According to the U.S. Center for Disease Control, there was an increase in suicides in the United States between 2000 and 2016 from 10.4 to 13.5 per 100,000 people, resulting in a 30% increase. Both speculation and serious consideration of the reason for such a marked increase is beyond the scope of this essay, but a 30% increase is staggering. Popular music has certainly not been immune to the rise in frequency of suicide. The deaths of Kurt Cobain of Nirvana, Avicii, Elliott Smith, Keith Flint of The Prodigy, Butch Trucks of the Allman Brothers Band, Ted Nugent’s drummer, Cliff Davies, K-pop singer, Kim Jonghyun, and Chester Bennington of Linkin Park form a sample and certainly incomplete list. Rightly so, studies of suicide tend to focus on suicide prevention and the mental health of those having suicidal thoughts. Such foci are, of course, appropriate and necessary. With shows such as Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why, a shift in scrutiny and consideration seems to have occurred toward the psychological perspectives and traumatic repercussions of family and friends affected by the death by suicide of those close to them.
Shinoda and the need for therapy
In 2018, Mike Shinoda released a solo album, Post Traumatic, within a year of the suicide of fellow Linkin Park bandmate, Chester Bennington. Post Traumatic stands as a significant record of at least a portion of his recovery from this trauma. In addition to its musical and lyrical content, the album cover is comprised of Shinoda’s signature over his own art. A special edition of the album was released that included an entire book of art Shinoda created himself. Shinoda’s art serves as a record of one of the physical acts connected to the embodiment of his therapeutic process, an embodiment that is also present in the act of songwriting for the album and in his tour after the album’s release. Considering Chester and Mike’s intimate daily musical interactions—writing, rehearsing, recording, and performing music they co-created—the physical and emotional act of performing again presented a daunting task for Mike Shinoda.
Therapy in the album
The tracks on Post Traumatic demonstrate a therapeutic recovery from the loss of his friend, a therapeutic process that is no doubt on going. For example, the opening track, “Place to Start,” describes the initial shock and feeling of helplessness after losing his friend, the immediate need to blame others as well as himself, and the uncertainty of what to do next—in life, in music, and even within the microcosm of a single day. Acknowledging the complete inability to accomplish any of those next steps without the love and support of family and friends, the song closes with actual recordings left on Shinoda’s voicemail after Bennington’s death. These recordings reflect sentiments of empathy, love, support, and a willingness to be physically present by his side while remaining sensitive to the equally realistic need to have quite time to one’s self.
As performing often meant sharing the stage with Bennington, performing without Bennington presented a looming hurdle for Shinoda. He addresses this difficulty in his return to performing directly in “Over Again” from Post Traumatic. The chorus of the song notes the continuous cycle of dealing with grief as emotions and psychological difficulties arise “over and over again.” The first verse describes the moments leading up to his first performance after Bennington’s death, the uncertainty in how to deal with the traumatic experience in losing their friend and how to do so sensitively and appropriately, the daunting anxiety of an approaching performance in Bennington’s honor, the emotional and physical upheavals resulting from incredible—and often unexpected—surges of grief, and the seeming need to reprogram the music-making process itself in the absence of one of Shinoda’s most frequent collaborators and Linkin Park’s most central figures. In the second verse, Shinoda’s mind races through the performance and its aftermath, questioning himself from an array of perspectives, including other’s opinions of his recovery and therapeutic process, the quality and value of his performance, his ability to continue in the music and performance business, and even his own path toward recovery from trauma. The remainder of the album continues with similar encounters along Shinoda’s path toward the therapeutic recovery from trauma.
Embodiment of trauma and therapy in the act of performance
While “Over Again” expresses that a month had passed since Bennington’s death, the actual first performance by Linkin Park after that date was three months later, on Oct. 27 at the Hollywood Bowl in a combined concert with other bands, entitled “Linkin Park and Friends: Celebrate Life in Honor of Chester Bennington.” Shinoda’s first solo performance was even later on May 12, 2018 at LA alternative station KROQ’s Weenie Roast 2018, a concert with larger ticket acts than the name implies.
At the KROQ concert, Shinoda sang a solo rendition of Linkin Park’s “In The End,” a song that originally featured Shinoda rapping and Bennington on vocals. Rather than sing on the main stage, Shinoda played on a stage placed in the middle of the crowd, a place of inclusion, a place of therapeutic support, and, while he lacked the support of his Linkin Park bandmates, it was a place where he wasn’t on his own, but immersed rather in a support group of fans whose energy certainly contributed a therapeutic enablement that upheld him as he performed, not alone, but with them.
After an opening set of songs, Shinoda admits to the crowd the difficulty of singing that afternoon. The following quote begins at 17:03 in the video. “Thank you. I’m really glad to be at this point in the show because I think that was the hardest part, and with that behind us…. I’d like to invite you guys if you want to you can help me out with this song. We’re not going to play it the way most people know it. We’re going to play it the way that it was written the very first demo at least stylistically it was just piano and vocals. And…I want to share that with you guys. But you guys are going to have to play, you guys are going to have to sing Chester’s part. You guys down with that?” In his book, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, on the embodiment often necessary in the therapeutic process, psychologist Bessel Van Der Kolk writes, cites three possible paths toward therapeutic recovery after trauma: “1) top down, by talking, (re-connecting with others, and allowing ourselves to know and understand what is going on with us, while processing the memories of the trauma); 2) by taking medicines that shut down inappropriate alarm reactions, or by utilizing other technologies that change the way the brain organizes information, and 3) bottom up: by allowing the body to have experiences that deeply and viscerally contradict the helplessness, rage, or collapse that result from trauma. Which one of these is best for any particular survivor is an empirical question. Most people I have worked with require a combination” (van der Kolk 2014, 3). The first and third possible therapeutic paths described by van der Kolk can be seen in the musical acts of songwriting, album creation, and music making on tour. The act of lyric writing is obviously a form of talk therapy, as song writing has long been a heavily used medium for expressing some of our innermost, difficult to express thoughts and emotions. Van der Kolk’s incorporation of bodily movement into the therapeutic experience is also ever present in music making. Whether through playing an instrument or the even more intimate musical act of singing, making music is an inherently physical activity and certainly contributes toward van der Kolk’s embodied therapy.
Van der Kolk’s studies of the physicality, often manifest in mind/body dissociation and physical freezing, and the frequent need to bring the body into the therapeutic process are apparent following this admission of difficulty. Immediately following the quote above, Shinoda makes a mistake in the opening keyboard riff of “In the End,” a riff he has performed many times. He recovers, saying, “Yep…there it is,” and continues into the song, a song so well known that the crowd begins with Chester’s part before Mike’s rapping begins. This very brief mistake is psychologically revealing. Considering the trauma that Shinoda had recently undergone and this concert’s status as his first solo performance following Bennington’s death, the mistake has a number of possible interpretations—thoughts about Chester clouding Mike’s thoughts on the music, nerves after a performance break, or perhaps a more foundational moment of physical impediment, the kind that van der Kolk mentions is common following trauma, a PTSD-related physical reaction—but something pertaining in some manner to his traumatic experience and its connection to the same music making process in which he was again participating after a hiatus is likely at the very least.
This duet between Shinoda and the audience—with the audience embodying Chester’s voice—fills a necessary void that makes these songs, originally written to feature a duet between the voices of the two vocalists, possible despite the physical absence of Chester Bennington. The audience’s embodiment of Bennington’s voice uplifts and empowers Shinoda within his therapeutic recovery from Chester’s death. They help Shinoda regain the pre-traumatic musical experience of singing with his friend, engaging the physical act of singing and playing keyboards that could be hindered from the traumatic experience, creating a physical path forward toward therapeutic recovery as mentioned by van der Kolk. Chester’s set from this performance matches this motion toward recovery with songs from his Fort Minor project, “Where’d You Go” and “Remember the Name,” with new meaning clearly repurposed to the memory of his friend, revealing, through the physical acts of singing and playing keyboards, and the therapeutic acts of writing music and the talk therapy that is an intimate part of that same lyric and music writing process, that Mike Shinoda’s therapeutic recovery is well on its way.
–Nathan Fleshner, Assistant Professor of Music Theory, University of Tennessee, USA