A few weeks ago I saw Hurray for The Riff Raff in New York City, and one part of the show particularly struck a chord with me. Frontwoman Alynda Lee Segarra announced that the song she was about to play off of her new album was a response to “murder ballads,” a disturbing trope in country music where men croon about killing (or, mostly killing women). I ran the gamut of emotions while hearing this, because I hadn’t realized at that point just how often I was expected to identify with the male murderer, instead of the female casualty. (The song she performed, by the way, is called “The Body Electric”.)
Perhaps one of the most prolific and popular purveyors of the murder ballad is Nick Cave, whose work in The Birthday Party, Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds (who actually released an album called Murder Ballads), and Grinderman all have recurring themes of coveting, hating, torturing, and killing women. I don’t mean to suggest that Cave harbors such fantasies, but the premise and appeal of the stories he frequently tells are based in the mistrust and fetishization of the so-called fairer sex. In Cave’s world, women are either beautiful to the point that it drives the narrator mad (and therefore must die), or spiteful whores (who are disposable to begin with).
In the straightforwardly titled “I’m Gonna Kill That Woman,” Cave bemoans “Yeah I did everything I could/ everything I could. Lord Knows I did everything I could” but despite his best intentions, he has to kill his straying partner. The virgin/whore dichotomy is recurring, but interestingly, for Cave, both types of women frequently meet the same result. In “Where the Wild Roses Die,” Cave’s character kills Kylie Minogue with a rock, singing “And I kissed her goodbye/ said ‘all beauty must die.'”
Of course, Nick Cave isn’t really a killer, and his narrator is just a character exploration. When he was asked by Vulture about his depictions of women a few years ago, he was pretty candid about his intentions.
” I get criticized for a lot of what I write about, but as far as I’m concerned I’m actually standing up and having a look at what goes on in the minds of men, and I have the authority to talk about it because I’m a man. Women don’t have the authority because they don’t know what goes on in a man’s head, so largely what they say is kind of irrelevant. My songs and stories and books are character-driven, they talk about the way people are and the way men are and women are. “
The pervasiveness of dead women in songs is certainly troubling, and Nick Cave has plenty of company in that particular club. The ubiquity of classic murder ballads like “Knoxville Girl,” which lovingly describes knocking a woman down with a stick until she dies (and has been covered many, many times) suggests that the trope hasn’t slagged in popularity. Eminem’s “Kim” and “97 Bonnie and Clyde” are particularly disturbing because, unlike most murder ballads, his victim (his wife at the time) has a face. Other than that, there’s Cash’s “Cocaine Blues,” The Rolling Stones “Midnight Rambler,” “Country Death Song” by the Violent Femmes, Hüsker Dü’s “Diane,” and so many more.
Why, exactly, is killing women such a common subject manner? My best guess is that it’s because it’s an easy way to characterize the narrator of the story (the man, the killer, the beast) as troubled, evil, or psychotic. In these songs the methods of their murder and disposal of the bodies are more fantastically described than the woman, with the exception of her being beautiful. These men describe the troubled (and disturbingly, sympathetic) monsters that they are by the destruction of beauty that is personified in a woman. Look at this pretty thing I killed, look at how unredeemable I am.
Besides the fetishization of feminine death, murder ballads are troubling because, once again, women are a means to an end. The story isn’t that a woman died (she’s disposable), but that a man was driven to kill.