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Is Rock a Scapegoat for Teen Suicide?

May 08, 1988|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

"Heavy Metal Teen Shoots Self to Death," cried the headline in the New York Post. Once again, folks, rock 'n' roll is back in the hot seat.

According to official estimates, nearly 6,000 teen-agers commit suicide each year. But the focus is on one teen who committed suicide while carrying an Ozzy Osbourne tape with the song, "Suicide Solution."

After reading reports linking the April 25 death of Walter Kulkusky, 17, of Edison, N.J., to the heavy-metal song, a national Jewish organization representing 810 congregations called on the record industry to "exercise good judgment and restraint." They asked the industry to "voluntarily withhold release of songs whose lyrics advocate suicide."

According to Rabbi Ramie Arian, staff director of the Task Force on Youth Suicide for the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, "Record companies need to know that impressionable teens may take seriously the messages their artists convey. There's reason to believe that limiting the exposure of teen-agers to . . . rock music that actually advocates suicide might help reduce the suicide rate."

An articulate man who says he, "personally" likes rock, Arian explained that "when a kid is depressed and suicidal, certain environmental factors can serve as precipitants." While he acknowledged that "the connection between rock and suicide hasn't ever been scientifically demonstrated," he said, "there's a fairly substantial body of anecdotal evidence in the press of youths who've committed suicide after listening to rock music advocating suicide."

Arian claimed to have read "five or six" different press reports linking Osbourne's "Suicide Solution" to teen deaths. Asked to name other songs whose lyrics he felt advocated suicide, he cited Sting's "Consider Me Gone" and Depeche Mode's "Blasphemous Rumours."

"The tone of these songs makes suicide appear an acceptable and appropriate solution," Arian said. "I know that not every kid will interpret them the same way--it's not a neat and clean issue. But if some troubled youth has the barrel of a pistol in his mouth, then you don't get the chance to make a case for the other side."

Arian insisted that he is "not going to mount a crusade" for mandatory censorship. But he was hazy as to just how record companies should "voluntarily" police lyrics.

"I just think record companies should edit songs the same way that your editor would edit out a paragraph of irresponsible journalism. Even if there's a one-in-a-million chance of risk of someone ending up dead, the record industry needs to deal with the possible consequences."

Needless to say, music industry leaders see these kind of sweeping charges as hysterical and irresponsible, noting that most evidence linking heavy-metal lyrics with suicide has not come from youths themselves, but from adults imposing their own values and interpretations of obscure lyrics.

"I think these kind of charges are outrageous, illogical and fatuous," countered Joe Smith, chief executive of Capitol-EMI Records. "If you take an entire body of popular music and put every song under a microscope, it's always possible to find something. But the meaning of these songs is so open to interpretation that it's absolute nonsense to say that any one song has triggered a suicide attempt.

"Does Rabbi Arian really think that kids are looking to a Sting album to decide whether they're going to live or die? I'd be happy to send him lyric sheets for 10,000 songs and let him find how many encourage suicide. I'm the first to be concerned about this issue--the teen suicide rate in our country is enormous. But it's really prejudicial and unfair to blame it on rock music."

Ozzy Osbourne would not comment on this latest controversy. However, he said last year that "Suicide Solution" was about the danger of alcohol. "I wrote it about Bon Scott, who was the singer of AC/DC and died as a result of alcohol. That's why the song is called 'Suicide Solution'--that's solution as in liquid. 'Suicide Solution' equals alcohol. That's what it's about."

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