Killer Songs

Me - 072411
There are so many killers written into literature.   Many killers are portrayed in paintings.  Actors create amazing characters of murderers (think of Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lector).  I am not much of a poetry fan, but I am sure there are many poems about killing as well.  What I am thinking about today is the representation of killers in songs.

I got onto this theme after listening to Psycho Killer by the Talking Heads on my way home from work.  I then listened to Folsom Prison Blues  and Mack the Knife to get into the theme.  It made me wonder what the appeal of these songs were.  I know I have a number of them on my iPod.

I first explored the voice of the story teller in these songs.  Many are in the first person, but a few are in the third person.  This is interesting that singers and song writers want to be the killer rather than talk about them.  What is the motivation for this?  What makes us want to be vicarious participants in the darkest parts of humanity?

Me - 072411
I think this instinctual drive expresses itself in our acclamation and devotion to mystery/murder novels, television series (CSI, Criminal Intent, Medium, The Sopranos), songs, video games, and movies.  We deep down want to understand the motivations and experiences of a killer without having to actually live them, or to be blunt, pull the trigger or bury the knife.  If we thought about these deep feelings too much we would be disgusted by ourselves, so we never analyze deeper into them.  We just know we like the shows, books, and songs - even if they makes us look away at times.

Are portrayals of violence bad for society?  That is a tough question that is not a simple yes/no answer.  By exploring them through these genres, we can better understand them and maybe even scratch an subliminal itch that keeps us from going further.  On the other hand, these violent productions can stoke inhibited fires to become a reality.  Where is that fine line?  Can we even define that fine line since it is different with every consumer of the content?

Moon - 072411
I explored making abstract violent imagery last year in New York.  The images were inspired by the aesthetic qualities of the night terror dreams I often have.  I don't think the photos got to the point that I was trying to make, but they were my first attempt.  I wanted to capture the horror from those dreams.  They are third person for me, not first person.  Upon further reflection though, the images where the models look at the camera feel first person due to the eye contact.  (Thanks to Moon and Valya for their roles in making these photos.)
Valya - 072411

I think back to when my family first got HBO when I was 13 or 14.  My mom told me she didn't mind me seeing movies rated R if the reason was sex or nudity, but was concerned if the rating was due to violence.  As she said, "Nudity and sex is natural, but violence was evil."  It is in our DNA and basic behavioral psychology to desire sex for procreation.  It is primal.  It is our most basic core programming.  I don't care if someone is homosexual, straight, bisexual, or some other identification, the base drive to do it comes from the same place.  What we find desirable; same, opposite, or both genders, is coding that came later.  Maybe killing is another genetic program as well.

So, back to the question why do we vicariously live in lyrics like "I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die."? (Folsom Prison Blues - Johnny Cash)  Maybe it is because we are too scared to admit that some of these crude, base instincts are in us but we still need to hear others tell the stories.  I am sure many people will disagree with my theory, but I think everyone has an instinctual killer gene in us that we work so hard to deny.  Way back when, this gene helped protect us and get us food, but we don't need it in that way anymore.  By consuming others' stories of killing, through all genres, most of us stimulate, satiate, and suppress this gene without even acknowledging we have it.  Too bad this cycle it doesn't work for everyone.

Below are some killer songs.  I identified whether they are first or third person and shared a few of my thoughts on them.  I didn't want to write too much and would rather read your thoughts on them.  I chose not to put songs about victims, like Strange Fruit.  That may be worthy of a future post.

Mack the Knife - Louise Armstrong - Third person - I remember when I heard McDonalds use an altered version of this song for an ad campaign called "Make it Mac Tonight".  A few years later I was listening to an old *Satchmo album of my mom's that had the original.  I quickly realized this was no fast food ad song... it was scary as hell.  I listened to it three more times.  It chilled me how Armstrong was retelling the story as if he and some drinking buddies were shooting the shit, gossiping about these murders.  Pretty damn cold song.

Folsom Prison Blues - Johnny Cash - First person - This is a rare one in that it is not about the murder, but how murderer is rotting in prison.

Hey Joe - Jimi Hendricks - Third person - This song is about a man about to kill his lover for cheating on him.  Like the story in Cash's Cocaine Blues - the murderer heads down south to Mexico.

Cocaine Blues - Johnny Cash - First person- This is sort of a continuation of Hey Joe in that it is about a man killing his woman, but then tells the story of his running away and finally getting caught.  It is a light-hearted murder song, but very chilling in how it is meant to humorous ending with a weak warning to avoid drugs and alcohol. 

Psycho Killer - The Talking Heads - First person. I think these are some of the best lyrics about the mentality of a killer.
I can't seem to face up to the facts
I'm tense and nervous and I
Can't relax
I can't sleep 'cause my bed's on fire
Don't touch me I'm a real live wire
A bit of the song is in French.
Part of the chorus and the bridge are in French. The verse translates to "What I did, that evening, what she said, that evening fulfilling my hope I throw myself towards glory." The chorus lyric "Qu'est-ce que c'est?" means "What is this?"  from the Song Facts website.

My Name is Mud - Primus - First person - A dark disturbing story of how fast it happens and how it has to dealt with by the murderer.  Les Claypool is the band's leader, singer and bass guitarist.  His guitar style is rough, dirty and hard.  I like it.  It matches the theme of this song.

Henry Lee - Nick Cave and PJ Harvey - This comes from Cave's album Murder Ballads.  In this unique song, the killer is not who you would think.  The fair lady is the murderer.  Here is a link to the color youtube version of it.  I highly recommend you watch the black and white version by clicking on the photo and scrolling down to this song. 
Click the image and scroll down to the video

Jack the Ripper - Morrissey- First person - Sounds like he is telling of the stalking of his victim.

State Trooper - Bruce Springsteen - First person - Not sure if this is about a killer, but feels like he is willing to kill to get away.

Midnight Rambler - Rolling Stones - Third and first person - Starts off in the third person and transitions to first person after a long bridge section. 
And if you catch the Midnight Rambler
I'll steal your mistress from under your nose
Well, go easy with your cold fandango
I'll stick my knife right down your throat
Baby, and it hurts!

It feels like he is bragging about his work.

All of these songs are from the last 100 years.  I know there are great pieces from operas, and other musical genres, about murderers and killing and would be interested in learning about them as well.

* My mom named her trumpet Satchmo in honor of Mr. Armstrong.

1 comment:

  1. How funny you would post "Mack the Knife." Last week my niece's little girl was playing with a toy shark in the swimming pool, and it made me start to sing that song. "When the shark bites/with its teeth, dear..." That was a big hit for Bobby Darin also.

    If we are honest about it, I would bet each of us has had the impulse to kill someone at some time or another. It's the way human beings are wired. Most of us fantasize and then realize it's nothing we really want to do. Unfortunately, some snap and cross the line.


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