'I am going to make it through this year / If it kills me.' - The Mountain Goats, This Year
Today is International Men's Day. CALM, Campaign Against Living Miserably, launches a new music project called 'Torch Songs', which invites any male musician to cover the song they go to for comfort and inspiration when life darkens.
The response from a narrow call out to UK artists has been overwhelming. Over 30 artists are participating in the coming weeks, led by the likes of Years + Years, The Vaccines and Twin Atlantic. A truly male chorus. Songs will be made available to radio and to stream on Spotify, iTunes and YouTube as well as on torchsongs.co.uk.
UK songwriter Frank Turner has chosen to cover a song by John Darnielle, leader of cult US indie-folk act, The Mountain Goats, as his personal torch. Celebrated writers like Frank and his hero John give exquisite voice to the average man. Giving such raw expression to the emotional lives of normal people is a tradition dating back to the blues and the earliest folk music.
Interestingly, the form known as a Torch Song arose from the tradition of French chanteuse singing laments of unrequited or lost loves - since co-opted by any writer singing from the heart. Now we've re-appropriated the thought for men as songs that guide us out of the dark.
So why is that male voice so compelling for us?
In 2016 CALM has just completed its first 10 years trying to surface and confront the horrifying facts of male suicide in the UK. In 2015, 75% of all suicides were men (NISRA, GRO, ONS 2015). In fact 4618 men took their own lives. That's a staggering 12 men a day, or one man every 2 hrs. Suicide continues to be the single biggest killer of men under the age of 45. While our work has contributed to the increase in awareness of these facts, now standing a little more than a 30% of the UK population, CALM continues to wrestle alongside the men it supports with the unflinching expectations on young men - that they prove themselves infallible, stoic and strong. What kind of real man shows weakness? Most alarmingly, to men in crisis choosing to take one's life is for them perhaps the greatest act of masculinity.
At the same time, it is commonly alleged that, unlike women, men simply cannot articulate what is going on beneath that robust exterior. Maybe worse they feel very little; and they certainly will not seek help when the darkness falls. So perhaps the driving forces of the statistics are genetic? Unlike those rare musicians, are men programmed to not speak up and share their innermost anxieties?
In receiving over 6000 calls a month to our helpline, we would beg to differ. Men can find the words. They do want help and inspiration to find a way through. And yes, they are in touch with their emotions. Rather it's just the definition of their roles in the world that remain inflexible, whilst those of female counterparts continue to stretch. Men suffocate and cannot find the right space to say so.
Which is why at CALM we have turned to musicians to re-appropriate the Torch Song as a means of offering some handles on this issue. To provide some guard-rails to guide us all out of the dark. Demonstrating the songs they go to for their moment of inspiration, which might in turn provoke public debate, create the cultural space and so mobilize men to speak up.
Many young men turn to music or writing as a means of navigating life's trials. As a Manager myself of four young male artists, their innate need to articulate their deepest thoughts is ever-present - as a means of exorcism, self-defense, or celebration of their genetic make-up.
The music world has changed radically since the 80s and 90s heyday when music was paid for (how very quaint). Now artists like mine face the punishing insecurities of a life in music. But these men have a muscle they have to flex. In their minds, music is what they do. There is no plan B. It defines their masculinity as much as the Athlete or Captain of Industry. Their need to write and shape their identity around their words and musical form is genetic. And in so doing they can connect intimately to any listener, and if they achieve that kind of platform, to the masses.
At the same time, I am father to an 11-year-old boy who has grown up in the midst of a barrage of musical influence. He too sees music as a way of putting voice to and framing his young life - right now it's largely Grime. For every artist he overhears in my world, he finds his own who connects directly to his burgeoning world-view.
So in a year in which the music world has lost some its most enduring and distinctive male voices - Bowie, Prince, Cohen - it is time to celebrate the power of the male voice.
Men do have a voice. They can and should use it. Whether considered a form of decompression or activism, that voice can connect with the ears of those willing to listen. Maybe we all should spend a little more time giving those voices the space to speak up?
Every man can make it through this year. No, it doesn't need to kill them.
James Scroggs is Chair of Trustees for CALM
HuffPost UK is running a month-long focus around men to highlight the pressures they face around identity and to raise awareness of the epidemic of suicide. To address some of the issues at hand, Building Modern Men presents a snapshot of life for men, the difficulty in expressing emotion, the challenges of speaking out, as well as kick starting conversations around male body image, LGBT identity, male friendship and mental health.
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