feed my ego: some thoughts on popular music & the mental health industry
column originally published in A2 Cultural Weekly, Czech Republic, 2009
James Hetfield of Metallica, pre-counseling days
Deep in the substrate of my record collection, there exists a caustic Industrial-age novelty entitled The Worst of Monte Cazazza. Musically, it’s essentially a compilation of cruelly inverted greeting card sentiments, light forays into ‘naïf techno’, and disaffected readings on ultraviolence, survivalism and criminal nature. Although this isn't remarkable in and of itself, the CD is prefaced by something quite rare in the annals of recorded music: a psychiatric professional commenting on what you’re about to hear. Whether the doctor in question, one ‘Bart Alberti,’ is real or just an elaborate put-on, his analysis of Cazazza pulls no punches: the artiste is castigated by the good doctor as a pervert and bombarded with Freudian jargon: he is “manifestly psychopathic”, “clearly sexually repressed”, “confused, eroto-maniac, anal retentive” while also being in possession of a “subconscious manifested in psycho-masturbation” and an “unresolved Oedipus complex”. What soon becomes obvious, though, is that the laundry list of mental disturbances attributed to Cazazza is being worn like a badge of honor, a sort of confirmation that his amoral, corporeal world of pure survival instinct is a more valid one than the deeply internalized world of the psychiatric “priesthood”. If nothing else, it does highlight how the anarcho-individualist nature of musicians and artists can be very inhospitable to the opinion of psychoanalytic professionals…and vice versa.
The Lacanian cultural theorist Slavoj Žižek, in the introduction to his epic In Defense of Lost Causes, notes how psychoanalysis has joined classical Marxism on the scrapheap of failed ‘great narratives’: as the story goes, no figure in the history of human thought was more wrong about all the fundamentals of history than Freud- with the exception of Marx, some might add. And, indeed, in liberal consciousness, the two now emerge as the main ‘partners in crime’ of the twentieth century: predictably, in 2005, the infamous Black Book of Communism, listing all the manifold Communist crimes, was to be followed by The Black Book of Psychoanalysis, listing all the cons and frauds of psychoanalysis. Of course, long before its being disavowed by the cultural mainstream, the twinning of psychoanalysis with other fallen ideologies has been a reliable plank of the far-right ultra-nationalist platform, which thrives on simple connect-the-dots games of naming / revealing the invariably Semitic enemy. Ryan Gosling, playing a conflicted Jew-turned-skinhead in the 2001 film drama The Believer, exemplifies this tendency in a scene where he adds Einstein to an unholy trinity otherwise comprised of Marx and Freud, pitting the blood-and-soil Euro-pagan cosmology against a cerebral and relativist culture that has “ripped us out of the world of order and reason, and thrown us into a world of class warfare, irrational urges, relativity…into a world where now the very existence of matter and meaning is in question”. The real-life paranoiacs holding such views do not have a monopoly on the rejection of psychoanalytic orthodoxy, though, with some leading lights of the post-1968 intellectual Left also seeing the Freudian tradition as just another tool for enforcing societal complacency: the works of Gilles Deleuze co-authored with Félix Guattari, a more 'radical' type of psychoanalyst (or schizoanalyst, as the case would be), rejected the key psychoanalytic notion that the unconscious was somehow pre-occupied - via Oedipal complexes and the like - with any single archetypal personality. In the process, they lionized the ‘mad‘ poet and musical counterculture precursor Antonin Artaud. He himself scoffed at the orthodox definition of an insane man, instead proposing that “a lunatic is a man who prefers to become what is socially acceptable as mad, rather than forfeit a certain superior idea of human honor”.
It would be ill-advised to credit a pincer movement of extreme Left and Right ideological forces for the negative shift in public perception of psychoanalysis, though: these days, far more people fill up their iPods with vivacious pop songs than with Deleuze audiobooks (if such things even exist), and are more likely to look to pop culture for an endorsement of their ideology than to cultural critics for refinement of it. Here, too, there exist forces which view pscyhoanalysis, and the entire psychiatric profession, as a sinister and monolithic force arrayed against individualistic, expressive nature: the concern over mental health seen as a smokescreen for the assurance of total conformity. This hard-line stance of rejection may seem like so much romantic and decadent posturing, but as recently as the 1960s –when the anti-psychiatry movement first hit its stride- brutal sessions of insulin shock treatment (a.k.a. electro-convulsive therapy) were still not an uncommon ‘cure‘ in the U.S. for vaguely-defined, mood-related disorders. It was this treatment, as administered to Allen Ginsberg’s Columbia Psychiatric Institute co-habitant Carl Solomon, which provided a good deal of the inspiration for the Beat anthem Howl (Solomon was one of the “best minds of my generation destroyed by madness” in the poem’s now-classic opening line, and an Artaud acolyte of sorts.) Flash forward from the tail end of the 1940s to the tail end of the 1950s, and such treatment was still being administered to, among others, another pop icon- Lou Reed.
Reed, as the then-frontman of the Velvet Underground and Nico, figures into one of the more famous incidents in which musicians challenged the authority of mental health professionals: on January 10 of 1966, the official debut of said band was staged at the annual banquet of the New York Society for Clinical Psychiatry, at the behest of one ‘clued-in‘ psychiatrist, Dr. Robert Campbell. Campbell, by tapping Andy Warhol to give a lecture at this event, also got his floating entourage (then called “Up-Tight”, and soon to morph into the Exploding Plastic Inevitable) as part of the package. The Velvets‘ role in that retinue was to perform during film projections, so that Warhol wouldn’t have to talk at all. The event was to be a genteel presentation by Warhol on the linkage between art and insanity, but quickly devolved into an entirely different animal: with the Velvets‘ then unprecedented brand of head-splitting, droning and nihilistic noise setting the scene, the film makers Jonas Mekas and Barbara Rubin assaulted the diners with a series of interrogations meant to mock the psychoanalytic obsession with sexuality. For Reed, at least, the event was sweet revenge against an oppressive medical regime, whose diagnosis of the evening –courtesy of a Dr. Alfred Lilenthal- was that it was a “spontaneous eruption of the id”. But that was then, and this is now: 40 odd years later, the music recording/ concert performance industry has expanded into a high-pressure environment with its own unique set of psycho-spiritual hazards.
The Freudian watchword of the day is no longer “spontaneous id” but “damaged ego”, as the Byronic pretensions of rock‘s sovereign men like Reed and Jim Morrison have long since given way to the embattled “us-against-the-world” attitude of arena rockers like Metallica. Nowhere is this clearer than their 2004 band documentary Some Kind of Monster, in which the band’s personal therapist Phil Towle all but co-authors their new album with them (the film's title is essentially Towle's coinage.) Monster showcases a band whose combined neuroses and delusional attitudes make it almost impossible for them to accomplish this feat without this poker-faced, analytical outsider steering the ship. Examples such as this one beg the question: could the major-league arena rock rebel of today, as one of the few professions having the disposable income to be regularly treated, become the bread and butter of the floundering psychiatric profession? Could the sovereign artists who scoff at any type of restraint be the same ones who help psychoanalysis to weather its current unpopularity?