Thursday, January 26, 2012

Pop Culture Controversy

Maybe I'm a few years late to this particular discussion, but I think it bears repeating.

Last week on Pandora, I heard a great new song: "Pumped Up Kicks" by Foster the People. It had a catchy, edgy beat and I found myself humming along. Later, my daughter said her 6th grade class had discussed this song because it talks about a school shooting. I didn't think much of her comment at the time, but the thought stuck with me.

Yesterday, I did some research on the song and, thanks to Google, found out the story behind the song. It's about a student who is bullied and harassed and who takes his gun to school to seek revenge. The lyrics are "run faster than my bullet." Here's what SongFacts says about the song:

Mark Foster explained the song's meaning to Spinner UK: "'Pumped Up Kicks' is about a kid that basically is losing his mind and is plotting revenge. He's an outcast. I feel like the youth in our culture are becoming more and more isolated. It's kind of an epidemic. Instead of writing about victims and some tragedy, I wanted to get into the killer's mind, like Truman Capote did in In Cold Blood. I love to write about characters. That's my style. I really like to get inside the heads of other people and try to walk in their shoes."

Foster says he considered writing the song from the perspective of the victim, but felt that would be a cop out. He also points out that there is no actual violence in the song, as the threats are all the kid's internal monologue.

Another writer for the Chicago Tribune decried the song's dark meaning: 

But after looking closely at the song's lyrics and listening to it many extra times, I have come to agree that this song is more deserving of a push away than the warm embrace it has mostly received.
I don't for a moment fear that my kids or yours are one ill-considered pop song away from going bad, but I'd just rather not have their environment include a school shooting treated with all the gravity of bubble-gum pop — with whistling! 

One person's edgy, thought provoker is another person's dark influence to be shunned. Who's right? 

Writers of songs and writers of books live in parallel universes when it comes to pushing the envelope. We each decide how far to push boundaries in our creations, and often society will push back. 

So where's the limit? Is it inherently wrong to tell a song (or story) from the perspective of the bad guy? I bet you can name books that do that exact same thing. But will that perspective glorify the violence? Are we condoning the behavior we discuss? Who decides that? Certainly there is no real fear in our teens hooking up with vampires who then love them too much to bite them. But what about realistic fiction? What about writing about the power a kid feels when he pulls a gun on someone or when a girl smokes her first joint? Are we giving kids ideas they wouldn't otherwise have? 

What do you think? Leave your comments below. 

(and tell me if you like the song too! I think the song is catchy and the words create a vivid scene in my head that could easily make a powerful book.)


Wendy Swore said...

I had heard that song, but didn't realize what it was about. It is pretty catchy.
Remember the song "another one bites the dust" ? I loved that song as a kid because the muppets sang it, then later, my semenary teacher said it was about mass murder and was a song full of satan's influence. Maybe so for someone who was already almost criminally insane, but I sang it for a decade and hadn't killed anyone yet.

I think the line is crossed what the writing tells How. How to make the bomb, how to do the nitty gritty preparation for the act.

Julie Daines said...

I think the line is crossed when the overall tone of the story/song condones or makes light of or encourages these kind of situations.

We all know that a lot of really bad stuff happens. And writing about it is not evil. I also think it's important to make it clear that because someone had a rough upbringing, it cannot excuse immoral behavior. Kids (and adults) need to learn to take responsibility for their choices. With all the violence on TV and video games, for many kids the sanctity of life is blurred.

alice said...

I think the things we put into our minds influence us at some level. I heard or read somewhere that people who watch a lot of violence in movies or on TV, though they might not physically hurt anyone, tend to react more aggressively to situations that upset them, and it also can desensitize us. I remember when my son was little the more shows with fighting in them that he watched, the more he tended to act it out in play and when he got angry with his sisters he'd strike out more.

Scott said...

This past week I finished reading "Lolita" by Vladimir Nabokov. It's definitely told from the perspective of the bad guy, that is, if you consider a guy who falls in love with his 12-year-old stepdaughter, then kidnaps her, rapes her, and holds her captive for a few years, after his actions lead to her mother's death (but I guess it's OK because he only married her to get at her daughter anyway) bad. It was one of the most amazing books I've ever read.

The key, as has already been mentioned, is that, although the first-person narrator tries to glorify or at least justify his actions, he only comes off as fascinatingly evil. By no stretch of the imagination (probably not even a sick imagination) does this book glorify child rape. It's a very frightening book, but with one of the most amazing first-person narrations I've ever read.

Part of the fun of a book from the bad guys' perspective is that it gives the author a chance to develop an unreliable narrator, and to more deeply examine what evil is by showing the lengths a bad person will go through to justify his actions and depict himself as the good guy.

Humbert Humbert tries to depict himself as good although he knows he's going against societies norms and that he will be hated. But the more he tries to make himself look good, the sicker he becomes.

Fascinating book.