A couple of weeks ago, Chelsea wrote about the proliferation of murder ballads, and their tendency to fetishize, in the narrator’s perspective, the destruction of “something beautiful” – a woman. She was prompted to explore how male musicians like Nick Cave view their female subjects after listening to this response song by Hurray for the Riff Raff:
I want to present a different take on murder ballads, and showcase different types of songs performed by female artists. Two broad categories emerge: in the first, the woman is the killer. In two of the most famous country songs of this type, she kills in response to unrelenting domestic violence with no help in sight from society – but she also kills for revenge. In the second category, the woman sings the story of her own death. Misogyny is pervasive in these stories; they reflect our culture’s lack of value in women and sing stories back to us that very loosely mirror what so many women have faced. If dead women could sing, would Deanna Cook’s song sound like one of these?
Before diving into heavier stuff, there’s a more comedic response to traditional murder ballads that you might remember from its video’s heavy rotation on Country Music Television and other outlets. The Dixie Chicks, now infamous for their criticism of George W. Bush and the subsequent fall from country music grace, survived this controversy before Natalie Merchant’s words in London sparked outrage.
“Goodbye Earl” flips the narrative. Songwriter Dennis Linde weaves a tale of two women that support each other from girlhood to burying Wanda’s abusive husband – who they poisoned black eyed peas. Wanda is portrayed as a victim who seeks a legal solution, but when the law fails to protect her, she and Mary Ann cook up a scheme (literally) to get rid of him and live happily ever after. The women are never caught, unlike the narrator of the quintessential murder ballad, “Delia’s Gone,” who laments his tale to his jailer.
The music video highlights the comedy; a sleazy lawyer and Keystone cops round out the cast of absurd characters, and a dance break at the end features zombified Dennis Franz. Of course, conservative country radio had a problem with it. While the song peaked at #13 on the Billboard Hot Country chart, many stationed refused to play it (or at least had it in a very light rotation), and plenty turned to their listeners and asked if they wanted to hear it. Contrast this with “Independence Day,” penned by Gretchen Peters and sung by Martina McBride earlier in the decade: while domestic violence is the catalyst for for both, with neither woman getting help from society, there’s no comedy in Peters’ story.
Some postured that the song sent the wrong message – murder is okay, and taking the law into your own hands is justified. KRTY, a country station in San Jose, California, aired a phone number to a domestic violence hotline each time the song was played.
But “Delia’s Gone,” interpreted by many but most famously performed by Johnny Cash, didn’t face the backlash of Goodbye Earl, and I don’t think it’s because Delia’s killer ended up in prison, while Mary Ann and Wanda walked away scot-free to sell strawberry jam. Cash’s persona was the polar-opposite of the Chicks. He was the Man in Black, a hard-drinking, prison-playing, home-wrecking outsider. The Chicks were pop stars and counted many young girls in their fan base. The refusal to play “Goodbye Earl,” and the questioning of its appropriateness at all, makes one statement: women can’t sing about killing their triflin’ lovers, but men can.
Never mind that “Earl” is entirely fiction and born of black comedy. Never mind that Delia was a real person who was killed at only 14 years old. The thought of female singers altering the story to perpetuate violence themselves is enough to make country station programmers clutch their pearls and worry children will get the wrong idea – that women can fight back.
In other songs, they have. They’ve also perpetrated the violence without any pretense of self-defense. Many fans of “Goodbye Earl” and “Independence Day” may not know of “Murder in the First Degree,” performed by Victoria Spivey in 1927. Like Delia’s killer, she croons from the jailhouse. She tells the judge she killed her cheating man, but she deserves to go free – he is the one who wronged her.
Of course, Victoria Spivey would never be as well-known as her male counterparts, nor would her music be fresh on the minds of country music listeners when another song featuring a killer woman topped the charts twice. Vicki Lawrence first recorded “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia,” and Reba McEntire covered it twenty years later. Tanya Tucker also sang a version, but its lyrics differ from the original. Like Mary Ann and Wanda, the narrator is never caught – her brother is punished for her crime. This murderess counts two victims under her belt, and proudly claims the law will never find the body of her sister-in-law.
Most of these songs were written by men, indicating that even when the overt motivation of the character has nothing to do oppression, the patriarchy is still dictating the plot. In the second type of murder ballad, a man wrote one of the most well-known figurative versions. “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)” was written by Sonny Bono for Cher, whose version has been eclipsed in the past decades by Nancy Sinatra’s haunting take.
While the singer isn’t shot or strangled or buried in the woods, the imagery deliberately evokes death. At least Mary Ann and Wanda are active participants – here, Cher or Nancy can only react to her baby’s decisions. Florence + The Machine recently recorded a song of this type, and it is much more literal. Unfortunately, it does not subvert any cliches in the way that “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)” or “The Body Electric” does. The video even features the faceless killer stepping on Calla lilies – the funeral flower.
I’m appreciative of Hurray for the Riff Raff’s response to murder ballads in “The Body Electric.” This song directly confronts the fetishization Chelsea discussed, without painting her victim as incapable, or a scorned or battered woman seeking revenge. Songwriter Alynda Segarra manages to humanize both the victim and the killer she’s working to do exactly what she sings: settling the score.
I think Segarra’s song also reflects potentially positive shifts in our society. While rates of violence against women are still disturbingly high, and state and federal legislators unrelentingly go after women’s rights, some laws are making it easier for victims to escape, get help, and start their lives over. A California law went into effect this year to allow domestic violence victims to break leases quickly and more easily, and the state recently became the seventh to provide protection for abuse victims from employment discrimination. Seven out of fifty isn’t such a great number, each gain is helpful. Of course, I would be more satisfied if all states had these laws, or if they were implemented nationally more quickly, but I’ll continue to cheer each progressive step.
[You can find Katherine P. Hudson on Twitter.]