“Bring your friends / It’s fun to lose and to pretend,” Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain famously snarled in “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Grunge bands seemed determined not to allow us to use all of the superficial trappings of American culture to avoid our negative thoughts and feelings. To flip through your car’s radio stations in the 90s was to find yourself in one moment obliviously nodding along to the rhythm of N’Sync’s somewhat misguided take on the nature of true love, and the next moment plunged into the dark emotional realities of Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun.”
There’s no doubt that the existential struggles and emotional pain artists like Cornell sang about in the 90s were very real to them on a personal level. Cornell entered rehab in the early 2000’s and, by most accounts, had remained in recovery for years. There is also some indication that he may have struggled with depression and had serious ambivalence about his identity as a rock star. In a 1991 newspaper interview, he said,
"If I didn't do what I do, I think for the most part I would have very few friends and be a shut-in most of the time… It's sort of a battle between that person and then the guy that wants to just let it all out in front of 2,000 people and rant and scream and say anything he wants."
Those of us who struggle with addiction or mental illness are all too familiar with that battle, aren’t we? There’s always this struggle inside of us between the person who wants to sit with and learn from their pain, and the person who wants to self-medicate and numb their pain by any means available. There’s always a battle between the person who wants to be fully present in the world and the person who wants to just check out.
When someone like Chris Cornell tragically takes his own life, we may even start to lose hope. “If he couldn’t make it, how can I?”
Maybe that question doesn’t need an answer so much as a change in perspective. When someone is diagnosed with cancer, and eventually succumbs to that disease in spite of trying every proven and reliable treatment available to them, would we ever consider that a failure? No. Of course not. We’d say that that person fought a tough battle with everything they had. We’d say, “We’ve got to work harder to find a cure for this horrible disease that’s taking so many people away from us too soon.” We’d say “Cancer sucks. We hate cancer. We should do more to help prevent people from getting cancer. We should make sure there are better treatment options for people who have cancer. We should make sure that the public is better educated about what cancer is and what the warning signs are and what to do if they notice the warning signs.”
Why don’t we say the same things about addiction and mental illness? More and more evidence points to fact that addiction is a complex disease with both a neurological and psychological component. It is not a moral failure, or a sign of weakness. Just as no two people have the same journey when they have cancer, no two people have the same journey when they struggle with addiction or mental illness. If you struggle with these same disorders, there’s no reason to assume that the path one person takes in their journey, must be the same path you will take.
Critics of grunge rock often complain that it’s too negative, and too self-absorbed. “Nobody wants to listen to a bunch of guys sing about their internal pain and struggles,” goes the popular sentiment. To those like Chris Cornell who gave us this dark, abrasive, but often beautiful music, that was precisely the problem. He and his contemporaries set out to make visible the things that we’d prefer remain invisible. They hoped that by expressing their pain and ambivalence, they could transcend it. And many times, maybe just a day at a time, or a moment at time, they did.
On Twitter Thursday, critically-acclaimed Country/Folk musician Jason Isbell said: “All the people who made it were right: ‘grunge’ was a stupid word for it. It was rock music, and we needed it real damn bad.”
If you’re feeling hopeless for any reason right now, we hope that you’ll remember that the world needs your voice real damn bad, too. Please don’t hesitate to reach out to someone.