And while the human experience can be captured onto a medium, manufactured into a one dimensional product the creation also has a version of the product that is not only three-dimensional but live, unpredictable and unimaginable.
Their music becomes recorded, and in the process arises all of the challenges in the studio between the producer and the artists, but the ideal end result is the record(s), which are produced and which capture the brand into a hard product that are turned over to sales and marketing. Yet, it should be noted that one step before this result, is a human who writes the songs from a personal place, from personal experiences, from challenges, from anger, from sadness, from joy, from their own level of suffering.
In many cases they are pressured to generate hits or just more material to continue to maintain the brand’s ‘value’. The record label signed the artist based on an arrangement of recorded songs that which they found marketable. And then comes the next album. Will it be along the same theme? Will it change? Will it meet the market’s demands? In the arena of the Major Labels, the artist doesn’t have a choice. And in the case of the grunge era, the artists wrote from such a raw and personal place, received the elements of success, and fame, resulting from the reception of their songs, which created a confusing mixture of fame and pressure. When he or she journeys through their own personal experience, the songwriting content will without a doubt change, which has an affect on their income stream.
Aside from the recorded product, there is the live show, the humans who comprise the band have to perform within the parameters of the brand that’s been created; there’s a certain energy expected, art production to coincide with the album marketing campaign, and a certain way that the artists themselves, especially the front man or woman and any member in the band who has established him or herself as a voice of the band — are expected to meet. And yet in the live performance aspect, it’s real people performing, and they’re not robots. When the ‘brand’ hits the stage, the element of surprise is always a possibility. If the artist’s human side shows too much or if they are in a state of mind other than the one from which he or she wrote the songs in the first place, there is a disconnect and the audience feels it. Yet, the person is a person and he or she might just be doing ‘human’.
The craft of the songwriter is from their human experience. I believe all musicians should have a therapist, yet it is extremely tricky. Therapists have a policy that they must be contacted first- which means the client must acknowledge that they need help and pursue this help. Otherwise attachments and co-dependency occur. They know they need a manager or they know they need help — but with their careers and their professional pursuits. And many managers end up playing a therapist role yet they’re not qualified to help with their psychological states. Yet, most of the time the artist is so lost in the web of their own self, that the line between suffering and creativity is blurred — all for the sake of continued revenue and at the expense of their mental health.
In this particular arena- the grunge era, these artists were coming out of different times of society; divorces began to occur, struggling finances, following the 1980s, big money, consumerism culture, etc. Their response was no it’s not all neon and bright lights and big TVs, shit is f-ed up… inside. It was the first time that songwriting and music heard on the radio and on TV was raw and about the direct personal experience and less in a polished popular kind of way- and it worked — as in the people demanded it, but the masses got something different than what the artist was really saying without the personal relationship between the people buying it and the people creating it. They couldn’t have spelled it out any clearer, but business is business and marketing is marketing. So in this era emerged something different. Take into consideration the location; Seattle which produces more rain than sunshine contributing to sentiments of loneliness. Other factors include an accessible coping mechanism of avoiding the pain with substance.
When folks are immersed in their own suffering they tend to isolate themselves — and it is confusing, painful, lonely. They find ways to cope that are often unhealthy, but when they come out of the isolation place, they give out to the world what the world needs them to be or expects them to be, as if they can only be their human self in isolation. And it is in isolation when facing their suffering that healthy behaviors can be established. Yet the healthier they are, the less rawness gets written, and essentially less material is captured, produced, marketed and sold.
What comes first the human inside or the brand the industry has created?
It’s such a delicate thing. The product comes from their experience- yet the business has to create a brand value around it, and the human him or herself can become lost in the process. I believe it is time we take more care and investment into the humans behind the performers and the musical brands.
Sincerely applaud Lady Gaga for taking a stand by bringing Mental Health Awareness to the forefront of our culture. She and Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge put their heads together to create a Foundation called Born This Way reminding people that it is #OKtoSay what is really going on.
Remember, being human means having all the colors of emotions, and that there is no one way to be.
It should be noted that Chris Cornell wrote a song called “The Day I Tried to Live.” He officially stopped trying on May 18, 2017. It is a very sad moment for those of us who loved his music and cared for his soul.
Listen to music from The Days He Tried to Live on this Spotify Playlist I created.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Let’s all take a moment to have: Mental Health Awareness & do what we can do help Suicide Prevention. Confidential help is available for free. Remind folks that they are not alone.
Suicide Prevention Crisis Hotline: Text Connect to: 741741
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
American Foundation for Suicide Prevention: https://afsp.org/
National Alliance on Mental Health. https://www.nami.org/mentalhealthmonth
Find a therapist via Psychology Today: https://therapists.psychologytoday.com/rms
Further research or education on Buddhism and Nirvana: https://www.thoughtco.com/nirvana-449567
Lady Gaga reveals she has PTSD: ‘I suffer from a mental illness’ https://www.theguardian.com/music/2016/dec/06/lady-gaga-reveals-she-has-ptsd-i-suffer-from-a-mental-illness