Frances Bean Cobain Is Right About Romanticizing Rock-Star Suicides — But Lana Del Rey Isn’t the Only One Who Needs to Listen

You may have read this morning that Frances Bean Cobain took Lana Del Rey to task over Twitter for the comments Del Rey made in an interview with The Guardian last week: “I wish I was dead already,” she told her startled interviewer in the context of a discussion about her musical heroes. “I don’t wanna have to keep doing this. Everything. That’s just how I feel. If it wasn’t that way, I wouldn’t say it.” One of the heroes she cited was Kurt Cobain, and his daughter was not impressed: “The death of young musicians isn’t something to romanticize,” she tweeted. “I’ll never know my father because he died young, and it becomes a desirable feat because people like you think it’s cool. Well, it’s fucking not. Embrace life, because you only get one life. The people you mentioned wasted that life. Don’t be one of those people.”

Depending on your point of view, Del Rey’s comments come off as either startlingly vapid or genuinely disturbing. You can listen to the audio of the actual interview and make up your own mind — The Guardian released the tape after Del Rey claimed that she didn’t want to do the interview and that she was prompted by “leading questions” to say something she didn’t mean. Anyway, I don’t really want to talk about Lana Del Rey because, well, it gets tiresome. But there is something to be said here about the macabre side of rock ‘n’ roll mythology.

Clearly, Frances Bean Cobain is right — you only get one life, and it’s an awful shame to end it at 27 years of age. The vacuity of the whole “27 Club” idea is something we’ve discussed before on Flavorwire, but even beyond that, there’s a romanticization of death in popular culture. This, of course, is far older than the contemporary music industry — you can trace it back as far as the great Greek tragedies, and probably a whole lot further, although someone more educated than me in the classics will have to provide the examples. The point is, death — and especially death inflicted by one’s own hand — has long been a romantic metaphor for extremes of passion and emotion. This view is entrenched in our culture, and… well, let’s just say it’s not especially helpful for suicide prevention endeavors.

The idea that people can be influenced to suicide has long been a controversial one, not least in the music industry, for reasons we’ll get to shortly. But the fact remains that there is definitely a connection between the way that suicide is portrayed in our culture and individual suicide attempts. There’s a heap of reading on this — psychology papers like this and this draw direct correlations between media portrayals of suicide and the prevalence of copycat attempts: as the former states baldly, “Numerous international studies have shown that media reporting of suicide can encourage copycat acts.”

So yes, comments like Lana Del Rey’s are naïve at best and irresponsible at worst. At the same time, it’s absurd to place too much importance on them. No one wakes up in the morning and goes, well, shit, I’ve never thought of killing myself before, but if Lana Del Rey says it’s cool, then maybe I will! The media and society at large have been only too keen to try to place the blame for suicide on musicians, a view that’s both simplistic and very convenient in allowing authority figures to avoid examining any other causative factors.

The point is that there’s no single factor that causes suicide (or self-harm). It’s not the act of a selfish narcissist, but it is a form of narcissism. It can have endless motivations, virtually none of which you can really understand if you’re not suicidal. The urge to destroy yourself can arise in grief and anguish, but it can also come like a cold thought in the night. It may well be entirely rational — if, for instance, you suffer from a terminal illness that is only going to bring pain and destroy your quality of life. But whatever the case, it’s not something that anyone else can understand.

If you’ve suffered from depression or mental illness, you may well have read a lot about this, and the simple fact is that there is no single uniting factor beyond reports from many people who have attempted suicide and survived that the reasons they chose to die made perfect sense at the time, and very little sense afterward. There are correlations with substance abuse, mental illness, and a variety of other factors, but even the most definitive of these — mental illness — is the subject of a pretty broad debate as to just how much of a causative factor it is, with rates of correlation varying dramatically between individual studies and in different cultural context.

As far as suicide goes, we are — in the words of this blog, which makes for harrowing but also informative reading — “trying to make sense of that which makes no sense.” One thing we can do, however, is make sense of how we view the act. Lana Del Rey is, bless her, the product of her environment, one that remains in thrall to the notion of death as an expression of some sort of ultimate passion, one that extends compassion and reverence only once the slow act of self-destruction is complete.

Death is nothing of the sort — it’s a small thing, a quiet thing, a final thing. Have you ever seen someone die? When death finally comes, it comes with the tick of a clock. The person is there, and then they’re not. Depending on the circumstances, it can be the tragic end to a life too short, or the end of a life lived well, or even a blessed relief. But it’s no more romantic than flicking off a light switch.

Lana Del Rey should hopefully take something from this whole kerfuffle, but so should we all. I’m certainly not arguing for a return to the days of condemning suicide as a sin, which has given rise to ridiculous situations like executing people who’ve attempted to kill themselves and failed. But nor should we try to see it as something that it’s not. For every famous artist who’s died by suicide, there’s a thousand people who were just like you and me, people living ordinary lives who reached a point where, for whatever reason, it seemed like death was the only option. That’s tragic and awful. But that’s all it is. Seeing it as anything more betrays a foolish lack of empathy, and it’s also irresponsible. Be good to each other. Be good to yourselves.