In the past years, there’s been an increase in the number of visual products inspired by crimes, especially murder. Just take a look at the number of seasons of shows like Law & Order. But this craze isn’t new at all. In fact, the consumption of these stories has been around for quite a long time, and it is through music that we can learn about them. Music has been considered one of our first attempts to communicate. Even before the invention of writing, music was already the way for our ancestors to register things that happened to them. Well, this oral tradition has managed to survive, no matter how much technology has taken over our everyday part.
So, going back to the crime subject, there’s a music genre that focuses on documenting the most gruesome crimes in history, and that’s murder ballads. Although they were mainly popular during the seventeenth century, this tradition has somehow evolved and been kept around. Following its main purpose, songwriters have continued to take inspiration from those horrid examples of humanity's evil side. Not precisely in the form of ballads, here are five popular contemporary songs that have been inspired or talk about some of the most shocking murders in history.
"Murder in the Red Barn" - Tom Waits
Besides Jack the Ripper, probably one of the most popular criminal cases during the nineteenth century was the murder of Maria Marten in Suffolk. According to the story, Marten had agreed to elope with whom she believed was the love of her life. They had had a child in secret that passed away, but the wedding plans continued. The groom, a sly fraudster called William Corder pressured her to elope, claiming that she was going to be prosecuted for giving birth to a bastard child, told her to dress in man’s clothes to avoid any suspicion. They met at the famous Red Barn in Suffolk, where he shot her in the face and buried the body. For some time, he wrote to the family in her name to not raise suspicions, but as the legend goes, Marten appeared in her stepmother’s dreams telling her where she was. After discovering the body, Corder was caught and sentenced to be hanged and his body dissected for scientific purposes. This story was so popular at the time that plays and ballads were written. Even more than a century later, the story kept inspiring composers like Tom Waits. In 1992 he released his song “Murder in the Red Barn,” where he took some elements of the case and reimagined them in a fictional scenario in the South of the US.
"Suffer Little Children" - The Smiths
During the sixties, a terrible crime shocked the city of Manchester when the police received a call from a man claiming he had just witnessed Ian Brady murdering a teenager at his home. The next day the police went to Brady’s home and discovered the body of the teenager, as well as evidence related to reports of missing minors. The case was known in England as the Moors Murders, because two more bodies were found in the Saddleworth Moor, and the case had to be reopened in 1985 with the discovery of a third body in the area. One year before this discovery, the Smiths released their song “Suffer Little Children,” making allusion to and even naming both victims and killers. The song wasn't well received at first, especially from the families of the victims, who thought it was an offense to the memory of their deceased loved ones.
"Jenny Was a Friend of Mine" - The Killers
In 1986, 18-year-old Jennifer Levin’s half-naked body was found in Central Park (NY) by a cyclist who was passing by. After some investigation, they arrested Robert Chambers (nicknamed the “Preppy Murderer”), who had been last seen with Levin when they left a bar in the middle of the night. When interrogated, he gave different stories until he finally admitted he murdered her and actually waited until the police arrived at the scene. This was one of those cases that caught the press' interest, since both victim and perpetrator were young, and because it gave them the opportunity to create random stories around them, including victim-blaming her for having what was called "promiscuous" behavior. Twenty years later, this story kept resonating when the Killers released their debut album, Hot Fuss, with two songs alluding to this case, and later in 2007 another one closing their “Murder Trilogy” inspired by the Preppy Murderer.
"Angel Down" - Lady Gaga
One of the cases that got the attention of millions in this decade was the shooting of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old black teenager who was killed for looking “suspicious.” The night of the incident he had left his father’s fiance’s house to buy some snacks at a convenience store when George Zimmerman, a volunteer neighborhood watchman, saw and reported him to the authorities. According to Zimmerman, the kid got really aggressive so he had to shoot him to defend himself. In the end he was acquitted of the crime, something that enraged people who marched asking for his conviction. This was a case that proved racism has never really been eradicated and the dangers of having a flawed gun control system in the country. In her latest album, Joanne (2016), Lady Gaga released “Angel Down” honoring Trayvon Martin and the many other victims of racial crimes.
"Nebraska" - Bruce Springsteen
The fifties might sound like a time when everything was perfect, but if you ask me, I’ve always thought that apparent tranquility was actually quite creepy. So, talking about creepy events happening during this decade, we have to talk about the killing spree that shocked the nation when 19-year-old Charles Starkweather and his 14-year-old girlfriend decided it would be fun to go out and kill whoever they encountered. With a total of eleven victims in only two months, they're remembered as two of the most cold-blooded and evil murderers in the history of the US. In 1982, Springsteen released this song in his album with the same name, alluding to the case through a first-person narration, in other words, through Starkweather's perspective.
We’re always going to be attracted to these stories, not only because they might appeal to our inner violence or because they satisfy our morbid curiosity. These stories appeal to one of our most primal emotions: fear. At the same time, this triggers a boost of adrenaline that makes us feel an addictive and satisfying sensation in our brain. Crimes, no matter how gruesome or how horrible they are, will always be an important part of our social and cultural history, and for that reason, we will always have our dose of adrenaline in music, films, or books.
If you want to see the story behind your favorite songs, take a look at these: