GETTING AWAY WITH MURDER
by Rip Rense
It was early. Physically, I'm rolling by 7:30 a.m. The brain doesn't get out of bed until 10.
Somehow, I was in Borders Books at around 9:30 a.m. I was, as the delightfully defensive expression goes, "minding my own business." I had come for a particular book, found it, but was so seized by the novelty of being out in the world "early," that I decided to hang around and browse.
Ah, the whimsical freedom of the freelance writer!
Went to look at the latest novels and reinforce all my pessimism about getting one in print. Everything I scanned was either esoteric beyond bizarre -- you know, dwarf-with-three-legs selling sausage in Amsterdam falls in love with captain of women's basketball team, discovers they have the same hunchbacked father and cannot marry -- or precious beyond sickening: New mother confronts estrangement from own mother while taking nostalgic trip back to home town of Hushpukena, where town drunk reveals a terrible family secret involving manufacture of snail poison, bringing about a poignant trans-generation reconciliation just as the new mother's mother learns she has beriberi.
Then there were the too-hip books offering pithy witticisms about "cutting edge" popular culture -- the "How to Get to L.A. When You Already Live There" milieu (hey, not a bad title) -- and the whole flotilla of cross-cultural navel-gazing tomes about discovering: a) my African-American heritage, b) my Asian-American heritage, c) my Latin-American heritage d) my European-American heritage e) my any-amalgam-of-the-above heritage.
Took refuge in the magazine section, only to be overwhelmed, as usual, by the avalanche of publications pulsing with crazy-color graphics that screamed "I'm important! Look at me!" Almost picked up Tina Brown's latest attempt at taking a bite out of American consciousness (and bankbooks), but didn't want to risk rabies. Looked instead at unassuming copy of "Sky and Telescope," to learn more about how often asteroids just miss Earth.
Sauntered upstairs to the coffee shop, carefully inspected all the pastries I wasn't going to eat, then wandered into the CD section. I'm always in the market for a little music to work by ... maybe an old Kid Ory album, or Professor Longhair ... some opera ... or there was a good recording of Brahms' second piano concerto I had been meaning to pick up, and---
It didn't hit me immediately. It sort of slid into my ears when I wasn't listening. The beat. Pretty slick. The tempo. Zippy. The singing. Effortless. The tune. Catchy as a baseball. The volume ate every square-inch of available air in the store. My foot bounced a little, as I flipped through the Mario Lanza category in search of remastered, undoctored original recordings of that guy's freakish voice. ...
I didn't quite notice the words at first. They crept into my psyche ever so delicately, then made themselves comfortable when I wasn't looking. Now they were sitting on a couch, feet up, drinking beer, scratching. And I was starting to hum along with them on the chorus:
I've committed murder and I think I got away
I stopped flipping the CDs.
I have no intention of paying for my crimes don't fear
I've committed murder and I think I got away
What kind of thing was I humming along with? Ah, I told myself, it's just another banal, tragically idiotic pop song. Something that the pop music critics will rhapsodize over with their Harvard doctoral thesis vocabularies, and classify as jazz/synth/trip-hop/R&B/zydeco, or some such nonsense. Somebody really ought to tally up the number of music categories that pop critics invent. Seems like there's a new category for every song. Of course, the artists forever insist their work defies categorization.
She said, 'get back, bitch I ain't givin you s---
Good God. Almost enough to make you like Burt Bacharach.
And I don't feel bad about it ...
It was almost 10. My brain was up, and I could no longer ignore this, this -- well, was I actually listening to an anthem about killing without remorse? I know -- this shouldn't be particularly shocking, given the existence of rap lyrics that espouse murder, rape and, oh, lack of courtesy. But this wasn't rap. It was infectious, big-production, commercial pop.
I've committed murder and I think I got away ...
I found a clerk. The artist, he informed, was one Macy Gray. She was new on the scene, he said; he knew nothing about her. I asked to see a lyric sheet, which was kindly proffered. The song, entitled (surprise!) "I've Committed Murder," was about a guy who worked at a "boulevard café" -- a "fine young man with big dreams." Right, everybody has "big dreams." Translation: everybody wants to be multi-millionaire celebrities, idolized by the minions. Nobody wants to be a plumber anymore.
The song told of "this mean ole bitch who degrades him every day," eventually withholding a paycheck. In steps the girlfriend, who demands that the woman pay the young man with big dreams. In a simile that poses no threat to Raymond Chandler, she observes that the boss "got so much cash her office looks like green pastures." When the boss refuses to pay, the girlfriend simply ... murders her. And there is more to this noble tale:
And I don't feel bad about it
(Just in case the reader has any doubt, she don't feel bad about it.)
I inspected the song's credits. The words were written by Macy Gray. The music, which would definitely pose a challenge to "Three Blind Mice," was composed by seven -- count 'em, seven -- people. Not counting any who might have been too humble to add their names to the list.
Now, I don't mean to condemn this latest person being exploited for profit by the music industry -- er, I mean, artist. I know nothing about her, except that she made a dumb decision in recording this tune. The other works on her album seemed like typically nondescript, barely literate, dopey love trifles that always sell so well. And I understand the rich tradition of story-songs that simply relate events of a tale without judgement: little "slice of life" ditties.
But, come on, "I've committed murder ... and I don't feel bad about it?"
Gee, wasn't there anything in the song to suggest that uh, well, maybe it isn't quite the best thing in the world to do -- kill someone, you know? Nope. Nothing. Not a word of irony, not a hint of conscience, not the merest sign that the perpetrator wouldn't end up free as an ex-football star. This was not "I Fought The Law (And The Law Won)" or even "Two Hours Ahead of the Posse." And it actually got worse:
With a suitcase full of money
The narrator not only makes no apologies for murder; she positively glories in it! It's a solution! It leads to money and happy marriages in paradise! Heck, it's ... therapy!
With apologies to all the social scientists and pop stars who say pop music has no influence on human behavior, let me just say: Hardly a night goes by without TV news cameras cashing in on the tears of some shattered family whose father/mother/sister/ brother/child has been gunned down by a "young man with big dreams" in a mini-mart/gang shooting/street holdup/random assassination. Is it really so far-fetched to think that some troubled, blank-slate kids might hear this tune and think, hey, not a bad idea -- waste the boss and go to Jamaica! Or at least that "I've Committed Murder" might reinforce the impact of mass media fraught with images of casual, brutal life-taking? No, it isn't so far-fetched. Not since Manson interpreted "Helter Skelter" -- a frivolous novelty Beatles song inspired by an amusement park slide -- as orders to start a race war.
And I don't feel bad about it ...
I stood there, wondering how Macy Gray might feel if a murderer ever claimed to have been inspired by her song ... when I suddenly became aware that three Borders clerks were discussing "I've Committed Murder." Surely they would share my revulsion:
Clerk # 1 (male in 40s): "So what do you think of this? It's new."
Clerk # 2 (female in 20s): "I don't know. I don't listen to R&B. But if I had to listen to R&B, it's OK. Not bad."
Clerk # 3 (male in 20s): Yeah, I don't know too much about R&B, either. I wouldn't play this, but it's okay to listen to."
Okay to listen to? It was, to them, just a beat and a voice. They didn't even notice the words!
I got the hell out of there, went home, and put on a Brahms symphony. It sounded like funeral music.
© 2002 Rip Rense. All rights reserved.