December 8, 2011

Uplifting or weepy songs in memory of the dead

After John Lennon was shot, the other former Beatles released two memorial songs, "All Those Years Ago" and "Here Today". Given how close they were to him, how widely worshiped he was across Western societies, and how abruptly and senselessly his life was cut short, you might expect to hear something somber or even grief-stricken. Yet they don't go there. The emotional coloring is mellow, cooling down rather than stoking the fires of their grief, and cheery enough for a celebration of their shared experiences.

By 1997 that approach had evaporated. The rapper Puff Daddy made "I'll Be Missing You" in memory of the Notorious B.I.G., whose murder, along with that of Tupac Shakur, had come to symbolize the west coast / east coast rap feud. The tone has turned toward the morose and nihilistic. Although there are references to heaven and life after death, he doesn't sound convinced at all, and this lack of comforting beliefs probably only amplified his depression. In 2005, Eminem made a similar song called "Like Toy Soldiers" with a similar brooding and fatalistic message.

Lying on separate sides of the rising vs. falling-crime divide, these examples show how effectively people cope with death, even senseless murder. When violence is more familiar, our coping strategies get more practice. That may sound callous -- yay death, for giving our moral fiber more exercise. But we must always ask what the alternative is. Here it is getting little or no such practice during falling-crime times, so that when we ultimately are confronted with the death of a loved one -- which may happen less frequently, but still will happen -- we are blown apart and have trouble moving on with life.

The tendency away from supernatural thinking in falling-crime times only compounds this weakening of our ability to cope. One of the most basic and universal functions of religion is to help us deal with death, both materially (what to do with the body?) and supernaturally (what should we do for the deceased person's spirit?). If we come to not even believe in the persistence of a person's spirit after death, we clearly cannot be comforted with the belief that they're in a better place, and that by doing the right things we can even help them get there and stay happy when they arrive.

In the limbo period of 1991-'92, right as the crime rate is peaking, Eric Clapton composed "Tears In Heaven" in memory of his son who had fallen out of a window. Lying right on the divide between the two eras, it feels a bit like both. It sounds like he really believes in spirits meeting in heaven, although he also sounds drowned in melancholy.

Just after the crime wave began circa 1960, the song "Last Kiss" dealt with the (fictional) pointless death of the singer's girlfriend in a car wreck. As with the songs about John Lennon, the mood is almost upbeat, and the singer pulls himself together so that he can meet up with her again: "She's gone to heaven, so I've got to be good, so I can see my baby when I leave this world." Tellingly, the 1999 cover version by Pearl Jam sounds more tortured, as though he might not be able to get things together to prepare for their would-be reunion.

Probably the greatest memorial song is "Nightshift" by The Commodores (from 1985), about the legendary singers Jackie Wilson, who had died after nine years in a coma, and Marvin Gaye, who had been shot by his own father. Unless they are paying close attention to the lyrics, most people would not even suspect it was a song about two deaths. The tone is not mournful at all, but cool, cheerful, and celebratory. They're certain that Marvin and Jackie are enjoying themselves up in the spirit world, and that by making the song in their honor, they can sustain the bonds of friendship even after one of them has died.

I reject the view that by emphasizing the value or importance of the afterlife, we cheapen the lives of others here and now, like "Well as long as they wind up in a better place, we don't have to worry so much about what happens to them in this world." When during falling-crime times people lose touch with a supernatural worldview, they are also cocooning themselves away from their neighbors, heaping scorn on the rituals that bind a community together (a brainless mob, in their view), and outsourcing the care of people in their social circle to private enterprise or a state bureaucracy, rather than attend to them first-hand (inefficient!). That's the rough picture of the past 20 years, during the mid-20th century, the Victorian era (the world of Ebenezer Scrooge), and the Age of Reason.

In contrast, when during rising-crime times people's minds are moved toward a more supernatural worldview, they are also socializing more with their friends and neighbors, yearning for a brotherhood of folks-like-us, and reaching out to take care of others on their own (e.g., by giving rides to hitch-hikers, passing out candy on Halloween, having schoolchildren visit the elderly at the senior center, and so on).

If anything a world of rising violence teaches people how precious life is, and to get straight to living it while it lasts. The ever safer environment of a falling-crime world tells people to put off living their life because it'll still all be here tomorrow, and just as orderly as it is today. It is they who come to devalue present life compared to some distant future life, albeit not a supernatural one, since a steadily safer world leads them to not discount the future so steeply. We need only look at the brain-in-a-vat Millennials who would rather wither away playing video games than be out around their fellow man, or the Silent Generation who wasted much their youth indoors listening to radio programs, and whose mild misanthropy led to the explosion of drive-in businesses where they wouldn't have to interact with other people.


  1. What, no mention of Jim Carroll's "People Who Died?"

  2. That's another one, though I'm not sure how well it speaks to common or mainstream views.

    It's not weepy like the falling-crime era songs, but it's not very uplifting either. The affect is pretty flat; it doesn't sound like he was so attached to them. It's also off-putting that he focuses mostly on the off-the-wall ways that they died, like it's a spectacle, rather than on what was good about their lives.

    That song came out before new wave had fully taken over punk as the music for young, arty, rambunctious people. One of the better developments there was letting go of the somewhat nihilistic strains of punk (not that it was anywhere nearly as bad as grunge or Limp Bizkit metal, etc. in that way).

    When the focus is just on minimalist raw energy, you can't craft songs that are emotionally rich. Look at how much more expressive Billy Idol became in his new wave days after leaving Generation X. "Catch My Fall" is another song about a troubled, possibly self-defeating youth, but unlike "People Who Died" there's a strong current of redemption and reaching out to others for support.

    Joy Division wasn't punk, but they too were a bit too heavy on the stripped-down sound, compared to New Order, whose music is much richer and uplifting.

    "Temptation '87"

    Back to the point, their song "True Faith" deals with self-destructive young people in a way that isn't emotionally flat or over-wrought, and makes drug addicts etc. about as sympathetic as they can be.

  3. In the 70's there were a couple of tribute songs to country-rock pioneer Graham Parsons - Emmylou Harris's "Boulder to Birmingham" and the Eagles' "My Man" by his old bandmate Bernie Leadon.

    The Eagles song is upbeat and clearly willing to remember the good times and move on. The Emmylou Harris reflects a big struggle to move on with its suggestion of suicide and "why did I live?" guilt. But the song as a whole has a very spiritual feel to it and its rousing chorus has a healing tone.

    An "exception that proves the rule" is Jackson Browne's nihilistic "For a Dancer" a song about an acquaintance's death. But Browne is a known commie and atheist:)

  4. Jackie Wilson, who had died after nine years in a coma

    As far as I can tell he holds the record as the Well-Known Person Who Spent the Longest Time as a Vegetable. He is about a year and a half ahead of Joe Colombo. Wilson's main current challenger is Ariel Sharon, who is coming up on six years.

    Note: Terri Schiavo and (arguably) Sunny von Bulow were famous mainly for being vegetables, so I'm not counting them.


  5. (Cliff Arroyo)

    "If you believe in forever,
    then life is just a one night stand.
    If there's a Rock n Roll Heaven,
    well you know they've got a hell of a band."

    Not sure where 1975 is on the cycle.

  6. Thought you might find this of interest:


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