September 30, 2010

Hearing spooky songs as a child

Pursuing the theme of how, during the past 20 years of falling-crime times, children have lost their exposure to scary things while growing up, I thought about what some less obvious examples might be. What's an obvious example? When I was 6 or 7, my babysitter (a cool high school guy) let us watch The Terminator, and around that time I used to check out Aliens from the public library every week. * I don't remember if I even needed my parents to use their card for me, but if so, they were cool with it. That would never happen now.

But scariness shows up even where you'd least suspect it, like in popular music. Even if it wasn't the norm, there were still enough spooky-sounding hit songs that they still stand out in my memories of music during the pre-adolescent stage of life where you're not even trying to pay attention to music. When it's haunting, you can't help but pay attention. Off the top of my head, here are the ones that made the strongest impression (all likely are on YouTube):

- "Bette Davis Eyes" by Kim Carnes. This one haunted me throughout my childhood because my dad played the single over and over and over. It was one of the handful of contemporary songs that he liked (he's stuck in the mid-'60s), and he played it in car rides for at least 10 years after it came out. Synthesizers are inherently creepy because they're close enough to sounding like organic instruments, yet are not so artificial that our mind would treat them as non-musical sound. They're in the "uncanny valley." Add to the synth line her raspy voice and mysterious femme fatale lyrics -- "all the boys think she's a spy" -- and you've got a certain spooker.

- "Private Eyes" by Hall & Oates. Another one I recall from endless repetition as my mother played the tape during every car ride to daycare when I was 2 or 3 -- it's one of the few vivid memories I have from such an early age. Here it's not so much the instrumentation that's freaky, but the chorus' stalker vibe -- both the lyrics and the tone of voice -- is enough to make you worry.

- "Somebody's Watching Me" by Rockwell. Seriously, what was it about eyes in '80s songs? (Though I don't recall "Eyes Without a Face".) I didn't hear this one so often, probably just on the radio in the car or when my parents were watching MTV, but those few times were enough. There's another creepy synth line, a similar sound to one of the background vocals, and the paranoia that comes through in the lyrics and tone of voice.

- "Dirty Diana" by Michael Jackson. Oddly enough, I have little memory of the songs from Thriller (or else "Billie Jean" would get a mention), but when Bad came out I played the tape all the way through just about every day. This song was definitely the most nerve-wracking because it not only had the synth line and stalker lyrics, but the harder guitar riffs and his voice play off against them to create a palpable tension. It feels like the creeping-from-behind synth line and his panicking voice are caught in a physical struggle for dominance, accentuated by the drum machine hits that sound like one of them striking or kicking the other.

- "Rhythm is Gonna Get You" by Gloria Estefan & The Miami Sound Machine. Every time I heard this song, I thought "This is devil-worshiping music." When the background voices shout "oway-oway, oway-owah" and "woo!" you feel like you're eavesdropping on a Satanic chant during some ritual sacrifice. Except you're not just overhearing this unobserved -- the lyrics are all about how they see you and this spirit or ghost or whatever "the rhythm" is, is out to possess you and there's nothing you can do to stop it. I think I saw the video once or twice, and that only confirmed my fears.

- Honorable mention: "Finally" by CeCe Peniston. Yeah that's right, laugh it up. It turns out that it's an early '90s incarnation of "I'm So Excited," and she's singing about how crazy she is for some guy she just met. But my mind never registered the verses, only the chorus where her voice sounds like she's paralyzed and frightened by her lack of control over her surroundings. In retrospect, I see how she used that to suggest how powerless she felt because of love at first sight or whatever, but at the time I imagined the singer had just been raped or beaten or mugged, or witnessed these things while walking down the street or in her own neighborhood -- one of those "you think it couldn't happen here" moments.

I'm sure I've left a lot out in this cursory look. What else comes to mind?

I don't remember hearing anything like these after the '91-'92 social transformation. Sure there's the angsty emo whining and screaming that the late-career Smashing Pumpkins and My Chemical Romance brought out, not to mention a bunch of growling rejects churning out nu metal, but that's not haunting at all. There's no suspense or anxiety or paranoia. The closest we've gotten to that sound in the past 20 years was probably "Baby One More Time" by Britney Spears, one of the few mega-hits from this period that I liked at the time and still do.

My impression is that the female singers are better at these songs, most likely because they're more easily frightened to begin with and more given to expressing that fear, worry, and powerlessness to others so that they can get help.

In any case, there's another source of unease that the Millennials have been protected from -- spooky pop music songs. Unfortunately that won't change as they grow up because it's not merely due to their helicopter parents keeping such songs out of earshot -- the songs are just not getting made in the first place. This is a general pattern: parents are most over-protective when times are the safest. It sounds paradoxical but is not, as their underlying paranoia has two effects: 1) it keeps them and their families locked in their homes, draining the pond of potential victims of street-roving criminals, who then move on to other business; and 2) it makes them hover over their kids at home.

* For at least several months after first seeing it, I was convinced that the queen alien was hiding under my bed. Several times as I faced the wall before falling asleep, I had vivid illusions that she had sprung up from underneath and towered all the way up the wall, somewhat like the scene where she abducts Newt. I toughed it out and kept renting the movie, though once I left my door open just in case I had to scream to my mother that I was being taken away. That provided me with little comfort, as I could then see into her room and imagined that all the shadows waving around her bedroom walls -- surely just tree branches from outside -- were warrior aliens who had infiltrated our house and were probably already cocooning her. Yet I couldn't stop watching that movie. When you sense the world is dangerous, you want to toughen yourself up to it by watching scary movies, just like you'd spar in a gym before a real boxing match or street fight.


  1. I'm a millennial and I grew up on horror movies (not that this disproves your argument). In 1st grade I was shown The Shining and continued watching the classics (and non-classics) of that genre from then on. Unfortunately, even now, in dark claustrophobic settings I can't keep my brain from being flooded with horror-movie imagery (pale bloody corpses that aren't dead and things of that nature). I still watch horror movies--and play horror games on occasion for that matter. It would probably be best if I undid my childhood trauma before indulging in those....

  2. One of my twenties-era roomates (a chemist of all things who worked as a bouncer through college) was into old Black Sabbath of the Ozzy era. I knew next to nothing about them, but he convinced me to listen to their greatest hits album.

    1)Black Sabbath's, "Black Sabbath",
    (A song about a man at some sort of ritual who finds out that he's apparently the sacrafice and will be sent to hell by the Satan himself---very scary instrumentals and suprisingly good vocals).

    2)NIB (Nativity in Black) by Black Sabbath,
    (that might be one of the most influential heavy metal songs ever, and it really is pretty good)

    3)"Witchy Woman" by the Eagles (I liked it when I was little, and to be fair its a genuinely well-written, well peformed piece),

    4)An anti-Vietnam War song called "War Pigs" by Black Sabbath,

    A note on Black Sabbath....I wasn't into them as a kid (thought they were devil-worshippers, etc), but my roomate assured me that their artistic idea for the band was to cultivate a horror-movie vibe around their music and stage presentation because they were horror movie fans. The name, "Black Sabbath", apparently came from an old Vincent Price movie. I dont know much about their body of work, and it very well might not be that good, but the greatest hits compilation, "We Sold Our Souls For Rock and Roll", was pretty enjoyable to me.

    They even put out a video in the early 80's that was a "mini"-horror movie of sorts called "Zero the Hero" with Deep Purple's Ian Gillen singing,
    (such a heavy guitar riff)

  3. The only song I can think of that freaked me out as a kid was "Joan Crawford" by Blue Oyster Cult. At the time I didn't know who Joan Crawford was, but the "risen from the grave" part was supremely creepy. That and "Iron Man" by Black Sabbath were my only musical traumas.

  4. The 70s' Post-Vietnam era was filled with bubble-gummy, Movie-of-the-Week syrupy sentimentality (think: Seasons In The Sun). Nothing terribly profound or thoughtful, but haunting of tone and vibe. Tired and perhaps grown out of this Tiger Beat angst, it seems this continued into the 80s but the lyrics and sentiments changed, matured...and the 90s saw the whole thing just turn into full-fledged self-despair. Now, our Millennial age has somehow lost all its introspective edge.

  5. It didn't register with me until much later, but "Every Breath You Take" by The Police is a stalker anthem.

    I'm a little hard of listening, and when I first heard "Bette Davis Eyes" (which came out when I was in High School), I modegreened the title to "Thirty Days to Die", which made it creepier than it actually is.

    At the same time, heavy metal was *filled* with satanic imagery, having moved on from the medieval imagery of the early Rainbow and suchlike. AC\DC had "Highway to Hell", "Hell's Bells", and others like Anonymous at 6:56PM suggests.

  6. I've always found Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth" to be extremely creepy.


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