Music Will Not Save You: What We Learn From Chris Cornell’s Death

FILE - In this May 19, 2013 file photo, Chris Cornell of Soundgarden performs at Rock on the Range in Columbus, Ohio. Cornell, 52, who gained fame as the lead singer of the bands Soundgarden and Audioslave, died at a hotel in Detroit and police said Thursday, May 18, 2017, that his death is being investigated as a possible suicide.

By Anika Smith Published on May 18, 2017

Today legions of GenXers and people in the Pacific Northwest are mourning the loss of grunge rocker Chris Cornell. He was found dead in his hotel room in Detroit this morning, an apparent suicide.

Seattle’s indie radio station KEXP played hours of tributes. Many gathered at the station to be together as they remembered his songs. These fans cite his music as “life-saving,” with the priestly DJ pronouncing Soundgarden albums as salvific in his own life.

Cornell’s mental illness is acknowledged carefully, with a strange lie attached. Yes, he struggled with depression — but music saved his life! they insist in the face of his death.

Many Found Hope

His death is shaking people who have reached middle age and weathered life’s storms through turning to his music. Cornell gave voice and instruction to a generation of lonely people. Many saw themselves in Cornell’s openness about his mental health issues and found hope in his seemingly stable and happy life with his family and his bands.

Music is a gift that can connect us to each other and draw us close to God. But music is not a savior.

He had just given a stellar performance with his friends and sent messages of love and hope. No one saw this coming.

“Chris dealt with severe depression and turned to music,” KEXP DJ John Richards said on his radio show today, “and it saved his life.”

Except it didn’t. That’s what the heartbreak shows. You can’t get saved through music, even if you start a crazy-amazing band with your best friends and find the love of your life and have a family you care for dearly.

It’s not that music doesn’t help. It is a great outlet. Music can transcend pain, and it’s a common place we turn for escape. It’s definitely a better choice than drugs. People who turn to music for salvation are looking for something to heal them. Music may “hath charms to soothe a savage breast,” but “tis not in harmony to calm my griefs.”

This may be the hardest thing as people in the music scene and in a city whose identity is built on music to grapple with. Music will not save you.

Music, Alcohol and Drugs

This is painful to say. But maybe there’s a reason so many people who lose themselves in music also succumb to alcoholism and drug addiction. No, I’m not saying that rock music is from Satan or that it leads automatically to drug addiction and death. But the correlation between people who are seeking something in music and losing themselves to drugs is what both have to offer: escape, and for brief moments, a kind of transcendence.

As anyone who has ever been a lonely child lost in hours of music knows, there is something magical about giving yourself over to the sounds in your ears. It can transport you away from problems and alter your mood.

Cornell was a loner who suffered from depression and anxiety from an early age, and he found solace in Beatles records before learning to play the drums and starting a band at 16. He also found drug addiction at 13 and fought relapses for the rest of his life.

We understand when someone like Kurt Cobain commits suicide in a place of isolation. When someone commits suicide hours after feeling surrounded by what he loves, with a stable family to return to, what are we to make of it?

Cornell enjoyed the camaraderie with a scene of Seattle musicians, not just in his official bands, but through a family-style scene where friends lived together and played together on random side projects and jam sessions. He was thoughtful and kind, respected and known and, by all accounts, warmer and easier to live with than someone like the tormented Cobain.

Connections Aren’t Enough

What if, ultimately, those connections aren’t enough? What if having friends and family with close relationships isn’t enough?

Eventually, every lonely and broken person needs more love than an adoring crowd can give. They need more than the intimate and personal love of a family. They — we — need the healing power that only the love of God can perform.

Chris Cornell was raised Catholic and converted to the Greek Orthodox Church after marrying his second wife, Vicky Karayiannis. He disclaimed “any particular religion” in interviews. He also wrote some of his songs as prayers:



In my hour of need
On a sea of gray
On my knees I pray to you
Help me find the dawn
Of the dying day

Won’t you light my way

A bullet is a man
From time to time he strays
I compare my life to this
To this I relate
And I’m willing
To listen to your answers
And I’m not afraid
To tell you I need you today

Won’t you light my way

May God have mercy on Chris Cornell’s soul. And may we all be willing to listen to God’s answers.

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  • Theresa Jane

    Like Rick Warren’s son, like Robin Williams…men who seemed to have all the elements for a happy life…and yet the soul pain drove them to end their lives. And others who face persecutions, loneliness and adversity soldier on. It’s a horrible mystery.

  • Craig Roberts

    The Seattle scene was always about nihilism. Soundgarden’s music was anything but uplifting. The band channeled dark forces that would take you to dark places. Kurt Cobain, Layne Staley, and now Chris Cornell…RIP.

  • Laura Turner

    Boiling down his tragic death from depression into a “If he only had God” package does disservice to the millions of people who, despite their faith, battle daily with mental illness. People who experience depression and other forms of mental illness need comprehensive care that includes attention from trained mental health professionals: doctors, therapists, social workers, etc. Yes, part of that whole strategy might be religious or spiritual in nature, if that resonates with the individual on her or his path. But touting the idea that they just need to experience God’s love furthers the stigma of mental illness by suggesting that suffers just aren’t religious/devout enough to be “well”. Additionally, it furthers the idea the “true believers” can’t/won’t experience mental illness, which makes those who do feel even more stigmatized and reluctant to seek the professional help that they need. I’m sure that there are times when your belief in God has made you feel better in dark times, but the depressed do not need to be told that they just aren’t religious enough, and the religious do not need to be deluded into thinking that they will never experience depression.

    • Kerrie Olsen

      I know Chris Cornell suffered from depression and had a hard life early and then later, but I do not believe he committed suicide. Questions still need to be answered even now, 3 months after this occurred. R.I.P Chris ❤

  • porcupineman1454

    The man is barely cold in his grave and you’re writing articles like this? How classless. Some “journalists” are like vultures: as soon as someone is dead, they pounce. Shame on The Stream for having the tastelessness to publish this.

  • Tim H

    say a word here as a depression sufferer and someone who really enjoyed both
    Soundgarden and Audioslave. I don’t think Anika is saying those who find God
    (or better, allow God to find them) will not suffer. Humiliation, scourging and
    crucifixion of One’s only begotten Son anyone?
    Rather, I think she’s just
    trying to point out that music and in fact nothing on this earth will save
    anyone except the loving mercy of the strange God who has shown us who He is
    through centuries of shaping the Jewish people and eventually the life, death
    and resurrection of Jesus. Many of us heard just this past weekend that Jesus is THE way, THE truth and THE life. We have to start with Him as the one to whom we
    prostrate ourselves – not money, not power, not honor, not pleasure (and one
    might add, not good works, not ‘being a nice guy’ and not even family). None of
    those are evil in themselves and great good comes from them. But we have to remember that they
    are all gifts from the only Giver. Start there. This is the only solid ground
    upon which to build anything in this life. Dealing with depression is no
    exception. God may not cure you or me, but we will assuredly not be cured if we
    don’t put God as the center point.

    • Anika Smith

      Thanks, Tim. Absolutely yes.

  • Just this past Sunday my 15 year-old budding musician son and I were on our way to church, and were jamming to a very heavy and loud Adioslave song. Perfect preparation for the worship of the Living God (I doubt my wife would agree:) At one point in the service the pastor was giving thanks in prayer for a variety of things, and I leaned over to my son and said, “And thank God for Chris Cornell’s voice.” Four days later he comes into my room and says Cornell is dead. I felt like I imagine Jesus felt at the tomb of Lazarus, angry and hollow and sad. Theresa in her comment said it’s a mystery why things like this happen (as with Rick Warren’s son). It’s not really. It’s sin, the wages of which the Apostle Paul tells us is death. It’s not anybody’s individual sin necessarily, it’s life lived in a fallen world where misery, and suffering, and pain, and sorrow, and yes, death, are all around us. These kind of things, and the death of a relatively young man with so much to live for, should compel us to ask ourselves, and others, why does this happen? Why is there death? Christians know why, and we know the one who overcame death, and gives us hope that we will overcome it in the end too. RIP Chris Cornell.

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