The wisdom of pop songs – violence

The human condition explained in three-minute bursts
hey joe
Check the lyrics: “I’m going down to shoot my old lady”.

It’s a thin line between love and hate. We know that because the song of that name says so.

In 1934 Cole Porter, the composer of countless classic songs, brought us the sad tale Miss Otis Regrets, in which the lady in question got so upset when a man had his wicked way with her and didn’t love her afterwards that she shot him. Killed him.

So much for the misty-eyed notion of the past: “Ah, more innocent times”. This was an era when Al Capone was in prison and sufferering from syphilis-induced dementia, and John Dillinger breathed his last in a hail of bullets.

Perhaps that is why there seems to have been no furore about Porter creating a bad role model and inciting people to violence. When you can’t see across the street for flying lead, what is one more seducer in the graveyard?

In today’s politically correct world, such a story of mayhem would probably be banned. That the world of rap music has largely escaped such censure for its litany of bitter diatribes and stories of drive-by shootings can only be due to the fact that the people who would like to have that sort of thing banned can’t understand the words because of da way dem muthas sing.

Confessions account for several notable pop violence ditties. When Jimi Hendrix made an international hit out of a song, Hey Joe, that had been kicking around for a few years (and we’re not even sure who wrote it), he wasn’t expressing murderous thoughts, but explaining why he had shot his girlfriend. It wouldn’t get him very far in front of a real judge and jury (ask Oscar Pistorius), but somehow Hendrix came over as a nice guy in spite of what he was telling us.

On a completely different note, Bessie Smith once sang about domestic violence and apparently excused her man for hitting her. “I’d rather my man would hit me, than for him to jump up and quit me,” and “I swear I won’t call no copper if I get beat up by my papa” must have raised eyebrows in the 1920s, but nothing like they would today. They are not her lyrics, in fact, because the song was written by Porter Grainger and Everett Robbins, but even so, she was delivering the message. When Mary Coughlan recorded it in 1985, the strong-minded Irish singer switched “hit” and “quit” in the first of those lines, making her disapproval clear, and changed the second to “I swear I would call a copper…”

otis
And yes, I have a load of spare ammunition under there too

Messing around with a lyric in that way wouldn’t always work (Hey Joe, where you going with those heavy thoughts in your mind? I’m going to have a word with my old lady…), but then some songs are obviously just youthful rock’n’roll bravado while others seem relevant in reality.

A more modern take on domestic violence came in Suzanne Vega’s 1980s song Luka, which drew attention to the fact, even though the Luka character seems resigned to her fate, urging her neighbor to ignore anything that sounds like violence late at night. It is not pop music’s job to offer solutions, but it can draw our attention to things.

luka
No laughing matter: Suzanne Vega gets serious

Quite what Bob Marley thought he was doing when he admitted he shot the sheriff but denied shooting the deputy is not clear. Was shooting sheriffs okay in Jamaica at that time? Although his work is streaked with trouble with the police, Marley’s general message was that he and his fellows should be left alone to smoke ganja as and when they wanted, because they weren’t doing anyone any harm.

All of these songs, though, are from the fringes of pop: blues, rock, rap and reggae. In the simpler, more peaceful world of true pop music, from Doris Day to One Direction, no such skullduggery lurks. And anyway, it’s only rock’n’roll, so we can’t take it too seriously.

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