There should be a symbiotic relationship between Style and Content, but particularly when it comes to music, many people confuse the two. Violent music is equated with easy targets. Marilyn Manson, Eminem, Ludacris. Et cetera.

Note that they almost always come from (primarily) two main genres:

Hip hop. 

The knee-jerking reaction people have is that because it sounds violent, or it sounds aggressive, then the content therefore must be violent and aggressive as well. Given, that does happen. When Rammstein is shrieking about setting things on fire, amidst a pyrotechnic, anarchic stage show, then it certainly is a case of content matching style. We're gonna sing about fire, and we're going to have fire. Our sound will be…like fire. That sound of a cocked Glock on a Ludacris track is not exactly meant as a metaphor for peaceful protest. Oftentimes, an aggressive sound does go hand-in-hand with with an aggressive message (or the inverse: listen to any James Taylor song). But the idea that there is morality attached to music simply because of its style - rather than content - is a little ridiculous. To me.

There's a certain humor in how a moral value can be attached to music composed long ago. It seems sacred. It sounds peaceful. Therefore it is of moral value. There is a disassociation with the circumstances in which it was written. I'm a big Mozart fan and he composed some of the most beautiful music ever, but not (every one of) his works were designed to evoke the same emotional response. His work often tends to get lumped into a general catch-all of "classical music" that is culturally attached to concepts such as 'sacred, high art, life-affirming, inspiring…' It is a disservice to him - and to many composers - to perpetuate the idea that their work was designed to provoke homogenized emotional reactions from listeners (and intended to be experienced in certain environments: recitals, church, the occasional field trip to the state orchestra :).

It's especially unfortunate for younger audiences; many of whom have not experienced the glories of 'Classical music' (sorry, Romantic, Baroque, and Modern for lumping you in there) because of the expectations and baggage they come with: equating the style of music automatically with certain settings and environments and intended emotions. If you don't know rock & roll, you might assume that Michael Jackson and John Lennon or James Blunt and Jack White were doing the same kind of thing; if you don't know classical music, you might assume that Beethoven and Rachmaninov were doing the same sort of deal. No. Sometimes, music is meant to challenge and provoke (Rachmaninov, John Cage, M. Manson). Sometimes it's meant to inspire (Fifth Symphony, anything by John Sousa Phillips, ABBA). Sometimes it's meant to just entertain in an inoffensive and unoriginal way (here's to you, Justin Bieber). 

Just interesting: the value of music created by composers who lived very rock & roll lifestyles (deceased 200+ years) as 'appropriate' (e.g. old saloon jingles, pub marching songs, call-and-response military standards) based simply on the fact that their form, their delivery, their style seems…peaceful. Or spiritual. Or inspiring. Regardless of their roots or original intent, they're delivered in a manner that seems and sounds positive. 

And then you have Nancy. The most talented member of the Sinatra family. Incorrectly classified as a one-hit wonder, she is nonetheless best-known for singing the greatest song ever - These Boots Were Made for Walkin'.  She did so in such mighty  manner; Miles Davis in a long Twiggy skirt, singing in an understated, detached delivery that is still timeless a half century later. Although her voice wasn't mighty, her particular genius was that she never tried to make it sound mighty. She never stretched it beyond what it was capable of, but she developed her voice - both literally and figuratively - in such a self-assured way that it never felt like there was anything weak or missing.

When you actually look at the lyrics to These Boots Were Made for Walkin,'  it becomes apparent what a violent and aggressive song it really is. 

I just found me a brand new box of matches yeah
and what he knows you ain't HAD time to learn.

{ TANGENT: Nancy always makes me think of M.I.A.'s couplet from Bamboo Banga:
Now I'm sittin' down chilling on some gun powder
Strike / match / light / fire }

It's not a song about turning the other cheek. It's not a song Nelson Mandela would have played at his release. It's not a song celebrating the capacity for the human spirit to forgive. It is a song about retribution.  About an eye for an eye. You do that to me, and I'll do this to you back.' But delivered by Ms. Sinatra in such a deadpan, casual, unadorned manner that we just sort of laugh and ignore the violence of the content. Or, because she is the protagonist and she is attractive, culture at-large subconsciously flips that collective justification switch that makes it more palatable because it's coming from an attractive woman (a.k.a. the Letourneau Factor). So therefore, it just seems more…okay. Even though it's not. And it's delivered in such a stylish, swinging', catchy way that we don't think twice about it. Hypocrisy: yes. It's an anthem. 

When is the last time you heard Nancy Sinatra sandwiched in a sentence between Marilyn Manson (very intelligent creature) and Eminem (also hyper-articulate critter). Both of them are part of that finger-pointed-at fraternity of violent-sounding music that is distasteful and reprehensible and not fit for youth. In all fairness, you kinda gotta stick Nancy in there too. The unfortunate perpetuation of rock & roll as 'devil's music.' Rats. Nancy singing' those killer tunes, ferrying Marilyn and Marshall across the Styx and waving hello to Cerberus from a hand basket. That's a picture for the yearbook. Rock and roll; roll over, Mozart. Now I'm gonna go blast some Sonata No. 14 as loud my speakers can possibly go. Thanks for the music.

Nancy Sinatra
These Boots Were Made for Walkin'



  1. This is fascinating! Your musical palette is so much more diverse than my fairly concentrated obsessions, and I enjoy digging around and learning from what you've written. I've heard "These Boots Are Made for Walkin'" in soundtracks, but I was more familiar with "Somethin' Stupid" and "You Only Live Twice." I had never listened to the words before, and I could really have used that song about 17 years ago! I agree, it's the greatest song ever! It strikes me as a very brave song. I wonder if it could have been the hit it was without the style, without the sugar-coating wink and a smile.

    "There's a certain humor in how a moral value can be attached to music composed long ago." I love this part. I miss out on the dissociation of 'classical' music from its content because I've studied music theory and history since early grade school. Since theory is the grammar of music, when I listen I'm hearing the composer's particular musical language, his (rarely her) artistic influences, and various influencing factors such as the place he lived or recently visited, or events taking place around him. It's like time travel, and I'm inside his mind: When Beethoven rips the rug out from under me, when Handel moves across the Channel, when Mozart starts thumbing his nose, when Prokofiev is fighting to speak with his own voice under the Composers' Union--I hear all that stuff in their music. It means sometimes I laugh or cry when others are solemnly or indulgently listening. They're missing the audacity, the grief, the violence, the vitality of it all. Listening to music is a very active experience for me!

    So three cheers for an ode to waking up to musical content! Bravo! Bravo! Bravo!

    ~Wendy Meier

  2. One of the best you've written------well, in the short history since I started reading your blog. Really enjoyed this.

    I find the topic of violence in art very interesting. Art is often about expressing a feeling. Putting something out there that will draw the listener into what you're expressing. To what extent violent content is a perpetrator of violence, a healthy outlet/replacement for violence, or just an inappropriate expression, regardless of the consequences, will be debated for eternity. And I think the reality is often different, depending on the content, the creator, and/or the consumer.

    Of course there's also art that carries violent content simply for the sake of drawing attention to itself.


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