Drowning Pool photo courtesy of the band’s Web site.
It’s been a little more than a week since Jared Lee Loughner opened fire on a crowd gathered to meet Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords outside a Safeway in Tucson, Arizona. Reporters have struggled to help readers find meaning in the situation, and while plenty of coverage has focused on the wrong things, plenty more has focused on the right thing: Loughner’s tenuous grasp on reality. As his friends told CBS about his deteriorating mental health, other reporters focused on the lack of mental-health services for teens who need them.
Not the Washington Post. Best known for its political reporting, including breaking the Watergate scandal, the Post decided to strike out on its own this week and examine Loughner’s musical choices, specifically his use of Drowning Pool’s “Bodies” in his now-infamous flag-burning video. The article stops short of outright blaming the song for Loughner’s crime, or even his mental state, but it questions the song’s moral qualities after it was apparently party to at least one other violent act:
Investigators haven’t suggested a link between Loughner’s violent outburst and “Bodies,” a 2001 single by the Dallas band Drowning Pool. But Loughner’s embrace of “Bodies” – at least as the backdrop to a favorite video – strikes a familiarly chilling chord: The Drowning Pool song served as the soundtrack to a double murder in Oakton, where in 2003, then-19-year-old Joshua Cooke cranked the throbbing tune on his headphones, walked out of his bedroom holding a 12-gauge shotgun and killed his parents.
As people curious to understand Loughner have watched his videos since the shooting spree, they have come upon a raging, edgy anthem that likely brought to mind the many previous cases in which songs were blamed — perhaps unfairly — for inspiring violence.
That phrase, “perhaps unfairly,” also suggests that it could be fair to say the song inspires violence. Even before the Post piece hit the Internet this week, Drowning Pool had pre-emptively issued a statement decrying any link between the song and acts of violence: “We were devastated this weekend to learn of the tragic events that occurred in Arizona and that our music has been misinterpreted, again,” the band wrote on its Web site. ‘Bodies’ was written about the brotherhood of the mosh pit and the respect people have for each other in the pit. If you push others down, you have to pick them back up. It was never about violence. It’s about a certain amount of respect and a code.”
The Post article analyzes the history of blaming music for violence, including the 1995 killing of 15-year-old Elyse Pahler by three boys who were Slayer fans. Unfortunately, the article claims the boys said the music made them do it. In fact, the boys themselves have said the music had nothing to do with their reasons for killing Pahler. The claim was only put out there to give Pahler’s parents cause to sue Slayer — unsuccessfully — for their daughter’s murder.
When are we going to stop looking at music as a possible motive for violent acts? There are actual songs about actually killing people that are cited less frequently than “Bodies” as the inspiration for potential murder sprees. I will grant that certain songs will sound different depending on the context. In the days after a mass shooting, hearing a song for the first time that repeats, “let the bodies hit the floor” can sound convincingly like inspiration. However, as soon as that thought hits, the first thing you need to ask yourself is: “Would this make me kill someone?” If the answer is “no,” then you need to start looking elsewhere for causes. If the answer is “yes,” please seek psychological help immediately.
Furthermore, if you’re in that space where you’re processing a tragedy and hearing a song that reminds you of that tragedy, you’re in the right place. Use that connection to process. To grieve. To put yourself in other people’s shoes — the victims’, their families’, the perpetrators’ — and try to puzzle it out, without coming to any conclusions. Just contemplate. Music provides a lens through which we can see various perspectives on events, both in our own lives and in the world around us. In many ways, that’s what music is for.
We don’t know for certain why Loughner chose “Bodies” as the soundtrack for his video (if it even is his video). We don’t know if he was a die-hard Drowning Pool fan or if he just like the song’s angry tones. (If you were making a video about burning a flag, what music would you choose to play in the background? The Beatles’ “Let it Be?” Katy Perry’s “California Gurls?” Frankie Avalon’s “Venus?”) Even if it were his all-time favorite song, there’s no way to say that it caused him to fire a gun into a crowd. It sounds like that particular plan hatched from his cracked, paranoid mind. At most, we could say that if he enjoyed that song, if it held some meaning for him, then perhaps there was something in his life that drove him to seek meaning in a song that sounds angry.
That, too, is what music is for.
Fortunately, the Post article concludes on a much more responsible note:
“The idea that we would diminish the speech that we allow based on how it might be received by the most unstable listener would leave us with little speech whatsoever,” he said, adding that “people commit murders in the name of the Bible or the Koran. To somehow hold the artist, the author, the speaker responsible for how the most unstable person drawn to the music or literature or movie might later act would deprive the 99.999 percent of people who never do anything illegal or violent.”