Five Sugary Pop Songs That Are Actually About Heinous Crimes
True crime might be having a moment, but we’ve always been fascinated with the darker side of human nature. The first bro to pull a string across a wooden box probably celebrated the invention of the acoustic guitar by sitting down around the fire and telling the story of a guy his buddy had to stab for some mammoth meat. In fact, the so-called “murder ballad” goes further back in history than most murder laws — although today, it’s less likely to be a ballad and more a catchy, radio-friendly ditty.
‘Smooth Criminal’ by Michael Jackson
“Smooth Criminal” is obviously about a crime, specifically the one Jackson mansplains to a woman named Annie, but the details of the crime are left kind of vague. There’s a break-in, a chase and blood stains, on the carpet, but that could be just about anything. That could be a brutal attack or a robbery gone moderately wrong. Maybe Annie just scraped her knee while she was hiding underneath the table. There’s some mention of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, so probably not, but one can hope — until one finds out the song was inspired by Richard Ramirez, aka the Night Stalker. Suffice it to say Annie was not okay.
The song evolved from a much less boppy crime carol called “Al Capone,” which was reworked as a song about a knife-wielding killer who breaks in through windows after, according to Jackson’s brother Jermaine, he read about Ramirez while writing Bad in 1985. Jermaine Jackson explained in his book You Are Not Alone that his brother kept the inspiration close to the military jacket because he didn’t want to offend the media or his religious elders, who were still pissed that he was seen with a machine gun in the music video because there’s no pleasing Jehovah’s Witnesses. As for Annie, she was a CPR doll that Jackson kept in the recording studio, which was actually on the low end of the weird scale for him.
‘Polly’ by Nirvana
Trying to decipher the meaning of a Nirvana song is a fool’s errand, and no one would tell you that harder than Kurt Cobain. His explanation of his lyrics usually boiled down to “Don’t worry about it,” and bandmate Dave Grohl once revealed that Cobain often only wrote them “five minutes before he first (sang) them,” describing them as little more than “syllables to fill up this space.” There’s definitely something sinister going on in “Polly,” what with the bondage and blowtorches, but beyond that, who could possibly know what he’s on about?
This is the rare Nirvana song that has an easily explainable backstory, though. In 1987, Cobain read about Gerald Friend, who kidnapped a teenage girl after she left a concert in the Seattle area, sexually assaulted her and tortured her in ways that we’d feel gross describing but involved a blowtorch. She eventually escaped after convincing him to let her “take a ride” and then jumping out of his truck. In the song, Cobain imagined that she accomplished this by letting her attacker think she enjoyed the torture, which didn’t do a lot to clear up its meaning, but Cobain gonna Cobain.
‘Midnight Rambler’ by the Rolling Stones
Rolling Stones songs don’t tend to get heavy. Most of them are about Mick Jagger’s inability to get laid, making him the biggest liar in music history. (Pay attention some time. You’ll never hear them the same way again.) Sure, they’ve got those few about racism, but it’s the band’s tragic destiny to make everything sound like a party, up to and including slavery.
That might be why you didn’t notice “Midnight Rambler” is about the Boston Strangler. In fact, “Midnight Rambler” was a nickname given to Albert DeSalvo early on by the press, though no one remembers that (or the negative definition of “rambler,” akin to “drifter,” which is still a pretty inaccurate description of a murderer, but writing headlines is hard) half a century later.
Staying true to their inauthenticity, Jagger and Keith Richards wrote the song during an idyllic vacation in Italy. Jagger later remarked, “Why we should write such a dark song in this beautiful, sunny place, I really don’t know,” but probably because he refuses to acknowledge that he’s a cool rock star doing cool rock star things. They even name check DeSalvo, but it’s a long-ass song, and by that point, any self-respecting Stones fan already has their pants off.
‘I Don’t Like Mondays’ by the Boomtown Rats
Back in 1979, school shootings weren’t as regular a feature in the news as weather reports, but even today, the slaughter at San Diego’s Cleveland Elementary School would be shocking. A 16-year-old girl named Brenda Spencer who lived across the street opened fire on the school, killing the principal and a custodian and injuring several children, then barricaded herself inside her house, where reporters called to ask why she did it. “I just don’t like Mondays,” she explained. “I did this because it’s a way to cheer up the day.” Even Garfield never went to such extremes.
The incident was huge news in the U.S. but not so much across the pond, where Bob Geldof, who is probably better known as the Live Aid guy but was the lead singer of the Boomtown Rats at the time, nevertheless read about it. The band’s subsequent single, “I Don’t Like Mondays,” was out for six weeks before the U.K. press figured out what it was about, and by then, they had a number-one hit. Spencer’s father initially threatened to sue the band, but Geldof later said Spencer wrote to him that “she was glad she’d done it because (he’d) made her famous,” so he has understandably mixed feelings about it these days. Maybe that explains “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” — he’s on a quest for cheesy redemption.
‘Bad’ by Michael Jackson
Who knew Michael Jackson was the foremost musical true crime chronicler of the 20th century? Especially with this song, which is all about Jackson utterly failing to convince absolutely anyone he’s a tough guy. But he said the song was a true story about a kid from a bad neighborhood who went away to private school and then came back only to be killed by his jealous friends. That’s also roughly the plot of the music video, back when they were allowed to be 20 minutes long, plus or minus some highly choreographed dance-fighting.
Except it’s not at all clear what story he’s talking about. It’s generally believed to be Edmund Perry, but if so, Jackson got the facts wrong. Perry was killed by a plainclothes cop who claimed Perry and his brother tried to mug him, not jealous friends. It’s possible he meant a different story that didn’t get much news coverage — neighborhood squabbles aren’t quite as relevant to public interests as police brutality — but he said he read about it in Time or Newsweek, so you’d think someone could have tracked it down.
Oh, well. At least we’ll always have Wesley Snipes.