Not even 24 hours after the passing of Soundgarden and Audioslave frontman Chris Cornell media has started to give out information about a suspected suicide. Since studies show the number of suicides increase after suicide news coverage, this is a problem.
The digital era has given us a lot of amazing possibilities for our work as journalists. But it also raises questions about how to deal with the new face of journalism ethically. In a time when reports from news agencies are coming in at a one-second frequency, we have to ask ourselves what is worth and right to publish.
Now a police official confirmed the following to the Mirror about the Cornell case: “We are investigating this as a suspected suicide.” “That is the line we are proceeding along.” This seemed to be enough for the Mirror itself, and afterwards the Independent, the NME, the Rolling Stone, Bild, etc. to run a little piece about it. And I ask why?
The media and especially news journalism works by certain rules. Of course, these rules vary by region but western media works more or less similarly. In Germany media is (voluntarily) restricted by the “Pressekodex“, a bunch of regulations dealing with personal rights, discrimination and so on.
Paragraph 8.7 says that coverage about suicides commands restriction. In many cases, German media doesn’t talk about suicides at all, since also studies have shown that numbers of people killing themselves increase directly after coverage (copycat suicide or “Werther-Effekt“).
We shouldn’t write about suicide light-mindedly
So you see suicides should be dealt with a great sensitivity towards everyone involved. Up to the point where public interest overweighs one’s personal rights, which is given, for example, when it comes to people standing in the public light. Of course, Chris Cornell was a public figure and one of the most influential musicians of Grunge and 2000’s Alternative Rock.
But given the fact that up to the point of writing this text there is no confirmation yet, whether the singer killed himself or not, we should at least question these specific patterns of news coverage. We shouldn’t write about suicide light-mindedly because it kills people.
In a case like Cornell’s – when a body is found on a hotel’s bathroom floor – investigating suicide is standard procedure that shouldn’t be newsworthy. Yes, he is a public figure and the public has an interest in knowing how he died. But we should talk about publishing the story AFTER the suicide is confirmed.
Update: The cause of death has been officially confirmed. Chris Cornell killed himself by hanging.
Once again this year music journalists around the world write obituaries for one of pop music’s greatest.
That horrible day my dog died. I was 15 or 16 and he was my everything. I went out on the Veranda where my Father put him and as I touched him so cold and all stiff already I burst into tears. I didn’t go to school that day. Instead, I lay down on the living room floor and listened to music. We had that very old record player and radio system from the 60s with a nice and warm tube amplifier sound. I put on “Songs of Leonard Cohen”, the first track and I was gone, off to that magical place Suzanne would take me.
Ever since I discovered this very album in the old pile of my mother’s records some afternoon spent in the basement digging and discovering some really great music aged 14, Songs of Leonard Cohen was my personal devastation soundtrack. Later on when my first depressions kicked in when I was around 17 Cohen was one of my saviours.
In love with Suzanne
Every time I was devastated and in tears wondering how long it will take and how long I would be able to stand it, he urged me on that journey with Suzanne and I went with her to this wonderful, surreal place beside the river on a late summer’s afternoon and it was just her and me and there was no time and no space. It was so surreal. A place without feeling and somehow all was numb. There was no pain.
My father didn’t like him at all and freaked out every time I put him on quoting his songs were suicidal music and driving people mad and though it’s true and I’ve never heard sounds that were more depressing than his, he still somehow comforted me in hours of despair:
“Oh the sisters of mercy // they are not departed or gone // They were waiting for me // when I thought that I just can’t go on // And they brought me their comfort // and later they brought me this song // Oh I hope you run into them // you who’ve been travelling so long”
Leonard Cohen is dead now and I wonder why I wasn’t as sad as so many times earlier this year when a lot of my idols and childhood heroes died. Was I just too angry about the fact that the US just elected a racist misogynist maniac president or have just so many people died and I grew tired of feeling it? Maybe. But not only wasn’t I just not sad, I even felt relief for him somehow. Because I know he’ll be alright and I know he was fine with it. He always was and that’s why he was able to comfort me.
A version of the following article was first published in Al Ard – Die Welt in Berlin, for which I work as chief editor. It was published in both German and Arabic language. See here the English version:
Western Pop music often helps itself with the music of other cultures to reinvent itself. Rarely there is a real fruitful exchange. But in the 70s local pop scenes evolved in several countries of North Africa, enhancing the music from the west. Only now the rare recordings are available in Europe for the first time.
The recording whooshes and scratches, the suspense-packed atmosphere of the studio reaches out to the listener in that short moment before the musicians begin to play. Then a tinny sounding dirty distorted guitar rattles loudly and a world-famous blues riff blares out of the boxes. The dirty garage sound underlines the singer’s raw energy as he fervently caws into the slightly overdriven microphone.
It is James Brown‘s classic „Papa ́s got a brand new bag.”Just as the song has started droning, there is a first moment of surprise; contrary to expectations not the language of blues is to be heard here, not the “Godfather of Soul” James Brown is singing. Here it is a young man from Moroccan Casablanca demanding everything from his voice, when he screams “Sid Redad”, an Arabic cover version of the classic (listen here). His name is Fadoul, a man who discovered the raw sound of western underground music in the back rooms of Parisian avant-garde and brought it back to Morocco.
Fadoul was pure avant-garde
Until recently nobody knew Fadoul anymore, not in his home country, not somewhere else in the world. Even during his creative period in the 70s he was far from fame. Fadoul was pure avant-garde, underground, a thoroughbred total artist who moreover played theater and painted. In time his rare recordings disappeared somewhere under piles of LP’s in the Moroccan side road junk shops. His music couldn’t even be hold for lost or missing, since hardly anyone in the decades after knew they were actually existing.
Until German Producer Jannis Stürtz rediscovered them. In an electronic shop he was taken aback when he saw a cover with Arabic writing between a dump of vinyls, that credited James Brown for being the original author; it was a single by Fadoul et les Privileges. He found the family of the musician, who died in 1991 and purchased the rights to reissue his music. So in 2015 all of the eight rediscovered Fadoul-singles could be brought together on the Album “Al Zman Saib” by Jakarta Records.
Catchy belly dance disco
In the history of music this is an outstanding process, because music from North Africa, that combined US-Soul with North African groove and Arabic lyrics, was reimported into a western market. Until then the mutual musical influence was more like a one-way road from the west to the Arabic world: Jimmy Hendrix visited Morocco in the 70s jamming with local musicians, just as did free jazz pioneer Sun Ra from Birmingham (USA), who recorded songs in Cairo inspiring a local Egyptian jazz scene. But also musicians from North Africa would go to Europe, mostly France, and where they were influenced by the local pop culture. Impressions they brought home and developed them further.
Contrary influences Europe or the US took from Arabic music often showed the face of exotism, as shows the Abdul Hassan Orchestra for example: Behind the project Dutch producer Han van Eyck could be seen as he tossed pieces of belly dance sounding music pieces together to create catchy disco tracks.
The 70s evoked an athmosphere of liberty
The music of a Fadoul on the other hand wasn’t as polished. It was raw and coarse, probably recorded in a single run by simplest means. And not only the production conditions created this punk aesthetics, that must have been completely novel in the region by that time. Also thematically he dealt with the dirty banality of daily life between sex, drugs and violence.
No easy topics in a region that today is confronted with strict conservative islamist movements. In a region where – for example in Morocco and western sahara – homosexuals still face repressions or where opposition members are persecuted. In which, like in Algeria protests are struck down by violent force and people are tortured.
But talking to all the musicians of the time Jannis Stürtz could trace, he found out that especially the 70s evoked an atmosphere of liberty among the young and the glimpse of a liberal society to come. The state even sent musicians to the world exhibition to represent their country, like film composer Ahmed Malek from Algeria, known to many for his neat orchestral soul pieces. Also former members of Dalton, who played straight funk and smoth R’n’B, said that didn’t want to know anything about religion and wanted to adapt to a liberal life style.
But all in all it was due to the low degree of popularity of most of the musicians that protected them from persecution or repression. It’s very questionable if such a vibrant avant-garde pop scene could evolve and exist today in these partly crisis shaken countries. So much the better when enthusiasts like Jannis Stürtz, who are aware of the musical heritage, make sure it gets the appreciation it deserves, even after decades. And this doesn’t only count for the west, where the music has been reissued. Also in the countries of its origin awareness grows about the heritage most people didn’t even know it existed.
Male pop myths: Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil to become the world´s greatest blues guitarist. Keith Richards is immortal because he was conserved by all the drugs he took and if Stairway to Heaven is played backwards satanic messages can be heard.
Female pop myths: J.Lo’s got the greatest ass of all, Beyoncé’s got the greatest ass of all and Niki Minaj´s got the greatest ass of all. Oh, and Azealia Banks has the greatest tits.
Exploitation of the physical
Pop culture is a history of myths. They start with the performative, bodily with the creation of an artist´s image and – with the consumption of the recipient would transform into a specific narrative. An example: When lumberjack shirts became fashionable in the early 90s due to Kurt Cobain, bands like Guns ‘n’ Roses or Metallica have been still very influential. With all their glam and black leather jackets and wide stance performances, many misfit kids would feel alienated by this plain, artificial chauvinism and overcompensated display of masculinity. So in boycotting not only the typical style of rock music (the lone cowboy) but just any kind of style, Grunge fans would see wearing their lumberjack shirts and their old pair of jeans as a direct opposition to what rock music had become at that time: classic and reactionary (I mean, just think of Bon Jovi or Axl Rose for instance and you know what I mean). So with their non-style becoming a fashion statement, they created a typical punk narrative. That means that now the lumberjack shirt is not connected to one’s physical appearance anymore (for which you´d get bullied in school) but directly linked to your personality. Keep that in mind, for it will be important now:
In every area of socio-cultural interaction, of course, men find their way a lot easier in this world, so why should pop music be an exception when it comes to sexism? While men have no problem at all to leave the level of the physical for their narrative (you remember transcending into the spheres of the mystical like Robert Johnson or Led Zep or even freeing the body from earthly finiteness at all like Keith Richards), women mostly don´t leave this level. While the male body can have a function as a symbol for a greater idea, women often stay mere fetishes.
Fetishism, Exotism, Racism, Colonialism… all the -isms in the world
And this didn´t only start with Josephine Baker´s Banana Dance in the 20s that even combined fetishism with a racist exotism for a white, western audience in times of late colonialism, when they would see a black woman on the biggest stages of the US and Europe, dressed in a skirt made of bananas, shaking it out. I don´t think I have to give much more examples since it´s quite common knowledge that the female body in society is objectified and reduced to its sexual attraction. Therefore there´s something quite logical in it when the most powerful women in nowaday´s pop business, Beyoncé, Rihanna or Azealia Banks define their version of feminism over the physical in just using their bodies: using their self-expression in order to reclaim interpretational sovereignty and power of control over their own bodies.
Where the Banana Dance was created to please exotic male desires, the staged promiscuity of an Azealia Banks today is to be seen as empowerment. She does it because she wants it but don’t you ever think you could have her if she doesn´t allow it. In a way, this is an expression of power. And if not Banks, surely nobody ever tells Beyoncé what to do except she would ask you for your advice. So shaking all of her body parts in front of you actually is not to fulfil your deepest desires but actually to make you understand, that you cannot have her unless she wants you to. And nobody can tell me that she is in any kind of need to do so, because I – like almost anybody who understands a little bit of pop music – know, that she is one of today’s most important and relevant artists in the very sense of the word.
Female body, black body
And it´s no coincidence that all of the pop queens mentioned above engaging with this strategy are black women from the United States, since US history, if not to speak of the whole American Dream bullshit is mostly built on the destruction and exploitation of the black body to this very day, when we just take a look at the historical record of slavery, racial segregation and the epidemical killings of black people by the US Police like Ferguson in 2014 (german pop culture magazine SPEX published a very readable analysis about exactly that in their No 366 issue in January this year).
Pop culture always was an inherent materialist matter. It influences the bodies of its consumers as well as the bodies of its producers, interpreters and artists. Because pop functions through myths every protagonist acts necessarily performative and therefore through the body. While the male body always was an autarchic acting one, the history of the female body since the development of pop is that of a treated one. It is necessary to know, that especially femaleness in pop culture is necessarily physical, to understand, that also empowerment of women in the business works through the reconquest of the body.