A Tale of Musical Persecution in America
In October of 1984, a nineteen year old boy by the name of John M. died of a self inflicted gunshot wound to the head while listening to Ozzy Osbourne’s "Suicide Solution." Coroners claim that he was still wearing his headphones when the found him. In January 13, 1986, John’s parents hired Thomas Anderson as their attorney in their attempt to sue Ozzy Osbourne for the death of their son. This was one of three lawsuits filed against the musician in response to his song (Lalonde). Is it ethical to blame a musician and to censor their music based on the negative effect that their music may have on their fans?
Thomas Anderson hired the Institute for Bio-Acoustics Research Inc. (IBAR) to evaluate the song for any messages that may have driven these listeners to suicide. IBAR found subliminal lyrics in the song that were sung at one and one half times the normal rate of speech which cannot be heard at first listening . The lyrics in question are supposed to say "Why try? Why try? Get the gun and try it! Shoot, shoot, shoot." followed by hideous laughter (Lalonde). Psychologists have discredited the use of subliminal audio messaging to manipulate the public (Tavris & Wade), but this did not seem to affect the beliefs of the IBAR. The Institute also found hemisync tones contained in the song. Hemisync tones use sound waves to influence mental state by increasing the rate at which the brain assimilates and processes information. Anderson claimed that these tones are audible and made John more vulnerable to Ozzy’s subliminal suggestions (Lalonde).
Ozzy’s defense claimed that the sounds heard were nothing more than Ozzy playing around with the soundboard, although some claim that the record company made these tones on purpose to promote the album. This theory was never proven, but if that was the intent, Ozzy is still not to blame for the actions of those at the record company. Ozzy’s lawyer claimed that the First Amendment, which states that "congress shall have no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free practice thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peacefully to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances" protects Ozzy’s right to write about what ever he wants to. In response to the accusations, Ozzy remarked that AI swear on my kid’s life I never said >get the fucking gun.’" Ozzy was found innocent in all three lawsuits and the judge ruled that a musician cannot be responsible for the effects of their music (Ozzman).
While many claim that Ozzy’s music is harmful, it was music which saved Ozzy. Born John "Ozzy" Osbourne, Ozzy dropped out of school at age fifteen and engaged in a series of low paying jobs such as car horn tester and slaughterhouse worker. Ozzy had grown tired of his low wages and he began robbing houses and stores until he was arrested. It was in prison that Ozzy got his famous AOZZY" tattoo across his knuckles. After his release, a friend invited him to be the vocalist for their band. While he went through many bands since that one, he ended up in a band called Earth will Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler, and Bill Ward. The band later changed their name to Black Sabbath after a Boris Karloff movie when they discovered that there was already a band called Earth. If Ozzy hadn’t embarked in music, he likely would have ended up dead or in jail (Rolling Stone).
Many groups began to condemn Ozzy when he bit the head off a bat, likely one of the most memorable events in rock history. On January 20, 1982, at a show in Des Moines, a fan threw the bat onto the stage and Ozzy, thinking the bat was a toy, bit the head off. Apparently the bat bit back before its demise and Ozzy was rushed to the hospital after the show for a series of rabies shots (NME). In a recent interview with Rolling Stone, Ozzy said that "it took a lot of water to down just that fucking bat’s head, let me tell you, it’s still stuck in my fucking throat after all these years." It was this action that fully defined his reputation as a "Satan worshiper" or the "Antichrist himself" amongst conservative groups (Rolling Stone).
Although, stardom is not without its downfalls, Ozzy had many battles with alcoholism and drug addiction and the death of his father led to his leaving Black Sabbath. His solo debut was entitled "Blizzard of Oz" and track number five was the infamous "Suicide Solution." The title may lead one to believe that the song is about suicide as an answer to life’s problems, but the word solution is meant to refer to a mixture or potion, not an answer. The song was actually written for Bon Scott, vocalist for AC/DC who died after drinking heavily one winter night, passing out in his car, and was found dead from hypothermia as a result. The song also reflects Ozzy’s own struggle with alcoholism and is meant to portray alcohol as a deadly liquid, or suicide solution. The lyrics clearly have an anti-drinking message, not a suicidal one (Lalonde):
Wine is fine But whiskey's quicker suicide is slow with liquor Take a bottle drain your sorrows THEN IT FLOODS AWAY TOMORROW!! Evil thoughts and evil doings Cold, alone you hang in ruins Thought you'd escape the reaper You can't escape the master keeper 'Cause you feel life's unreal and you're living a lie Such a shame who's to blame and you're wondering why Then you ask from your cask is there life after birth What you saw can mean hell on this earth hell on this earth!! Now you live inside a bottle The reaper's traveling at full throttle It's catching you but you don't see The reaper is you and the reaper is me Breaking laws, knocking doors But there's no one at home Made your bed, rest your head But you lie there and moan Where to hide, suicide is the only way out Don't you know what it's really about Wine is fine But whiskey's quicker Suicide is slow with liquor Take a bottle drown your sorrows THEN IT FLOODS AWAY TOMORROW-Ozzy Osbourne, 1980
Many groups that oppose the song also have misquoted it to suit their own needs. For instance, one Christian group quoted the song as saying "Suicide is the only way out. Why don’t you kill yourself ‘cause you can’t escape the Master Reaper." Nowhere in the above lyrics does it say these false lyrics. People need to listen to the song and get their facts straight before trying to censor it (Lalonde).
While the First Amendment forbids the government from passing laws to censor music, they also cannot pass a law prohibiting non-government organizations to censor music as they choose. Tipper Gore and the Parents’ Music Resource Center as well as other censorship and religious groups technically have every right to pressure stores such as Wal-Mart to refuse sale of certain albums and radio stations from playing certain songs. When records are banned from huge chains such as Wal-Mart and are forbidden to air on the radio, the record will most likely fail (Nuzum). These conservative groups have the power to make or break a record without even listening to it. However, most of these standards of obscenity are based on Christian values. Therefore, the attempt by these groups to censor songs such as "Suicide Solution" is against the First Amendment because it only supports Christian beliefs and ignores all others. Ironically, more people have died in Religious wars then from listening to heavy metal.
Heavy metal is used as a scape goat. Whenever a teen has a drug problem or commits suicide it is the fault of the music. The father of one of these suicide victims was quoted as saying that:
"they know what they’re putting out. There are people who are out there trying to make money, and they have no hesitation to sell your kids down the drain. You see a perfectly normal kid there who doesn’t show any signs of depression at all. Then six hours later, he’s dead. Nobody can explain it. The only thing we know is that he was listening to this music." (Lalonde).
For one, if they are out to make money, how are they going to do that if they’re killing off the consumer. The record companies aren’t killing people, it’s bad business. Ozzy commented that ". . . we sell records all over the world and these things only seem to happen in America" (MTV News). The problem in these cases is the American tradition that parents like to assume that their children are happy and well adjusted and that any problem is just a phase. Tipper Gore is likely one of these parents, too busy trying to change the world that she forgets about her own children. One has to wonder if this father ever even bothered to ask his child how he was doing rather than just assuming he was fine. Perhaps the American family values that these conservatives are trying to reserve is the very thing tearing the country apart. Obviously, a song can’t make a well adjusted person kill themselves. If music had that kind of power, we’d all be dead upon turning on the radio. Parents need to focus less on what their children are listening to and more on who their child is and what they are doing.
A lot of music has negative content because it was written to help the artist deal with hard times. "Suicide Solution" was Ozzy’s way of coping with the death of a colleague and he own struggles with alcoholism. If these artists are denied the right to deal with problems in this way, the bottled up emotions could lead to more problems than the song would have created. Anger and sadness only fester if they are not expressed in some form and when an artist releases a song dealing with these emotions, not only is it therapeutic for them, but can also help their fans through similar problems. While some people claim that music drove their children to suicide, others claim that it was a song that came on the radio that took them out of a dark place. Music deals with all aspects of life, negative and positive, based on life itself. The world can be a horrible place that can drive people to suicide, but no one is filing a lawsuit against God. If it weren’t for these negative aspects, life would be unbearably dull. The negative exists if for no other reason then to define the positive. Until life can be censored, music shouldn’t be either.
If we allow the government to tell us what we can and cannot listen we have lost our freedom to chose. Musicians cannot be held responsible for the effects of their music. Music is art and its meaning is entirely based on one’s interpretation of it. A song is only as powerful as we want to perceive it. Those individuals who have killed themselves are a rare few, millions have heard "Suicide Solutions" and lived to tell about it. Ozzy can not be held accountable for these suicides any more than if his music was playing when two cars collided. Every time someone listens to "Suicide Solution" something bad is happening somewhere and Ozzy is not responsible for that. Before people start blaming everyone else, they need to take a good look at themselves. Ozzy should not be blamed for someone’s death until he puts a gun to their head and pulls the trigger.
Lalonde, M. "Ozzy Biography." 1 Aug 1998. <http://www.ozzman.com/ozzybio.txt>
MTV News. "Ozzy Weighs on Violent Lyrics Debate." 10 Nov 1997.<http://www.mtv.com/mtv/news/gallery/o/osbourneo971110.html>
NME. "100 Rock Moments." <http://www.nme.co.uk/newsdesk/rock29.html>
Nuzum, Eric. "A Brief History of Banned Music in the United States." <http://ericnuzum.com/banned/mcensorship.html>
Rolling Stone. "Ozzy Osbourne Biography." <http://rollingstone.tunes.com/sections/artists/text/bio.asp?afl=goto&strBioType=BIO&LookUpString=1077>
Rolling Stone. "Speak of the Devil." <http://rollingstone.tunes.com/sections/news/text/newsarticle.asp?afl=goto&NewsID=3539&LookUpString=1077>
Tavris, Carol. Wade, Carole. "Psychology, 5th Edition." Addison-Wesley.
Copyright © 2000 by [Jennifer Strohm]. All rights reserved.