This piece in the Telegraph, by Neil McCormick, makes an interesting assertion: “After love and dancing, mortality may well be the next most common subject for lyricists.” He singles out “SJI” as a death-related song that made a big impression on him as a listener. Here’s a chunk of his riff:
Murder ballads and death songs have been a staple of folk music since time immemorial, traditions strongly upheld in blues and country, but it is perhaps surprising to consider that modern popular music is rife with songs about death. And it is not just in the margins, or the work of introspective singer-songwriters. From Eminem’s murderous Stan to James Blunt’s overwrought Goodbye My Lover, from P Diddy and Faith Evans’s Missing You to Eric Clapton’s Tears in Heaven, death sells records. Elton John’s Diana tribute, Candle in the Wind is still the bestselling single of all time.
After love and dancing, mortality may well be the next most common subject for lyricists. Genres such as the prosaically named death metal, black metal and gangsta rap revel in (usually violent) death, but the same strands of morbid fascination can be found in earlier, apparently more innocent times.
In the late Fifties and early Sixties, a genre of teen death songs proliferated, with hundreds of tragic ditties appearing, usually centred on terrible accidents separating young lovers, from Ricky Valance’s Tell Laura I Love Her to the Shangri Las’ Leader of the Pack.
The dawning realisation of your own mortality is a big psychological challenge for young people, and perhaps a pop song is a safe forum for such thoughts, where ideas and feelings can be examined at the remove of fiction.
The subtext of many pop songs about death is that, while life is temporary, love is forever, making mortality less terminal. In many respects, that is not so different from contemporary death-fixated genres such as goth and emo. Self harm and suicide pepper the lyrics of bands such as My Chemical Romance, to the alarm of many parents. Yet a 2006 report from Sussex University suggested goths were more likely than their peers to be well-adjusted, attend university, favour a classical education and end up in a respectable profession.
Interesting. “While life is temporary, love is forever, making mortality less terminal” — that’s particularly worth considering regarding “SJI.”
Read his whole piece here.