This week we asked each of our authors to weigh in with what their song choices meant for them.
Aaron Maltz on ‘Seeing Red’
My earliest interactions with pot culture, the rite of passage described in “Seeing Red,” began in 1992 as a junior high school student living in Arvada, CO. Alongside my own youthful explorations, that period of time produced an immense amount of legendary soundtracks, two of which (“I Wanna Get High” and “Killing in the Name Of”) immediately sprung to mind as being intrinsically linked with the narrative. Additionally, the title “Seeing Red” references a Minor Threat song and the schoolteacher, Mr. Jones, was yanked from the infamous Bob Dylan tune. “Golden Brown,” the song Mr. Jones hums while entering the classroom, was released in 1981 by The Stranglers, indicating a decade age-gap between him and the students.
Nathan Boole on ‘Control’
“V” by Zeromancer is an industrial/grunge style song that is about self-recrimination, addiction, and helplessness, with a nice overtone of anger. The lyrics are interesting, but as in the story, part of the song got stuck in my head for a couple of days. The lyric, “Help me God, I can’t control myself.” Which gets repeated a number of times in the chorus of the song, was in my head while I was thinking about the theme of the contest, Rites of Passage for young people.
From there, some intuitive leaps happened, possibly induced by the mood created by the song, and I thought of the Columbine massacre. More specifically I thought of the two teenagers who perpetrated it. It’s an event that hit me very powerfully when it happened, and the question that always plagued my mind after that–the same question that plagued everyone who heard of the massacre–was, “Why?”
What would cause two teenagers, apparently decent, normal kids on the verge of graduation, to murder over a dozen of their peers, then kill themselves? The pat answer is, “Serious psychological problems.” True enough, but even insane people have reasons for their actions, even if they don’t make sense to the rest of us. I think the answer is still fairly simple, and can be found in the patterns of violent criminals everywhere. Why do serial killers kill? Why do rapists rape? Power. Control.
These crimes, along with the crime of mass slaughter that seems to almost be a fad among psychotics these days, have a common root. They all stem from a constant, pathological feeling of weakness and the inability to get what you want, often combined with an unhealthy dose of fear/paranoia. Everyone has moments when they feel like life is out of control. We all have mechanisms for coping that take various forms. For the most healthy people, this often involves a simple change of perspective that allows them to see how they can twist the bad things that happen to their advantage. For others it takes the form of a nervous breakdown, binge drinking, drug use, or even simple abandonment of responsibilities. Psychopaths have reasoning that follows very similar veins, but is far more extreme in both the causes (paranoia instead of anxiety, for example) and the effects (murder instead of binge drinking.)
For some reason, the thing that plagues me most about the Columbine killers is not the murders they perpetrated, but their simultaneous, and apparently unhesitating, suicide.
The way the lyrics of the song connect to all this is the feeling of helplessness that results in extreme action. Help me God, I can’t control myself.
Self-control is the most important form of power that a person can have, and in one sense, suicide is the ultimate form of self-control. Perhaps for people who feel constantly out of control on a scale unimaginable by healthy minds, suicide is the only way to regain control of themselves, and thereby control their world. Murder is a way of playing God with the lives of others, suicide is an attempt to wrest control of oneself from the hands of any greater being, or the world in general.
I have never been suicidal, nor truly murderous. I can’t really explain the motivations of someone like Eric Harris, or Dylan Klebold, but the story, “Control,” is my attempt to understand. I feel like the lyrics of the song and the theme of the contest, Rites of Passage, tie together in the swirl of emotion that many teenagers and young adults feel when they meet life head-on. I think, “Help me God, I can’t control myself,” is a feeling that basically everyone has at one time or another, regardless of whether or not they believe in a God. The thing that distinguishes people from each other is how they respond at those times of crisis: with perseverance and a shift in perspective, or with self-destruction, or some combination of both.
Sherry Landow on ‘This Way’
I must admit that I’ve never gotten emotional to the sound of maracas and xylophones until I heard ‘Blood’ by The Middle East. The combination of harmonic music with haunting lyrics places the song somewhere between beautiful and eerie; which is fairly on par to the style of writing I like to explore. I tried to mirror this aspect of the song in my piece, through making the seemingly simple act of making a bed a deeper lesson from dying mother to daughter on deterioration and keeping up appearances.
I appropriated the lyrics “…[beside the jar of two cent coins] that are no good no more/she’ll lay it aside” and “she woke up in a cold sweat on the floor.” In my piece these lyrics are slightly reworded and used to refer firstly to the dirty sheets on the floor and secondly to the mother’s cancer symptoms. This illness functions as a vehicle to incorporate the song thematically as well as lyrically. The song explores different family members’ ways of coping with loss; primarily through the grandmother, who “…got burnt by the sun too often when she was young/and the cancer spread and it ran into her body and her blood/and there’s nothing you can do about it now.” Similarly, the sun-stained mother in the piece is anticipating her death; ageing much like the jaundiced mattress and old sheets she is associated with. The simple act of making the bed is then a departing lesson from mother to daughter on maintaining the image of wellbeing.
Joey To on Purgatory High
The referenced song is the opener to the musical episode (#6.07) titled “Once More, With Feeling” of the TV-series Buffy: The Vampire Slayer. Although the narrative of the episode is far from the subject matter of my piece, I partially adapted the song lyrics to (finishing) high school because, in my opinion, it is nonetheless emotionally fitting. To take a broader view, underneath the superficial layers and literary devices of fighting supernatural forces and entities, the show is about ‘dealing with life’ at its heart. In that sense, my use and application of the lyrics is not entirely out of context. The main emotional difference between the song and this entry is that Buffy seemed to have a comparatively stronger will to live whereas the character of Jack was more focused on escapism.
Within the constraint of 300 words, I have endeavoured to convey the tiring purgatorial repetition of school which Jack suffered, i.e.:-
- he sat the exam, then he heard others talk about it afterwards;
- he saw others crying about finishing school, he then recalled his years of schooling, as if reliving it;
- he was asked/told about the partying and speech night twice, and he answered twice in both cases;
- Jack also pointed out the multiple pieces of paper one is supposed to receive at the completion of high school. (Note: Coincidentally, the character of Buffy made a similar point in another episode.)
The references to the lyrics were merely incorporated into the main text which is not the most refined method but I decided that if I am to be crude, then I might as well place the references at the literal centre of the piece, i.e. ‘the same arrangement’, ‘went through the motions’, ‘walked through his part’ are all in paragraph #5.
The other point I wished to communicate (subtly) – although I am not sure if successfully – is that the feelings of emptiness and relief are not always contradictory. Jack’s sense of relief did not equate to joy for him. He was drained and he felt a void of which his relief was merely a facet, i.e. “Aren’t you happy?” to which Jack replied “I don’t have the energy.” In another apparent contradiction, the life he lived and the liveliness around him were ‘killing him’ and his idea of living was to rest from all that; and that ‘rest’ may figuratively be seen as like death. In other words, what Jack wished for was rest from his circumstances and the true joy and true peace which comes with it. I have tried to express this through the use of language relating to life/living & death/dying, day & night, light & dark etc., very loosely progressing from the former to the latter:-
- Paragraph #1: ‘glaring lights were irritating…’
- Paragraph #2: ‘Done‘ was originally ‘Done and dusted‘ but I thought the allusion to the funeral rite was too strong and obvious this early on.
- Paragraph #3: ‘Once released’ is merely to emphasize the sense that school is a trap for Jack but this so-called release only exposed him to typical students’ reactions to the end of high school.
- Paragraph #3: ‘enlighten’ then ‘grey uniforms’, a small progression to darkness.
- Paragraph #4: first explicit thought of Jack and a criticism on modern education which some think it as a fitting product of the enlightenment; thus, this is an indirect and implicit reference to Jack’s preference of rest/escape (darkness, night, death).
- Paragraph #5: ‘with every passing school day died a little on the inside’ is admittedly a clichéd quote but it illustrates Jack’s disapproval of his daytime activities and his preference to rest/escape. The same applies to ‘same arrangement every weekday’.
- Paragraph #6: the words ‘fight’ and ‘crawl’ are used in the song, albeit differently; the reference to the ‘subway’ is an allusion to the underground, darkness, death etc.; again, to illustrate Jack’s preference to rest/escape.
- The dialogue Paragraph #7 to #14 progresses to night-time activities, i.e. the party and speech night, none of which Jack were interested in. It is also no coincidence that it is not explicitly revealed who Jack was conversing with as this is to convey his indifference.
- Paragraph #14: although one would usually write ‘feigned’ instead of ‘faked’, the phrase “faking it somehow” is used in the song to describe Buffy’s attitude to life.
- Paragraph #14: ‘just to bury the conversation’ is another obvious allusion to death but, unlike the previous allusions, this is no longer a preference as Jack actually ended that conversation.
- Paragraph #15: Jack was finally in a ‘comfortable’ position wearing new pyjamas, an obvious inference to the sleep he wanted. While getting ‘stoned’ is an attempt at crude humour, it is another reference to sleeping and death (e.g. a dead body, tombstone, gravestone etc.)