Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Suicide Songs

I’ve been listening to a lot of music tonight, marvelling at the number of songwriters who write about suicide, and how, despite their bleak and depressing subject matter, these songs aren’t necessarily bleak and depressing in themselves.

‘Better off Dead’ by Bill Withers is a good example of this kind of song; it’s funky, catchy, and has lyrics about alcoholism and death – Like a Raymond Carver story put to music by Curtis Mayfield. It opens with the lines "she couldn’t stand me anymore/ so she just took the kids and went/ you see I’ve got a drinking problem/ all the money that we had, I spent," ends with the lines "she’s better off without me / and I’m better off dead…" followed by the crack of a gun going off, and isn’t much happier in between. Nonetheless it is a really good song - you find yourself singing along with the despairing, suicidal chorus with the same enthusiasm you’d give an old favourite.

I'm not sure if this is just me, but I find that that song reinforces my belief that it's not possible to take in melody and poetry at the same time. You can appreciate both, in the same song even, but not at the same time. How many times, for example, can you remember listening to a song and then, afterwards, thinking about the profundity or relevance of the lyrics. The first time I heard Eliza Carthy's version of 'Worcester City' I didn't register the slightest hint of what the story was about, just how good the song was.

‘Can’t Stand Losing You’ by The Police (I can’t remember whether it’s a Sting or Stewart Copeland song) is another example of an insanely catchy song about suicide, although it is different in its angle on the subject. This isn’t the monologue of a crushed alcoholic; it’s the angry posturing of a petulant kid, trying to make people pity him, caught up in the romantic idea of killing himself over love without ever really considering it.

To flex literary for a moment, the protagonist of ‘can’t stand losing you’ is like wossername* in Northanger Abbey – a personality created by the narrative format they imagine themselves in: in her case, the gothic novel. In this case: the self-pitying suicide song.

I suppose the thing that is interesting isn’t really the fact that catchy songs have been written about killing yourself, but the fact that so many songs get written about suicide all the time. I mean, I’ve got two examples here, but I expect that the Stereophonics alone have probably written about 6 more of the conventional dreary kind. Why this is baffles me a bit - I’m pretty sure that Kelly Jones can’t be writing from personal experience – I don’t doubt that living in Wales is bleak, but I don’t think it’s bleak enough for him to know a half dozen corpses by the time he wrote his second album. I suppose it’s just that Romeo and Juliet thing again, conjuring this image in people’s minds of suicide as something beautiful, rather than just the grotesque and painful end to the life of some poor bugger who’s been in and out of institutions their whole life.

Er, well, on that jolly note, I’m off to bed.


*hey, it is 12:30 at night, don’t expect scholarly accuracy.