6 Of the Happiest Songs Ever (Are About Death)
Death is just a part of life, you know? It's one of the few things we're all guaranteed to experience at some point, so it's no surprise it turns up as the subject of so many popular songs. What is surprising, though, is when those songs about what's traditionally the saddest of all possible subject matter come out sounding like feel-good party anthems. We talk about that on this week's Unpopular Opinion podcast ...
Foster the People -- "Pumped Up Kicks"
Right off the bat, is that even Foster the People in that picture? I honestly wouldn't be able to tell you. Anyway, I wrote a couple of articles that were somewhat similar to this a while back, and at the time, the comments section was all aflutter with outrage that I'd consider leaving Foster the People's "Pumped Up Kicks" off of a list about songs you didn't realize are secretly depressing.
In my defense, I just assumed everyone already had at least some idea what this song is about. According to the artist who wrote it, a guy named "the lead singer of Foster the People," it's told from the perspective of a troubled teen who's daydreaming about orchestrating a mass shooting. He also added in a later interview that the upbeat melody is intended as a "fuck you song to the hipsters," which makes absolutely no sense to me, but an explanation is an explanation, I suppose.
Hipsters cause school shootings.
Also, it seems I was wrong in assuming the meaning of this song was readily apparent to anyone who's heard it before. Not a single guest on the podcast caught the various references to freakishly gifted children outrunning guns and being faster than bullets and such, nor did the person who wrote this review of Torches, the album that spawned the hit single, and the site he's writing for literally has the word "psychiatrist" in its name. Sure, it's not a psychiatry-related website in any way and it recently went out of business, but still, the comments section was right for a change, a lot of people missed the meaning of this song.
It's easy to see how that happened, though. In addition to that peppy melody, the verses are sung in that far-away, muffled sort of tone that bands sometimes use in situations where their actual voice sounds like garbage. I imagine casual listeners spent the chorus mostly wondering if the song was about those ridiculously ugly and needlessly inflatable Reeboks that came out in the '80s.
Finally, a way to make your shoes fit tighter!
On top of all of that, this song was everywhere for the better part of a year. When songs get that huge, people who don't become immediate fans of the band in question (in this case, Foster the People, so everybody) tend to forever hear those songs as background noise. Sure, they know them, but they don't really know them.
I wouldn't be surprised if people said the exact same thing about most of the school shooters of the world after they committed their crimes.
Norman Greenbaum -- "Spirit in the Sky"
If the artist's name isn't immediately recognizable, you should at least be able to place his most (only) famous song as "that one from the Guardians of the Galaxy trailer" ...
It's called "Spirit in the Sky" and, coming from a dude named Norman Greenbaum, it's got way more talk about meeting Jesus after you die than one might expect. Sure enough, he's Jewish, but that doesn't make a person immune from seeing Porter Wagoner singing a gospel song on television and thinking, "Yeah, I could do that."
Just a few short minutes later, Norman Greenbaum had a hit song that probably made his mother cry, but it's mostly for bullshit reasons, so it's cool.
Unsurprisingly, "Spirit in the Sky" is said to be one of the most requested memorial service songs of all time. Even less surprisingly, it was Norman Greenbaum who said that. As far as I can tell, funeral homes don't make statistics about this kind of thing widely available, so you're just going to have to trust that he's telling the truth.
His days of writing hit songs may be over, but Norman Greenbaum will never stop finding ways to teach us exactly how having faith works.
Smashing Pumpkins -- "Today"
It's easy to miss the real meaning behind the Smashing Pumpkins hit "Today," especially when you take into account that the first line literally references the fact that the singer is in the midst of the greatest day he's ever known. At least I think "known" is what he mumbles at the end of that first line. Sure, I could Google it, but it's not like your average lyrics database is staffed by world-class linguistics experts, you know? Those people's guesses are as good as mine. You get the gist, though: Billy Corgan is having a damn fine day. Why? Because he's about to commit suicide.
Given how favorably history tends to view bands whose lead singers killed themselves during that era, you could argue that he'd have made that a great day for a lot of people, but that would be pretty morbid of you, so don't. Instead, let's focus on how it is that people could miss the fact that this is a suicide song. I'd argue that it has everything to do with the video.
For one thing, Billy Corgan still had hair back then, or at least a wig that reminded us how creepy he looked when he did have hair.
How bummed could he have really been? Also, he's driving an ice cream truck. That's not a vehicle that implies sadness. And who follows through on their shift at their shitty ice cream truck job if they aren't planning to live beyond that day? If there's ever a perfect time to call in sick, that would be it.
With all that said, if you examine the video with enough desperation to make a point, you'll uncover that even the seemingly happy video implies that Corgan's death is imminent. For starters, think of what an ice cream truck really is. It's not a job, it's a business. If you drive an ice cream truck, you probably own it, which makes the fact that Corgan is driving his through an empty desert ...
... a pretty clear sign that he's given up on his dreams. If that wasn't clear enough, he doesn't just drive that ice cream truck off into the sunset quietly. He pulls over to the side of the road to let a bunch of strangers paint it up like a Jimi Hendrix tour bus.
His fellow band members, actually, but same difference.
If someone else does own that ice cream truck, Billy Corgan won't be piloting it after today, and he's totally fine with that.
Nirvana -- "I Hate Myself and Want to Die"
It's not completely surprising that Kurt Cobain wrote a song called "I Hate Myself and Want to Die." He did commit suicide, after all. What is surprising is that, against all odds, it's not really thought of as a "suicide song." Rest assured, you'd know all about it by now if it was. Cobain himself even said the title wasn't meant to be taken literally. His case for the innocuous nature of the song was likely strengthened by the fact that it made its first public appearance on the The Beavis and Butt-head Experience album.
It's also worth noting that, as far as Nirvana songs from that point in history go, it sounds pretty joyous.
Then there's the lyrics, which, like so many other things Cobain wrote, are assumed to be mostly gibberish.
That's probably true, but maybe it's not? One could argue that the above lyrics read like the thoughts and actions of a man who's stopped caring about the consequences of his choices. Sure, he's just talking about catching a cold, but he's also talking about not caring if he catches a cold. So that's something.
Then there's the second verse ...
No matter how you hear that line, the horse pills thing doesn't do much for the argument that Kurt Cobain is just being lighthearted here, does it? The stuff about a broken heart doesn't help either, nor does the "You're the one I wanna refill" bit, which makes it all seem like this song is about a dude who's decided to end his life because the woman he wants doesn't want him back. Either that, or he's resigned himself to the fact that the woman he loves will be the end of him.
Go nuts, conspiracy theorists!
Whatever the case, whether Cobain intended this as a legitimate ode to suicide or not was of no concern to Nirvana's record label, who'd just released the song as the B-side to the "Pennyroyal Tea" single just days prior to the singer's untimely death.
Good timing all around, everybody!
They just knew it was a public relations nightmare waiting to happen and promptly withdrew the single from circulation, but a few copies managed to find their way to store shelves. If you manage to find one laying around somewhere at retail price, buy it. You'll be happy you did when you sell it on eBay for $1,100 shortly thereafter.
Take caution, though, because concerns about maybe displaying poor taste by profiting off a suicide song by a guy who committed suicide definitely have a statute of limitations, and apparently it has passed, because the single was re-released for Record Store Day recently.
Elton John -- "I Think I'm Gonna Kill Myself"
Elton John has a track record of commemorating tragic deaths with tender, heartfelt ballads. Like that time he wrote a song about the untimely passing of Marilyn Monroe two decades after anyone cared, then re-gifted it to Princess Diana a decade later.
That's not his only song about a life cut tragically short, though. His fifth album, 1972's damn fine Honky Chateau, features a song that's literally called "I Think I'm Gonna Kill Myself" and, unlike the just-as-bluntly-titled Nirvana song mentioned earlier, the lyrics don't leave much room for wondering what Elton John is referring to.
What's less clear is why he's so goddamn happy about it all. To describe this song as merely "upbeat" would be a massive understatement. There's a tap-dance solo at one point. Tap-dancing. In a song about suicide. You know where tap-dancing is appropriate? Almost nowhere, but especially not in a song about shooting yourself in the face.
To add to the festiveness of it all, when he performs the song live in concert, he often does so with the aid of a man named Ray Cooper, who can best be described as "the Eddie Van Halen of playing the tambourine."
If you don't have time to watch the video and are having trouble picturing such a thing, just know that he does this ...
... and this ...
... and a little bit of this ...
... all while making time to shred the fuck out of a nearby xylophone.
If there's a sequel to the movie Ray, it damn well better be about that guy. That he finds so much joy in playing such a useless instrument is the definition of inspiring. Also, that he's doing it on a song about teen suicide is kind of unsettling. That's probably the point, though. As Genevieve Mueller pointed out on that podcast that I mentioned so long ago in the intro to this article, the lyrics to this song read like the sad ramblings of a present day MRA ...
... provided traveling back in time to sleep with '60s icons was possible in the universe that this song takes place in.
With that in mind, who wouldn't do a little celebrating if that selfish piece of trash did us all the ultimate favor? His parents, probably, and assorted other family and friends too, I'd imagine, because suicide is still a pretty terrible thing. Yes, I get that there's a huge exception to be made in that sometimes it's a legitimately humane means to put an early end to a lifetime of guaranteed suffering at the hands of a debilitating disease, but that's definitely not what's happening in this song. This is just an asshole kid gloating about the fact that he's landed on the perfect plan for exacting revenge on all the people who've ruined his life by not giving him everything he wants. The song is upbeat because the subject of the song doesn't have a clear grasp of the consequences of what he's planning or how truly awful his reasoning for it really is. He's a self-centered asshole who thinks his death will right a lot of wrongs in the world. He may be right about that, but not in the way he thinks.
For more from Adam, follow him on Twitter @adamtodbrown.
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