What We Talk About When Pop Artists Sing About Teen Killers

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Last week the pop-punk veterans of Green Day released “Bang Bang,” a single whose lyrics, according to front man Billie Joe Armstrong, concern “the culture of mass shooting that happens in America mixed with narcissistic social media.” As Craig noted, Green Day has existed for three decades. It’s not surprising that “Bang Bang,” with its urgent, simple power chords and classic arrangement of verses, choruses, and bridge, hardly breaks new musical ground. Even the timeliness of the lyrics, which tie together ISIS, mass violence, and the longing for celebrity, feels — like the band’s continued presence in general — a tad anachronistic.

Still, Green Day has always proven as adept at commenting on current events as it has been in prolonging traditions that seem to have met their end: It turns out that “Bang Bang” is the latest entry in a venerable (by pop-culture standards) lineage of songs about deluded guys with guns prepared to realize their violent fantasies at the expense of other lives. Musicians of all stripes seem compelled, on occasion, to explore a grim, forbidding narrative of an awful event few seem inclined, despite its endless recurrence, to revisit in depth. Even if one sets aside the question of how insightful their explorations prove to be, the question of what drives the creation of such songs seems worth exploring in its own right.

Suppose that this heritage begins in 1974 with Elton John’s “Ticking,” a piano ballad which sets out the salient details of the genre’s key figure (“Within an hour the news had reached the media machine: a male Caucasian with a gun had gone berserk in Queens”) and suppose that these parameters are subjected to an intriguing but never repeated inversion in comedian-musician Julie Brown’s minor 1983 hit “The Homecoming Queen’s Got a Gun,” which spoofs ersatz doo-wop songs for white teens in the '50s by describing its title character’s mid-coronation massacre of students and teachers; still, the genre can only be said to come into its own in 1991, when the jangling, electric grunge of Pearl Jam’s “Jeremy” surged onto radio and in 1992 when its music video, strikingly directed by Mark Pellington, took over MTV. Combining the age/race/gender of John’s perpetrator and the secondary-school setting of Brown’s story (John’s killer committed murder in a bar), Eddie Vedder’s lyrics imbue the protagonist with a psychological depth that he had formerly lacked. Unlike the nameless protagonist of “Ticking,” Jeremy is the victim of parental neglect (“Daddy didn’t pay attention / To the fact that Mommy didn’t care): his “[biting] the recess lady’s breast” reveals his sexual and psychic malformation in classically Freudian fashion. (“Bang Bang,” 25 years later, retains the pathology while reversing its components: “Give me death or give me head.”)

Not only does Jeremy have a case history, he elaborates, in the pictures he draws, a vision of the future: “Lemon-yellow sun, arms raised in a V / The dead lay in pools of maroon below.” The killer is no longer a demographic cipher. He’s a character; moreover, he’s an artist. Vedder’s narrator is not the killer, but a not-so-innocent bystander (he joined in on bullying the killer-to-be) but his song would lead the way for the genre to pursue an ever more common identification between musician and mass murderer. “Bang Bang” is a first-person narrative: so too is the New York underground rapper Ill Bill’s “The Anatomy of a School Shooting” (2004), the Roots’ “Singing Man” (2008), and, of course, Foster the People’s eerily cheery “Pumped Up Kicks” (2010). In each of these cases a common trait shared between shooter and musician provides an opportunity for the artist to further blur the lines between depiction from without and self-expression from within. The celebrity singer of Green Day gravitates toward the killer’s craving for fame; the indie rocker yet to break focuses on his gleeful anticipation; the rappers focus on his preparedness for self-sacrifice, or his history of persecution.

As often happens in contemporary fiction, gestures toward social realism soon take leave of social reality and reduce themselves to mere occasions for veiled autobiography. But as it turns out, the third-person narratives that emerged in the wake of the 1999 Columbine slaughter (an event whose heinousness delayed the turn toward first-person narration by several years) are hardly less immune to this tendency to confuse seriousness with self-seriousness. Ani DiFranco’s “To the Teeth” (1999) devolves into a crunchy lecture about corporate and media malfeasance at large while the Christian band P.O.D.’s “Youth of the Nation” (2001) obscures the murderer’s psychology as it presumes his need for affection. It’s true that all of us could use more love — but very few of us fire guns at others.

The mentality of a young mass murderer may well be accessible to artistic investigation, but music, in its brevity and impermanence, seems ill-suited to bringing any clarity to the subject. Aside from “Jeremy,” probably the most sensitive treatment of the topic in song is “Stole,” the initial track of Kelly Rowland’s first solo R&B album Simply Deep (2002). Like all the other songs in the genre, Rowland’s sketches of the killer’s mentality amount to little more than guesswork, but her emphasis on the lives and aspirations of some of his victims (“She could have been a movie star / Never got the chance to go that far / Her life was stole / Now we’ll never know”) restores a much-needed sense of balance to a narrative that routinely centers itself on the motives and actions of the male perpetrator. (Incidentally, DiFranco’s song owes its brief moments of quality to a handful of lyrics spelling out how women end up paying the price for gun violence conducted overwhelmingly by men.) A school shooting, after all, isn’t an opportunity for delving into psychology so much as its termination; the natural desire to acquire knowledge of the killer’s mind shouldn’t take precedence over the fact that the killer has willfully deprived other human beings of their minds, along with their lives and futures.

Still, for all their imprecision and incompleteness, it’s hard, listening to these songs, not to feel somewhat grateful for the civic-mindedness and daring that led to their creation. Lyrical reductionism aside, it’s true that in their selfishness, banality, and brutality, maladjusted kids who kill with guns aren’t aberrations of the culture so much as its inevitable byproducts. It’s also true that artists’ subjective anatomies of murder can reveal just as much as objective reporting — even when it lapses into facile moralizing and abstraction, the solemnity and concern typical of the mass-shooting song can be downright refreshing when compared to the dull and sanctimonious treatment that the topic of gun violence receives in the news media with each new ruinous outbreak.

I don’t know how much longer this strain of song has left: as the “Bang Bang” lyrics suggest (and recent events confirm), today’s young murderous male misfits no longer concoct their own excuses to kill; rather they latch on to a collective ideology of holy war (whether jihadist or white supremacist) they discovered through Google and social media. There’s no need for songs to explain an individual killer’s murky motivations when they subscribe to an online network which clearly sets out its theory as to why mass killing is justified.

Yet even if the genre perishes the phenomenon it bears witness to — unstable male loners with ready access to the motive, means, and opportunity to take out their frustrations on the general population with lethal force — will continue. In any case, it’s probably time for a different art form to explore the matter. Given its greater space and its boundless capacity for ideology and psychological detail, it seems likely that the novel is the best form to grapple with the sense and nonsense behind indiscriminate slaughter and its theoretical underpinnings. Only time will tell whether there are any novelists capable and willing to pursue such a somber topic with the precision it deserves — but even if that doesn’t prove to be the case, there’s always Crime and Punishment.