|This mook says not to kill yourself.|
by Andy Nowicki
Reflecting on Dominique Venner’s recent suicide has caused me to consider the entire subject of self-slaughter anew. There are many different angles from which one might analyze and comment upon the matter of dying by one’s own hand—and I have weighed many of them before—but one which has gone largely unremarked is the concept of suicide as a pop-cultural phenomenon. At the risk of sounding insufferably po-mo, what is needed is a “meta”-analysis of the practice of quietus-making and bodkin-baring.
To begin a discussion of the macro, one starts with the micro, working one’s way outward, from the mysterious fibers of one’s own soul into the complex interweavings of the collective soul of the culture at large. As a nihilistic, agnostic, chronically morose Gen-X teenager marooned in the mid-80s, consumed with all-too-typical alienation and tiresomely frequent spasms of unsightly anomie from the onset of puberty’s bitter bloom and forever afterward, I can vividly recall the suicide hysteria that broke out in America just as I found myself stumbling, mumbling, and lumbering through adolescence.
Looking back now, it seems like a kind of harmonic convergence: at the very moment the taste of the world turned sour to me, transforming from the deliciously joyful flavor of childhood purity and innocence into the lascivious miseries and resonant humiliations of high school loserdom, the adult sector of society, represented in the media, suddenly became like a hovering, overly solicitous parent. We were treated to “very special” episodes of shows likeFamily Ties—one where Michael J. Fox goes all embarrassingly maudlin after the death of a friend, lurching around and screaming “Why am I alive????”—as well as relentless PSAs, and a growth industry of “depression treatment centers” for troubled teens, whose commercials stoked parental concern by ominously instructing parents to look out for “warning signs.” (“If your son or daughter becomes moody, quiet, and withdrawn, call us! Don’t wait until it’s too late!”, etc.)
Perhaps the nadir of this whole baleful spectacle of overbearing baby-boomer-led moral panic occurred in 1985, when Billy Joel released the song and video You’re Only Human (Second Wind). It is difficult for me to describe the vehement hatred I felt and still feel towards every single aspect of this supposedly life-affirming little ditty. Indeed, the extent of my contempt towards Joel’s abominable pro-existence musical manifesto may even exceed the revulsion which overtakes me when I contemplate The Greatest Love of All, Whitney Houston’s nauseating paean to the navel-gazing glories of feculent self-love. As 80s anthems of awfulness go, these two songs are pretty much interchangeable, quality-wise, and that’s no compliment to either of them. In fact, I’d almost go so far as to say that if loving life means you have to love the message of You’re Only Human (Second Wind), then fuck life, and double fuck Billy fuckin’ Joel’s smug, ugly mug.
Second Wind sucks wind from the very first second of its appalling existence. It’s indeed unfortunate that the song ever decided to go on living, rather than strangling itself in its infernal musical cradle and thus putting itself, and us, out of its, and our, misery. From the start, we are subjected to a retardedly generic, obnoxiously jazzed-up, stupidly syncopated melody punctuated by a screechy, overly cheerful “Woo-woo-woo!” from the same obligatory Negress backup singers found in so many white-bread 80s pop songs.
Then, as if the music isn’t enough of a beating, the vocals kick in. BJ is in a pompously lecturing mood. He wants the kids of the world to know that “It’s all right,” that things will go their way, if they just hold on for one more day. “Don’t forget your second wind,” he advises… “Sooner or later you’ll feel that momentum kick in.” In other words: it gets better, kids! Chin up! And Joel surely knows how bad it can get when you’re pummelled by what Hamlet called the “thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.” Dig the rich detail and the startling specifics of his portrayal of teenage angst:
You’re having a hard time and lately you don’t feel so goodGee whiz—it’s all so vividly realized! Not at all patronizing, inane, or phony. Not the least sounding like something composed by a rich, out-of-touch rock star in the middle of a slapdashedly-composed, self-congratulatory wankfest to be fawned over by obsequious rock critics and the worshipful pop-culture obsessed media . More vague, generic faux-empathy follows:
You’re getting a bad reputation in the neighborhood
You’re keeping to yourself these daysSee, youngsters, Billy knows what it’s like to be you! He understands the depressed youth of America; you can take heart. Moreover, he graciously gives you permission to fail: “You’re only human,” he benevolently observes, allowing that, “you’re allowed to make your share of mistakes.” And the backup Negresses graciously concur with this ingeniously-rendered observation. “Only human, woo-woo!” they shriek, faux-sympathetically, in your ear.
You’re thinking everything has gone wrong…
It’s not always easy to be living in this world of pain.
As bad as the song is, and I don’t really think I’ve managed to do justice to the Kurtz-like horror it inspires, the video might be even more infuriating. In it, a good-looking, stylish, jean-jacketed 16-year old boy with a hot blonde girlfriend has become suicidally depressed. Why? Apparently, he got into a humiliating automobile accident while escorting said girlfriend around, an accident which didn’t injure either of them or anyone else, but which made Blondie get mad at him for his careless driving. Or something. So now the poor guy is on the top of the Brooklyn bridge, thinking of ending it all.
Not to worry, though; hip, dapper savior Joel appears to the lad, and, like the angelic Clarence Odbody in It's A Wonderful Life, takes him on a journey, enabling him to see what will happen if he goes on living: He’ll graduate high school! His parents will be so proud! And after that, he’ll rescue a guy from drowning and be a hero, and then he’ll marry his hot girlfriend, who’ll apparently forgive him for his automotive foibles! But on the other hand, if he makes the fateful leap into the drink, shuffling off this mortal coil in the process, his parents will be so sad afterwards, and his girlfriend will cry at his funeral, presumably thinking to herself, “If only I hadn’t been such a bitch to him after he wrecked the car…” So the handsome kid with the adorable bangs and the cool jean jacket chooses life. Huzzah! Thank God for the wise counsel of rock stars, or we’d all be offing ourselves! We are the world, we are the children!
At the time this song and video came out, I recall fuming quietly over the hype and hubbub over Billy Joel’s supposed virtuous compassion in urging kids not to kill themselves. It all seemed so flatulently self-serving. More to the point, I found myself utterly alienated from the video which was supposed to mean so much to me as a depressed teenager. I wasn’t good-looking or popular, didn’t have nice hair, a jean jacket, a girlfriend, or a car. Did I get a second wind, too? And what about all the kids who had it even worse than me? Even then, I knew the truth: in fact, things don’t always get better. Often they stay exactly the same, and sometimes they get even worse. So why should we stick around, again, Mr.“Piano Man”?
To be completely clear, I am not an advocate of self-slaughter. But neither do I think that anyone or anything is helped by vacuous media campaigns or crappy songs. That I, and others like me, survived the 80s is certainly no credit to Billy Joel or his “woo-woo”-ers, nor does any present-day kid with a functioning brain—be he gay, straight, or otherwise—find the “It gets better” bit the least convincing. Suicide is not the answer, but neither is bullshit.
(originally published at Alternative Right, June 2013)
Andy Nowicki, co-editor of Alternative Right, is a Catholic reactionary writer who loathes all modernist dogmas and superstitions. He is the author of five books, including Heart Killer and The Columbine Pilgrim. He occasionally updates his blog when the spirit moves him to do so.