It puzzles me relentlessly how guns have become a recurring topic of interest for one-hit wonders. When you imagine the kind of song that inspires you to crank up the volume and sing along, you don’t envision lyrics about violence and murder. However, I’d be lying if I said some of the following songs weren’t guilty pleasures for me. They’re a refreshing, albeit morbid, departure from the bland uninspired love songs that dominate the Billboard Hot 100.
Tip: Click on the song titles to listen to these one-hit wonders in all their glory!
- “Black Betty” by Ram Jam (1977, Billboard #18): “Black Betty” might be Ram Jam’s claim to fame, but the song’s history extends far beyond them. This folk song traces all the way back to the eighteenth century with all different kinds of lyrics, performers, and meanings. “Black Betty” was a common work song during the era of slavery and chain gangs. Even in this context alone, the meaning of “Black Betty” is contested. Some argue that “Black Betty” is the personification of the whip used as a weapon against the singers, while others are convinced that “Black Betty” was herself a slave during this time. To muddy things further, “Black Betty” was a common slang term for liquor in the United Kingdom and the United States during the same time period. So why am I including this song in a blog post about guns? Well, because of the onomatopoeia-like “bam ba-lam” every other line and how closely “Black Betty” resembles “Brown Bess,” the American slang term for a musket, “Black Betty” has taken on yet another meaning for American gun-owners. In fact, on the Genius website, often the first stop for people looking into the lyrics of their favorite songs, “Black Betty” is continuously assumed to describe a musket. I think this song houses as many interpretations as “bam ba-lams.”
- “I Don’t Like Mondays” by the Boomtown Rats (1979, Billboard #73): Am I ashamed that I’ve bonded with my mom for years by screaming the lyrics to this power pop song about a school shooting and a troubled teenage girl together? Absolutely. Did that stop us from jamming to this classic less than 24 hours ago? I plead the fifth. On January 29th, 1979, 16-year-old Brenda Ann Spencer brought a gun to school and shot eleven people, tragically killing her principal and a custodian who were trying to protect the endangered students. In an over-the-phone interview with the San Diego Union-Tribune, Spencer stated that she committed these atrocities because she “[doesn’t] like Mondays. This livens up the day.” But let’s be clear: the motivations for this crime are far more substantial than Spencer’s relationship with Mondays. After Spencer’s mother left both her and her abusive alcoholic father, they lived in squalor across the street from her school, sleeping on the same mattress on the ground. Wallace Spencer regularly beat and sexually abused his daughter, even buying her the weapon she used to against the victims of the Cleveland Elementary School shooting. Brenda believed that her father gave her this gun, which she did not ask him to purchase, to encourage her to commit suicide. Her psyche was further damaged by a frontal lobe injury sustained after a bicycle accident. Brenda’s father refused to take her depression and suicidal ideation seriously, ignoring professionals’ advice for medical intervention on multiple occasions. Murder is never justified, but it is disheartening that Brenda’s legacy is that she was driven to murder because she was bored. Her childhood was full of pain, abuse, and neglect that permanently scarred her mentally. Because the Boomtown Rats wrote and performed “I Don’t Like Mondays” less than a month after the Cleveland Elementary School shooting, they had little-to-no understanding of Brenda’s background and her actual motivations. Therefore, the song operates much better as an exploration into the international response to Spencer’s actions than an accurate explanation of the factors that led to them.
- “Pumped Up Kicks” by Foster The People (2011, Billboard #3): In many ways the spiritual successor to “I Don’t Like Mondays,” this indie pop staple tells the story of Robert, a mentally unstable boy planning to chase his his peers with his father’s six-shooter gun. Frontman and songwriter Mark Foster wrote the song as a response to America’s gun violence problem, predicting in an interview with Billboard that this issue “is going to get so bad before anything changes that a lot of people are going to die and this is going to be a really dark period of American history.” There is such an overwhelming number of shootings in our country that Foster didn’t even remember which shooting motivated the songwriting process. In fact, he called the US level of gun violence an epidemic. Foster the People’s bassist at the time, Cubbie Fink, is also passionate about giving the issue of gun violence a platform, especially considering his cousin was present at the Columbine High School massacre. Thankfully, she survived the tragedy, but Fink visited her the day afterward and saw firsthand how this kind of violence traumatizes everyone it touches. Foster has a much more empathetic attitude towards perpetrators than the Boomtown Rats’ songwriters, stating our problem with guns is rooted in unhealthy family dynamics and feelings of isolation that drive people to act out in such heinous ways. I appreciate the acknowledgment of perpetrators’ humanity, but the song’s content and especially the way Americans have responded to it suggest that we still don’t take shootings seriously. Half of the people who sing along to the chorus of this song don’t realize what its about. The groovy instrumental, garbled vocal effects in the verses, and repetitive choruses all detract from the issue at hand. It’s not exactly a recipe for confrontation and reflection from the audience. The top comments on the “Pumped Up Kicks” music video on YouTube, which boasts over 661 million views, are tasteless jokes like “this song will never get old, just like my classmates” and “when the quiet kid has a violin case but isn’t in band.” I understand that it’s common to use humor to grapple with tragedy, but it’s hard to see young people so readily accepting school shootings as normal and inevitable. The “quiet bullied kid is secretly a school shooter” joke has become a widespread meme, this song plays in the background of commercials, and no one questions a thing. Meanwhile, our country has made no tangible progress in changing gun laws or intervention for mentally unstable people prone to violence. We can’t outrun this problem.
I know that not everyone who owns a gun is hellbent on hurting people, so if there are any gun-related songs that strike your fancy, I’d love to hear them. But I also want to reiterate the importance of listening critically even when songs seem like typical radio nonsense. We can’t get so swept up in catchy tunes that we ignore the content of the music.
Black Betty (bam-ba-lam)
4 thoughts on “#6: Shoot for the Moon”
I loved your post this week! “Pumped up Kicks” was a song that used to fascinate me when I was younger and it had just come out – I used to read different interpretations of the song on the internet so I did know about the meaning behind this catchy song. I thought it was cool how this week you tied in a greater political issue with these songs and confronted your audience with their complicity in the ongoing firearm crisis in this country.
This was a great read! It is a weighty, distressing topic but I like how you made the blog fun without diminishing the importance of the topic. It’s interesting to know the backstories behind these songs and makes me think of so many recent songs that so blatantly talk about guns, murder, and suicide– interesting the way these topics are received when in a song.
This was so interesting to read about! I really love how you focus on issues and then tie in a variety of songs. The backstory behind Pumped up Kids was particularly interesting for me as I used to always listen to the song without fully understanding the backstory behind it. You mentioned that the artists couldn’t even remember what specific school shooting inspired them as there have been tragically so many. Definitely sad that this is our reality but as you discussed in your last paragraph: it’s important to analyze what these songs are really about and not fall into the same trap of numbing ourselves to violence.
I always loved the blog idea, and honestly, I was waiting for “Pumped up Kicks” to show up! It is crazy to me how aware Mark Foster was about gun violence and it took the country years to even be aware of the same problem.