Most people live with a general assumption, implanted in their minds repeatedly by the music-industrial complex, that music is a good thing. But is it? “Sure,” you’re saying, snapping your fingers along with your favorite tune playing on your favorite Internet radio channel, “of course it’s a good thing!” Well, maybe to you, at that moment, but not so much for, say, Manuel Noriega at the end of 1989, when, holed up in Panama City’s Vatican embassy, our U.S. military bombarded the compound with a vicious shelling of music. First, non-stop Christmas music; then they got into the hard rock, with Styx, AC/DC, The Clash, and others being used as audio mortar rounds. Noriega eventually succumbed to the onslaught; there are some that say that Billy Idol’s “Flesh For Fantasy” was the final straw. The point is that music can be many things, and one of its less-discussed uses is as a weapon for psychological torture.
Music, or at least our reaction to it, is less about the intent of the artist and producer than is often acknowledged; context is everything, which is why last week, our nation’s hungry ears couldn’t get enough of the latest smash hit by professional cultural irritant Kesha Rose Sebert, dba Ke$ha, while this week, in the wake of last Friday’s unfathomable school shooting, “Die Young” is being dropped from America’s radio playlists like something that one would very much like to quickly drop. The song is still the same, the lyrics unchanged, but suddenly the chorus seems painful to our ears; like how the dulcet tones of “Blue Collar Man” by Styx, a tune that one can’t help but crank when it comes up on ZLX on your car radio, seemed so assaultive to the sensitive eardrums of well-known opera fan Manuel Noriega.
Ms. Sebert reacted the way most artists do when they are passive-aggressively accused by society of promoting murder and death in the wake of tragedy: extreme defensiveness followed by evasiveness. "I had my very own issue with 'die young' for this reason. I did NOT want to sing those lyrics and I was FORCED TO.", she tweeted this past Tuesday, deleting it later and replacing it with a more generic apology/expression of sadness. In truth, however, there are two reasons that no apologies are necessary here from her: 1) “Die Young” is obviously a Byron-by-way-of-Sir-Mix-A-Lot expression of youthful abandon (meaning that the “die” part is meant purely as romantic overstatement) and 2) popular music is all about pain and inappropriateness, something that she should know all about from the success of her prior hits.
In the successful 2010 science-fiction film Inception, the concept of the militarization of our dreams and fantasies was explored; in this movie, we discover that inside of our ticking whirring brains are storms of gun-toting factions preparing and executing daring assaults on armed compounds that represent our most treasured and feared thoughts and desires. This is, of course, nothing new, as the co-mingling of creative thought and violent action predates even Alfred Nobel and his gunpowder/peace award. But since for most of us the 1960s seem like the Stone Age and anything before it is like the edge of the known world beyond which matter just falls off into a black oblivion, this is immaterial; all we have known is seemingly escalating violence and depravity, especially w/r/t popular culture.
And music. While radio programmers are having a temporary thrombosis attempting to stave off societal breakdown by holding themselves back from playing “Die Young” and “Pumped Up Kicks” every fifteen minutes, the rest of music culture has happily self-militarized in a way that is casual and (no pun intended) somewhat disarming. The most shocking song that I heard this year, for example, was a tune called “Roman Reloaded” from Nicki Minaj’s Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded, a track that builds the sounds of gun-cocking and firing into the song’s sonic elements, all in service to Ms. Minaj’s extended lyrical ode to her own badass-ness. To wit:
‘Cause if I had a label I would never sign you hoesTake bitches to school then I Columbine these hoes
Remember when I said that no one remembers past the 60s? Well, there are some people who remember, but often we wish that they didn’t. This past week saw the passing of Robert Bork, a law professor, judge, and one-time hopeful for the Supreme Court; in the late 80s and early 90s, he used his post-Supreme-Court-rejection fame to cast a spotlight on what he saw as the Decline of Our Culture, with a series of books with titles like “The Tempting of America” and “Slouching Towards Gomorrah”. The latter focused quite a bit on then-contemporary pop culture, and at one point he waged a one man war against Trent Reznor’s Nine Inch Nails project, specifically due to the offense he took at a track off of the then-recent NIN downer opus The Downward Spiral, “Big Man With A Gun”.
It’s important to note, here upon the man’s passing that Bork was a man who was wrong about pretty much everything. So it is with his feud with Mr. Reznor: it would have seemed logical for Bork to have, in retrospect, seen the common ground he had with Reznor-- after all, "the downward spiral" is a concept that Bork was, at the time, taking to the bank with his conservative grump tome. Moreover, Reznor was using a heretofore unheard of narrative device in the “Big Man” tune known as “irony”, wherein one’s expression of meaning uses language that normally signifies the opposite-- as when Reznor uses his tune’s sick confluence of extreme gun violence and sexual rage to convey the impotence inherent in both the love of guns and chauvinist male fantasies. It is a “duh” that anyone whose name wasn’t Robert Bork would get, and yet reading and re-reading the lyrics to “Big Man”, over and over, poring over the meaning of each syllable, made Bork’s blood boil. Wait, is that “irony”?
Anyway, with Bork dead and his mission to rail against gun-themed popular tunes over, we now have full license to revel in them, guilt-free. We all know that when Ms. Minaj refers to her desire to “Columbine these hoes”, she is merely making a play on words referring to the act of “schooling” someone-- because what else does one do in a school but shoot people in it? While Reznor’s ditty is a tortured ode to one man’s impotent rage, “Roman Reloaded” is a testament to Ms. Minaj’s virility: “My shit bang”, as she puts it in the chorus, amidst much gunfire. Minaj can get away with what other can’t because her gunplay is part of a recent lineage of female empowerment in song.
The click-bangs of “Reloaded”, provided to Ms. Minaj by the song’s producer Ricardo Lamarre aka Rico Beats, probably are reminiscent of M.I.A.’s left-field 2007 hit “Paper Planes”, wherein pop snap and literal guncrack are used in service of a sort of Third World insurrectionist plea. It’s probable antecedent and assumed inspiration was a single released in 2006 by French electro label Ed Banger Records by Anna-Catherine Hartley, better known by the handle Uffie, titled “Pop The Glock”. Recorded as a demo in 2005 by a then-17-year old Hartley with the production assistance of Fabien Pianta aka Feadz, “Pop The Glock” uses as a skeleton Audio Two’s “Top Billin’” but adds two important elements (besides Hartley’s awkward lyrical shellacking-attempt): 1) lush romanticism, and 2) percussive clicks and bangs, taking a skimpy rap track and making it a bizarre and arresting tune that manages to subvert and flip the script in terms of what one expects from a 17-year old white girl on the mic. Again, nothing new: romanticism and violence go hand in hand throughout pop culture, whether John Sinclair and the MC5 making the plea for “armed love” in the late 60s to the enduring popular legacy of Bonnie and Clyde. What has changed here, though, is a female pop music culture developing in the last decade where “toughness” isn’t just an attitude, it’s the sound of assault mixed into the music.
The highest grossing tour of 2012 was Madonna’s MDNA Tour, a high-production tour de force that saw, in its first act, the Material Girl acting out an elaborate shoot-out/hostage-capture/serial-killer victim-victor fantasy-terror that would have scared the bejesus out of her early-teens mid-80s Madonna-wannabes if they weren’t all grown up and in their 40s at this point. The centerpiece of this performance was the production of “Gang Bang”, a tune from this year’s MDNA. The performance involved guns, shooting, projection screens displaying bloodied brains splattering, and hooded torture and disfigurement, in service to a narrative that saw Ms. Ciccone tying together the mass media’s obsession with her and the same mass media’s constant criticism and misunderstanding of her art; the violence, the gunplay, all in thrall to Ms. Ciccone’s barely concealed rage. Was she open-firing at her audience? At her critics? At figures of authority? At (ulp) herself? The production was monstrously controversial, with Madonna refusing to cut the routine out or tame it down: prior to a performance in Scotland, Ciccone was asked to remove the use of firearms in the show in the immediate aftermath of the Aurora, Colorado mass shooting; “Madonna would rather cancel her show than censor her art” is how her camp put it in a terse PR rebuttal.
“Gang Bang” is probably the second most shocking track I heard this year (and I mean that in the most endearing way possible)-- simply put, it isn’t the Madonna you think you know, but a bloodthirsty savage plotting and executing a revenge plot against a former lover for reasons unexplained. Again, the sound of gunfire interrupts the song over and over. “If you’re gonna act like a bitch,” Madonna intones restlessly, “then you’re gonna die like a bitch.” The thud of firepower, like a punch to the gut, follows.
The thing is, in popular music guns do not only represent death-- in our sick world, they often represent a sexual expression. Those looking to music to promote healthy ideas and wholesome fables not only don’t get pop culture, they misunderstand psychology. Pop music, whether at its extremes or at the top of the charts, often makes connections to psychic truths that we either don’t see or are afraid to acknowledge. (An aside: in the wake of the shooting, for instance, I recently found myself flipping through my iPod on the bus, stopping on a punk song from the late 70s, “Ultimate Orgasm” by the little-known Texas punk trio Non Compos Mentis. The song, a blistering rocker propelled to awesomeness by the feedback-drone-work of late guitarist/vocalist Dave Hill, is an unapologetic ode to the seductive spell of the “ultimate orgasm”: suicide via handgun.) So often, these psychic “truths” conveyed via song have to do with the unsavory side of human sexuality, especially with how it relates to our modern obsessions with both technology and the ever-looming apocalypse. Which is basically a long way of explaining how female artists using guns as sex metaphors is probably a positive sign, the same way that finally telling your shrink that you cry over your lust for something depraved is considered “progress”.
In December 1976, pretty much nobody noticed the debut album by Blondie, a band that would soon storm the actual pop charts with hit after hit, in large part due to the coquettish charm of vocalist Deborah Harry. The first song on that self-titled debut is “X Offender”, ostensibly the tale of a prostitute falling for the cop who arrested her, performed in the style of mid-60s girl groups. The song was written, with the genders changed, by the band’s original bassist, Gary Valentine, but when he left Harry took the song and changed it to suit her peculiar perversions. In her hands, it was about more than loving a man in uniform: it was about the desire to corrupt. “When I get out/there’s no doubt/I’ll be sex offensive to you” is the song’s denoument: Ms. Harry is not peddling in cliches about love, but rather using aggressive sexual advances as an offensive weapon against a male authority. Couched in the form of a Phil-Spector-esque production and put across by an honest-to-god former Bunny, Harry’s “X Offender” was misunderstood by the few who came across it; decades later, however, it’s clearly an early indicator of a type of aggressive female sexuality in song that would slowly become, if not the norm, then at least somewhat acceptable and expected.
The third most shocking song of the year that I heard was another Nicki Minaj tune, from the same Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded disc (actually, this album was released twice this year-- it’s initial success upon its April 2012 release warranted a November rerelease as Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded: The Re-up with additional tracks): “Come On A Cone”. A dizzying vortex of a pop tune rumored to be yet another diss track aimed at pioneering late 90s/early 00s MC Kimberly Jones aka Lil’ Kim, “Cone” is a relentless brag-fest that beans through crescendo after crescendo with Minaj using her rap attack to pierce through the circular and disorientating synth figure provided by producer Chauncey Hollis aka Hit-Boy. At the two-minute mark, however, the upward ascent freezes, with Minaj, to silent accompaniment, melismatically croons what she will do to those who step to her:
Dick in your facePut my dick in your face
Sung like Whitney Houston hitting a high note during the National Anthem, it’s a gasp-worthy moment when you thought you couldn’t be surprised by pop music anymore. Like “X Offender” 36 years before, it’s gleefully sex-offensive. The in-joke in the tune, of course, is that if it is indeed meant to be a diss on Lil’ Kim, then it is using Kim’s own artillery, so to speak: Ms. Jones in some ways pioneered the female MC tactic of, in a male chauvinistic rap world, using their own terminology against them, perhaps most eloquently on the frankly caustic “Suck My Dick” off of 2000’s The Notorious K.I.M. Ms. Jones wasn’t alone in this tactic: at around the same time, females like Trina and Khia became notorious for their, uh, sex-positive rhymes that often talked of busting nuts in the first person.
The difference between Lil’ Kim, Trina and Khia and someone like Nicki Minaj is that the the former three, due to the prurience of their music, among other things, were confined to a limited audience of rap fans; Minaj, by contrast, is one of the biggest pop stars of the last few years, doing Pepsi commercials and appealing to anyone from old school rap fans to little kids. The same is true of Ke$ha, whose earlier hits were deemed shocking by the mainstream media because they celebrated getting wasted, hooking up, and all sorts of other things that pop music and rock culture has celebrated ever since recorded music and wide media pop culture were invented.
Today, on her website, Ke$ha released a statement on the uproar concerning “Die Young”:
After such a tragic event I was feeling a lot of emotion and sadness when I said I was forced to sing some of the lyrics to Die Young. Forced is not the right word. I did have some concerns about the phrase "die young" in the chorus when we were writing the lyrics especially because so many of my fans are young and that's one reason why I wrote so many versions of this song. But the point of the song is the importance of living every day to the fullest and staying young at heart, and these are things I truly believe.
There you have it: our culture may be one of ever-increasing exhaustion, as iteration after iteration of what was once new folds in on itself and people grow bored with each new exposure to the new shocking artiste du jour, and yet it is children who are still able to be targeted by music as a weapon of society. Our children, when they are old enough to stand, are taught to dance to the music that they hear, but soon, or so the narrative goes, the perversions of our culture will seep into them through the music of our people, oozing out of orifices that a parent is helpless to control. One minute a child is stepping their feet to some “A-B-C” song-- the next minute they are in the back seat of the family station wagon, singing along out loud to the “your sex brings me to paradise” chorus of the latest Bruno Mars hit. And as once-young people hit middle age, they look back at the songs that they used to love for their subversive power and think to themselves “I never realized how potent these were, these musical weapons of psychological torture.” I’m 39: most everyone I know who is near my age would, were I to bombard them with Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded, react as if they were Noriega in his Vatican embassy compound.>>DBROCKMAN@PHX.COM