This has actually been in the works for a while now—decades if we're talking about keeping a mental association web for this trope, and at least a year composing a playlist with intention to share—but the announcement of the new "danger" square and increased scope for fandom-nonspecific works in this year's [community profile] kink_bingo told me it was time.

The songs and lengthy (very lengthy) analyses in this post contain death; non-consensual sex and violence, occasionally graphic and mostly directed at women; and some oblique talk about ableism and mental illness.

Download songs individually, or get all 32 tracks in one convenient .zip


There's a lot about this project that I'm not sure of. Not so much the contents—I'm happy with the songs I've included. Each one is here for a reason, though there were many more I could have used and some I rather regret leaving out (recommendations pepper the commentary below). My uncertainty has more to do with the substance of the project. Dare I call it non-fannish, when my feelings for this sub-genre, pseudo-genre, trope and aesthetic feel so much like fanlove? If not, how do I identify it? Fandom of what? And how do I even admit that I, sex-positive feminist and anti-rape activist, have a huge, throbbing kink on for musical snuff, song-stories that are mostly about and defined by people (mostly men) doing horrible, non-consensual and frequently vividly eroticized violent things to other people (mostly women)? Because this is a kink for me, one of my earliest recognized "bulletproofs" in art and fiction, and one I find difficult to talk about even in the semi-detached way of fantasy. This is as much a personal exploration as it is an exploration of a theme, working out the what, why, and how of my affective thrum for these songs by examining a broad range of facets—but you're welcome to take the music and run if navel-gazing and ranting about gender politics is not your thing.

I'll say more about selection process below, but I want to offer some general notes before getting down to bloody business . . . I'm calling this the Murder Ballad Mix because for me, murder ballad is synecdoche, a feeling evoked by art in many media beyond the song type for which I've named it. Murder ballads in the musical history/folklore studies sense are a subset of traditional Northern European (British Isles and Scandinavia) and subsequently North American ballad-form narrative songs with lyrics recounting events surrounding, leading up to, or following a fictional or "true crime" murder. I've included a couple of traditional ballads and a few others that emulate their style but most of the songs here are more recent evolutions, influenced by this tradition but generations removed. These are songs about death, danger (of course), sex, rape, intimacy, possession, desperation, madness, outlaws, and highways, backwoods, basements, and other dark, lonely places where little girls especially are told not to go alone, where no one will hear you scream. With few exceptions, I've kept mostly to human beings being horrible to one another, evils most mundane, and left out the supernatural retribution stuff that Old World traditional ballads in particular are full of. I've also used mostly female vocalists, though the implied or explicit gender of the narrators and their roles as victims, violators, avengers, or outside observers are more mixed, and much of the list presents what I'd call an alt-country style and feel, whether or not the artists identify their work this way.

1. "Things that Scare Me" - Neko Case
fluorescent lights engage, black birds frying on a wire
same birds that followed me to school when I was young
were they trying to tell me something—were they telling me to run?

Prologue. The place it has to start: with a warning unheeded, understood too late; the death of small creatures; a child outgrowing the dubious protection of pre-pubescence; a gun, a goal, and a god; a rugged individual (defiant? plain arrogant?) out to do wrong or to avenge it; and with a call to nationalism, because the murder ballad feeling is an American one. It blossomed there, a successfully invasive transplant, and now even when it's summoned by a Canadian or an Australian or an Old Worlder (English, Danish, rooted in the soil where the ballad form originates) it carries an American flavour. We open and close with Neko Case because she is a top contender for queen of the trope, with her sky-wide voice, macabre lyrical and acoustic sensibilities, and propensity for appearing in promotional images limp and sprawling or with living or taxidermed animals, primarily foxes and deer, and because nearly half her catalogue belongs on this list.

2. "Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)" – Nancy Sinatra
I was five and he was six, we rode on horses made of sticks
he wore black and I wore white, he would always win the fight

An obligatory inclusion, and not just because of Kill Bill (a movie that hits many of the notes of murder balladry I here delineate, and if there's one bad thing I will never say about Tarantino features it's that their soundtracks aren't that hot). Sure, you can focus on the latter part of the song, take the last verse literally and the chorus metaphorically, but that takes all the fun out of it. Whether or not this song is “really” about a woman murdered by her male partner, it lays out many recurring murder ballad elements. The song opens with a performance of “innocence” where cultural scripts of gender violence are encoded even into childish play (the black-clad boy who always wins shoots his gun at the white-shrouded girl who falls to the ground, struck down by a word—the “awful sound”, bang bang). Their play-killing is recalled in adulthood, a domain of civilization where neither the innocence nor the brutality shared, or so we say, by immaturity and wilderness are supposed to penetrate except in proscribed contexts of sex, sport, and other leisure pursuits, which are so easy to get confused. There's an interesting vintage video of Nancy performing this on some variety show, sitting on the floor in a pink dress, weight resting on her hands and one hip with her legs dragging out to the side, mermaid-helpless and demure. Are those churchbells ringing a wedding or a funeral, and what's the difference, anyway? My Baby shot me down.

3. "Little Water Song" – Ute Lemper
under here your huge hand is heavy on my chest
and under here, Sir, your lovely voice retreats
and yes, you take my breath away

Our next unfortunate narrator addresses the man who is drowning/has drowned her, describing her sub-aquatic peri/post-mortem experience in exquisite detail—it's basically hyperbolic musical corpse porn. The song revels in excessive sensuality, strings and vocals swelling and swirling gracefully around sharp-edged, graphic lyrics and almost obscuring their ghastliness (Nick Cave shares the writing credit). Particularly striking, I think: the drowned narrator tells us about her pretty hair waving, talks about her own beauty in the water, in death, a language we are all by now familiar with because we see it again and again, in songs and books and movies: people, in contemporary Western popular media usually women, die because they are beautiful (more below) and in dying become even more beautiful (especially when they die bestowing the gift of manpain), here spoken from a vantage we don't often get to share . . . except not really? Because the narrator's arguably only speaking what her killer witnesses, not what she feels—he's stolen feeling away from her, her voice is the refrigerator's hum. This narrative/relationship ambiguity (whose words are these?) extends to the ways the narrator characterizes her killer—calling him “Sir”; talking about his “lovely voice” and “most terrible name”; telling him he takes her breath away, which, yes, literal, but it's a phrase we use for things beautiful and awe-inspiring; and in the final line, her last exercise of agency(?), declaring “I glow with the greatness of my hate for you”—and to the depiction of her sexuality. It's hard to say confidently that the narrator is aroused by this encounter, but she is, like every lovely ladycorpse, rendered at once sexually accessible (completely vulnerable to invasion because she can't say no: even “the tiny little fishes enter me”) and sexually defunct (she's no longer a woman but a flesh-object, unresponsive; to pursue the course of attraction/possession now is necrophilic) . . . but maybe that's the point? I'll come back to this. For further unraveling of slimy tangles of death and eroticism, check out “Rope of Weeds” by Elysian Fields, which more or less picks up where “Little Water Song” leaves off, and “Archie & Veronica” by Lovage or “Cemetery” by The Headstones, which plow related ground.

4. "Winter on the Weekend" – Julia Stone
he's a dog, but he's dressed up like a sheep
he's got bones all through the backyard but he likes to drink tea

You may have noticed that we're starting from the POV of the victim, intended, immediate, or phantasmal. It feels weird to type that because I'm used to the anti-rape discourse of “survivors, not victims”, but of course these are songs about murder. Whether or not it's accompanied by rape or framed in rape-like terms, nonsurvival is rather a salient issue. Except . . . the fact that these people are supposed to not survive doesn't begin to assuage my discomfort with the terminology, for two reasons. First, one of the reasons “survivor” is preferred to “victim” for people who've experienced a sexual assault is that “victim” reduces the identity of the person to the moment of the assault to a much greater degree than “survivor” does. Granted, “survivor” mostly does this by drawing attention to life after the assault, the fact that a survivor can go on to do and be more than a moment of violence, which is something most people who've been murdered don't get to enjoy, but “victim” also erases the identity of the assaulted/murdered prior to that defining act, and her subjectivity and personhood at all points. “Victim” is a necessary role in the social interaction of murder, passive object to the killer's active subject. “Victim” has no agency. Second and somewhat contradictory, thanks to this ~lovely~ culture of secondary victimization we live in and all the pernicious ways we learn to blame ourselves for “getting” assaulted (is this really easier than accepting that the world isn't fair?), “victim” allowed it to happen, had it coming, should have known better, should have been more careful, must have done something to provoke it, shouldn't have been ____ (out, home, at night, during the day, wearing a skirt, wearing pants, looking sexy, looking queer, you fill in the blank, the excuse has been used). I'll come back to victim-blaming when I get to killer's POV songs, but I want to bring it up here because that bullshit's all lies and 20/20 hindsight. It doesn't help victims in the moment. When we tsk-ingly ask the narrator of this song, “why would you go to this place, where your screams will go unheard, with someone who's going to hurt you—didn't you know better?”, we betray her trust as badly as the man who lured her there, even worse than the guardian who isn't there to stop him (I'm not sure what her relationship with “Daddy” is, but it serves my argument to suggest that he was the smothering, micromanaging, overbearing kind of protective, drilling into his daughter how he thought she should stay safe, but it didn't keep her out of this situation [now he's probably going to go off and develop manpain about that—and no, I'm not finished referencing [personal profile] thingswithwings' vid/essay]). Besides, she told us why she went there: she trusted him. He turned out eventually to be a predator, but that's the inherent gamble of trust, that it could be betrayed at any time.

5. "Pick Me Up Suzie" – Nathan
tell my Daddy how I cried when Johnny pulled out his knife
and Daddy wraps blankets on his chewed-up daughter

I don't think I've used this song on a mix before? It's nearly made its way onto a few, including the post/apocalyptic mix. I'm glad it finally found a home. I'm not even certain what's going on in the chorus; I've tried googling “pick me up Suzie” and an “Einstein spore” a few times with no luck. I know Nobleford's a small town in Alberta and when I tried searching it in combination with “murder” (checking whether the song is about a specific case) I found an ad for a psychic detective agency, which could make sense and add another layer to the reading that the song's about a forensic investigation, as at least one album reviewer adamantly asserts. I'm mostly including it for the first verse, for the lyrics and the way Keri sings them, which says so much with so little and mashes all my murder ballad buttons, and because it's another dead or dying girl asking her parents for rescue and comfort that she knows won't come in time.

6. "I Will Go Quietly" – Shivaree
I will go quietly, I'll leave my speech
hold down the mystery with a throat full of bleach

A gentle little lullaby that sounds by turns like a plea for life (I won't tell anyone, I promise, just let me go), a reassurance of surrender (I won't fight back, I promise, just get it over with), and a bald statement of fact (I'll never do anything again, I'm dead). I put this one here because it's all about, if not accepting the circumstance of one's immanent demise, then at least resigning to it . . . but then there's that bridge, “I'll stay screaming inside your sleep”, swearing another kind of oath, to not let the addressee ever forget the narrator, and suddenly we're talking about haunting, which is another vital (heh) element of my murder ballad (skip ahead to “Furnace Room Lullaby”, if this is what turns your crank).

7. "Curtain Calls" – Old 97's
on a mountainside, well below the stars
you keep your lovers' eyes in mason jars
and I should be scared but I feel no fear
'cause I'll be leaving soon but tonight I'm here

What's this? Another song about resigning to fate, but this time with a male-gendered narrator and a female-gendered killer? It might be! At least that's how I choose to read the song, based mostly on that quoted verse and the chorus. I pretty much had to include it anyway because both of those things are so rare. I'm not sure I can even think of another song from the POV of a murdered man right now. Maybe Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds' “Night of the Lotus Eaters”? And there's stuff like “Fallen Peaches” by The Handsome Family but that's a soldier killed in war, not the same thing at all. Neither of those really get into the same gendered dimensions of violence as the one-on-one “seduction/abduction -> murder” pattern songs I'm mostly talking about here. I'm probably blanking on something obvious but it's a hard thing to search for. And songs about killers performed by women artists abound, but songs with explicitly female murderers are rarer and most of those are revenge stories or women killing their “competitors” out of jealousy. “To Love Is to Bury” by The Cowboy Junkies is a possible exception, and “Henry Lee” and “The Curse of Millhaven” are obvious ones (the latter doesn't quite fit the murder ballad template as I'm defining it here, though both come from NC&tBS' album by that name), and there's “Love Henry” and “Down by the Water” below . . . Still, the man killer/woman victim structure is so much more common that it effectively defines the murder ballad trope. Plus I just like the sound of this song, which to me sounds very much like participants eroticizing danger, whether or not it's subversive.

8. "Hitchcock Starlet" – HorrorPops
tonight, I'll die in black and white
just like a Hitchcock star

Here's a song that says “to hell with resignation” and actively goes out and makes a date with death. It spotlights one of the more disquieting aspects of songs and other media that dwell on murder: they make it glamorous. This is true even of works that don't paint it as overtly sexy as this and many of the other songs on the list do. I hate to sound like a het-up pearl-clutcher but the media we consume can “give us ideas”, shape our attitudes and desires and eventually our actions. I'm not saying that “violent media” necessarily leads to murder, though I do believe that promulgating dubious consent in media supports rape culture and thereby contributes to rape, but I wonder how any of us can still be surprised when people claim to have done or attempted something violent or dangerous because it was cool or would bring them fame. Also I think the premise of this song could make a fun (roleplay?) scenario, if anyone wants to run with that bunny.

9. "Floorboard Blues" – Cowboy Junkies
check under his floorboards, Mama, I don't like his suggestive tone
the way his words drip from his mouth as he asks, “can I take you home?”

It's interesting to contrast this song with those above: here is a girl who did “know better”, who didn't trust, and who might live to tell the tale, but who will definitely not go quietly. This is Red Riding Hood stopping on the threshold of Grandma's cabin and saying “uh, no”, then booking it for home rather than offering her throat to the wolf with the red roses or waiting for rescue by another potential predator (see “Hunted”, below), but there's still a chance the wolf will run faster. I used the live version for this one because of the audience reaction: the resounding cheer that follows “it's a fucked up world but this old girl, well, she ain't givin' in” that sounds like there's so much more behind it than “woo! swearing!” and the way that one (female-sounding) audience member twice hollers “go Margo” despite the fact that, while the song could never be what it is without Margo Timmins, it's her brother Michael who holds the writing credit on this and every other Cowboy Junkies song in this mix, which . . . says something interesting about expected and “allowable” modes of participation in feminist, anti-violence and anti-gender-oppression projects, I think (and all this after a male-sounding audience member shouts “I love you” and Margo bashfully replies “I don't know what to say to that”). Factor in that this heroine addresses her request for aid to “Mama” rather than “Daddy” and there's fodder for a really interesting analysis of gender and family roles with regard to sanctioned responses to acts of violence as well as of entanglements of gender, activism, and roles/visibility in artistic production.

10. "Where the Wild Roses Grow" – Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds featuring Kylie Minogue
on the third day he took me to the river
he showed me the roses and we kissed
and the last thing I heard was a muttered word
as he knelt above me with a rock in his fist

Transitioning from victims to killers now by way of two truly stellar duets, beginning with the mandatory Nick Cave number. Let's face it, if any living artist deserves the title “murder ballad champion”, it's Cave (my apologies Neko, Timminses)—he has a whole album dedicated to the topic (with a mean mortality rate of 6.4 deaths per song, according to the wikipedia entry!), and dozens more pieces scattered through his discography. I eventually chose to err on the side of under-representation (with the admonition that if you enjoy this list, you really should check him out) because if I succumbed to the temptation to employ Nick on every other track this mix would be over four hours long. I had to include this one, though, not because it's the hit single but because as murder ballads go it's pretty much perfect. The story is classic, of course (this is Cave's take on an archetypal murder ballad template), and the details of both the courtship, as the killer gains Elisa's trust with tenderness in order to lure her to the river bank, and of the murder are deliciously sensual and specific, plus I'm a sucker for threefold repetition and 3/4 time. What really slays me though is the chorus, “they call me the Wild Rose, but my name was Elisa Day/ why they call me it I do not know, for my name was Elisa Day”, an expression of posthumous confusion over more or less the same issue I got sidetracked on with “Winter on the Weekend” above: Elisa Day is forgotten while the the circumstances of her murder, her status as a victim, become legend, or at least gossip. The memory/name recognition issue is rather a big problematic deal with regard to murder as a social phenomenon, especially considering how often fame comes up as a factor in news and fictional media concerning serial killers and celebrity stalker/assassins, where infamy comes at the price of someone elses's life. How many nonfictional murderers or other notorious criminals can you name, and how many victims? The sad truth seems to be that murder victims just don't matter to the public consciousness, except perhaps as statistics or anecdotes if your end was extra gruesome or otherwise atypical, and if your killer is unknown (if you're not trapped in hir shadow even in death, an accessory to hir name), particularly if you're a poor or racialized person or a sex worker, you may as well have never existed at all. Murder ballads, classic and contemporary, may seem to upset this norm in that they tend more often to be named for or at least state the names of victims more often than killers (documented or fictional), but even that's usually in a corpse-fetish kind of way, so *shrug*.

11. "The Circus" – Firewater featuring Jennifer Charles
I remember the angle of your elbow as it doubled back
and the crack of fists across a face
I remember the suck of boots in mud
guttural, sexual, in these clandestine woods

. . . So, um. You know how I've been all blahdyblah finger-wag tl;dr “problematic!” about every song and what I semi-arbitrarily declare that it means or represents so far? Well, I can't do that for this one. It's too sexy (I did tell you that this is a kink for me, right?). I like all these songs, y'know? That's what motivates me to put so much time into analyzing them (for the benefit of no one but me, I'm sure). So what is it about them, and about this one in particular, that gets me purring? For starters there's the sound; I've got a bit of an aural fixation and I respond very strongly to particular instruments (stringsssssssss), rhythms, voices, and other sounds, especially ones with lots of texture (there's probably a better way to describe this but I don't actually know much musical theory stuff). I like artifacts of performance and recording processes, evidence that this is real, people did that. I go all wobbly for emotive voices, when it sounds like a singer (or an actor) is really feeling it, pouring themselves into the action or having it pour through them (Neko is great for this, belting like the feeling's bigger than she is). Tod and Jennifer do some of the sexiest duets on the planet; he growls and she purrs and it sounds rough and dirty and humid and just nnnnnnnnngh . . . melty (see also “Bad, Bad World”, unf!), and together they make a song about a vicious beating, rape, and murder sound like the best kind of dirty talk (also the editing here, layering Tod's voice so that it sounds like there's a bunch of him, pack predators closing in around a lone Jennifer-shaped prey . . . ). Then there are the lyrics. What I love about murder ballads, or what really makes a song a murder ballad for me in the sense I'm giving those words here, is the richness of detail, the specificity and sensuality: sharp flashes of sensory description that let you put yourself there, the banality and horror and the unpredictability of realism, little spins on convention and cliché. Some turns of phrase just bite and sting and snare and linger. I have a particular weakness for lyrics that conjure for me a sense of place, so all the little scene-building here and what that does to establish a certain affect, a temporal and atmospheric feeling, is tingly-making. Obviously the content of the lyrics is important too, and that's what I've been dwelling on more in the preceding discussions and will continue to emphasize. The other thing that permeates these songs, to varying degrees, on most or all of those levels, is the feeling and idea of intimacy . . . but I'll save delving into what that means for a little farther down the list.

12. "Pretty Polly" – The Sadies
Polly, pretty Polly, your guess is about right
I dug up your grave for some part of last night

Of course. This is one of the few traditional songs on this list and one I could never not use. It's archetypal, and it's been passed around so much over the past couple centuries that there are about as many versions as there are performers. I flip-flopped for a long time on whether to use this version or the Ralph Stanley and Patty Loveless duet (the two I had easiest access to at the start), and finally settled on The Sadies because the way they do it's just so cold and to the point: Willie invites Polly into the woods to the grave he has already prepared for her, stabs her, buries her, and leaves, the end. The duet version (here, have a YouTube link, and one for the pretty, spooky Hilarie Burhans solo banjo version from the Deadwood episode “Something Very Expensive”) has all this extra stuff about Willie luring Polly with the promise of marriage/Polly saying she'll only go in the understanding that he'll marry her this time and later that she'd rather be alive and single than a dead bride, and after the murder about Willie going to the jailhouse and confessing that “I killed pretty Polly and tried to get away” (he didn't try very hard? Other variations talk about Willie's debt to the Devil after the murder is done so maybe he was goaded into it by angry spirits). One thing I don't like about The Sadies' version is that they say “places” instead of “pleasure”, which lamentably dilutes the verbal eroticism of the song and obscures the prominent place of slut-shaming/punishing in traditional and contemporary murder ballads: many if not most song victims are killable (both available to kill and morally entitled to die) because they are sexually receptive (or so attractive or provocative that the killers can't control themselves) or careless enough to put themselves in a situation where they may be (raped and) killed (allowing listeners to continue to pretend that this isn't every situation). Polly accepts Willie's invitation to “come along with me”—she's obviously “asking for” whatever she gets and therefore she deserves it. This PISSES ME OFF but when it's in a song that 'works' for me, performed by artists whom I feel puts some measure of indignation into the work, then it also pleases me in that love-to-hate constructive-feeling activist anger burning sort of way (the way we watch and read things for the righteous joy of tearing them apart—oh, irony!). It's important, I think, for contemplating the agency question, that Polly tells Willie that she's scared but keeps following him into the woods, maybe less willingly than before (if she was ever willing; it seems more likely that she was in the duet where her protests come after “he led her over mountains and valleys so deep” rather than right after the “invitation” in the Sadies' variation). Also, I'm sure nobody'll call me on this, but: I put this one with the killer songs even though it's arguably third person (these distinctions break down easily) because even the duet feels more like Willie's story; it starts and ends with him, even if it doesn't ask for our sympathy (Burhans' not so much but I didn't hear it all the way through until quite recently).

13. "Make Your Bed" – Neko Case
oh I'm thick with disease in my madness
only one thought pacifies me:
that the murky black water grinds your bones into sand
when the catfish have stripped off your hide

Oh look, another waltz, and a sweet little lullaby for the girl Neko has just drowned (or forced to drown herself?) after doing the same to her lover. See what I mean about arresting details? This is a great way to cement the transition from victim songs to killer songs, which often (but not always, and sometimes silences are telling too) go deeper into the whys of the encounter, both “why kill?”, and “why her/him/them?” I love how tender this one is, and how frightening in its determination. The murderer is so polite to her captive, calling her “my dear” and promising to “tuck her in” to the river-bed, and so calmly malevolent. She clearly knows her victims, but how well? Was this deadly rendezvous opportunism or a premeditated trap, for one or both of them? The implication is that one of the drowned lovers was the unfaithful partner of the killer, and the discovery of betrayal frothed up a lethal jealousy, but “crime of passion” doesn't quite jive with the delivery. Madness isn't the least bit unusual in murder ballads but it seems rare for the killer to describe herself as mad unless she's blaming the victim for making her that way, which doesn't appear to be the case here. I'm using female pronouns for the killer in this song because it's easy but there's nothing in the song to mark gender any way, and I have another recording of this song where Neko does a vocal fry/chest voice thing, evidently trying to sound dudely, and in either case ze's turned both a male-pronouned person and a female-pronouned person into fish food and we don't know which, if either, broke hir heart, so this is a good one for queering up gender expectations all around.

14. "Arlene" – The Handsome Family
oh, Arlene, in the dark your hair's just as red
and this long, dark cave will always be out wedding bed

I've been more selective in this section than with the victim-POV songs, because I can afford to be: it's much easier to find songs from the POV of the definite or implied murderer or from a third-person witness than from that of the “body”. Still, it's hard to find a killer song more perfect in its simplicity than “Arlene”. It's a great one for getting at the role of obsession and fixation in many murder ballads in this well-worn narrative where the youth and beauty or the vulnerability or in this case the red hair of the victim attract the killer's attention and compel him to take action to possess that attribute and jealously keep it all to himself, destroying it so that no one else may enjoy it or take it away. Staci Newmahr's 2011 book Playing on the Edge: Sadomasochism, Risk, and Intimacy (which I am otherwise hesitant to recommend because it's so disappointingly heteronormative, fat-phobic, ableist, and gender-essentialist, and it clings so feverishly to vanilla privilege in the author's repeated declarations that although she spent years in the pansexual public BDSM scene of a barely disguised major East Coast American city, making friends and playing with participants, she was never—ewwww!—“one of them”) contains in its last chapters a very interesting discussion about intimacy, eroticism, pain, and violence and obstacles that the moral values which adhere to these ideas create for understanding a plethora of social phenomena including BDSM.

Newmahr combats conventional understandings of intimacy as “intrinsically a positive, healthy, good feeling” (168), as a tautologically inherent quality of “intimate relationships” (a conflation of experience and relationships in which it is expected to occur), and as the binary opposite of personal identity in models which seek psychological health of individuals and relationships in a fragile balance between independence and self-disclosure. Instead intimacy, for Newmahr, is about access. Deriving from Latin for “innermost”, it is “constituted by and through access to another's secrets, another's private or new expressions of self, and another's resources” (including hir body) and it is “not necessarily about love, sex, or tenderness” but about exposing to/in another person “emotional and physical experiences . . . that we consider inaccessible to most people” (171). Because we understand these experiences as distinguishing certain relationships from others, intimacy occurs “anywhere that people experience each other differently enough than other people experience them” (172; Newmahr's emphasis) and access therefore has an intrinsic competitive dimension (I know something about you that others don't: I win). Because of the positive moral weight attached to intimacy (in moderate quantities), we tend to reject intimacy experienced in relationships which later result in betrayed trust as inauthentic, “false”, the same way we reject unwelcomed, negative-feeling sex/eroticism as “not really” sex/erotic and sought, positive-feeling pain/violence as “not really” painful/violent. But eroticism and violence are both ontologically intimate (truly, because intimacy cannot be false) when intimacy is understood as a social situation based in interpersonal access: normative sexuality is bound up in ideas about access (who gets to do what with whom, when, and where) and many kinds of kink are also about granting or gaining access to the normally inaccessible (feet, blood, feelings of humiliation, the colon), while interpersonal violence forces access (usually) non-consensually by transgressing social and material boundaries.

Consent is important, as always, as is trust. We call the flip-side of warm-fuzzy welcomed intimacy, the experience of non-consensual access, violation, and whether we feel ourselves violated in body or in personhood we also experience violation of trust, whether “in humanity, or in a particular person, [or] in our own ability to assess situations, to judge others correctly, to prevent the violation or to escape from it” (177). Violators may still experience positive feelings of connecting and knowing associated with gaining access while people whose boundaries have been breached generally do not, but the encounter was not conceptually less intimate (another way to spin this is to call intimacy the appreciation of boundary transgression, and violation its absence). The conditions for both intimacy and violation are risk and trust: entering a situation where boundaries are transgressable, where betrayal may occur (granting access or the potential for it, which is already a kind of access), in the trust that it will not.

Murder, in this case (as a social interaction where someone kills someone else in their physical presence—the reason I'm not talking about assassinations, executions, or sending others to die in this mix) is possibly the act of ultimate intimacy:
For the murderer, the infliction of death grants access to an experience that cannot be replicated in another moment, or with another person; no one else has ever witnessed the same expression on the victim's face, heard him draw his last breath, or watched the life leave her eyes. Simultaneously, the murderer eliminates the potential for future access to any other aspects of self; no one will see any expression on the victim's face again. Murder grants the murderer the ultimate access to the self of another, in the very same moment in which it is destroyed.

The victim shares with her killer the same intimacy; a particular experience that she can only have once, with only the person (or people) present in this moment, and after which she will have no other. Her murder grants her access to the self of the murderer that is normally restricted—even in the case of serial killers, the vast majority of people do not know this aspect of the murderer's self and do not see him in these moments. Those who have seen him in these moments are likely no longer alive; the victim is the only person alive with direct, lived, felt access to these aspects of the murderer's self. [176]
The narrator here decides to “marry” Arlene by breaking into her house, hauling her off to a dark cave, where no one else will be able to see the redness of her hair, and bludgeoning her to death with a stick, and it's intimate at every step. (This idea is also dissected from the POV of the technically consenting murderee in “Love”, a story in Midori's envelope-pushing 2006 Tokyo-set cyberpunk kink porn anthology Master Han's Daughter in which the narrator undergoes a series of medically unnecessary surgeries for the pleasure of her sadistic Master and finally gives up cognition as a gesture of ultimate submission.)

15. "Working for the Man" – PJ Harvey
going around I'm doing good
get my strength from the man above

The model of intimacy as access is useful I think for identifying what listeners (and probably performers) get out of murder ballads (the doubly twisted thrill of peaking scopophilically in on someone else's intimate moment and of living vicariously through a terminally taboo “exchange” like a hit of secondhand epinephrine) as well as what killers do. In just about every song I can think of where any kind of motivation or explanation is provided for the killer's actions, that motivation can be parsed as an issue of access and control. Whether it's for the pure power rush, being able to do whatever you want, or more acutely to prevent, stop, or punish an individual person or category of people from/for “sharing favours” (sexual, affectionate, attentive) with someone specific/everyone except the killer/anyone including the killer, out of jealousy or a sense of moral righteousness (in this case, because god told you to do it), access drives the engine. And especially in cases like this, where the killer is “doing good” by cleaning up those dirty sinners who ask for trouble by getting in the killer's car, the public outcry is often minimal: they obviously deserved it because granting access for one kind of (sexual or pseudo-sexual) intimacy on one occasion with one partner automatically grants blanket access for everything/one else, right?

16. "Margaret in Captivity" – The Decemberists
don't hold out for rescue, none can hear your call
'till I have wrest and wrecked you behind these fortress walls

I actually didn't add any Decemberists to this list until after [personal profile] toft asked me if I had, so you can thank her for this one. They do a lot of neat, dark, distinctive stuff, The Decemberists, but to my knowledge their best and purest murder ballads are all huge sprawling multi-part rock opera pieces (I am thinking specifically of “The Island: Come and See/The Landlord's Daughter/You'll Not Feel the Drowning” and The Tain). I decided that one of those would break up the pace of the mix too much, so have a gentle little pre-murder interlude between the gloating Rake (who has no aspiration towards righteousness) and his kidnapped prize instead. This album, The Hazards of Love, is an even huger more sprawling multi-part rock opera piece but with track breaks, a murder ballad stretched out and broken up into pieces so that it was tough to decide which best fit with my project (and I'm putting this with killer songs, not duets, because Margaret really doesn't get to do much but sound pretty and helpless while all agency lies with The Rake).

17."Furnace Room Lullaby" – Neko Case & Her Boyfriends
I twisted you over and under to take you
the coals went so wild as they swallowed the rest

A haunted and haunting musical riff on the theme of “The Telltale Heart”, and the song that got me hooked on Neko Case. As much as I have tried generally to avoid posthumous revenge, spirits speaking through musical instruments constructed out of bits of their corpses and sinking the ships on which their killers sail etc., and other overt supernatural penetrations in selecting the songs for this mix, the ghosts do creep in, inevitably, when you curate a collection with songs about the post-murder subjectivity of either victims or killers. The ghost is the trace, the scar, the echo, the powder-burn, the stain of what has happened, a point of intersection between visibility and invisibility—not the thing but its index, soot without fire, manifest absence. It lingers, festers, refuses to be conveniently forgotten. It doesn't really matter, at this point, whether the haunting is framed or perceived as an agency, the incorporeal extension of the sentience of a no longer living person, or as an itching abscess on the memory of someone who survives them; the phenomenon of perceiving something in or by its non-presence is real and disquieting nonetheless (you know the feeling I'm talking about).

18. "Down by the Water" – PJ Harvey
little fish, big fish, swimming in the water
come back here, man, give me my daughter

I could erect a strawman about how it is the killer who suffers the consequences of her actions, who has to carry the burden of memory of that life-changing intimate moment, because the other pole of the dyad obviously cannot, but . . . no. No boo-hoos for the poor ickle murderer, not even as a set-up to knock down. The killer may very well feel bad about what they've done and experience misfortune of their own both before and after the murder and they may feel that killing was absolutely necessary and warranted (I read somewhere that this one is, according to Harvey, about a woman drowning her daughter, and she evidently felt very strongly about the need to do it), I'm not denying it. The murderers in these songs may indeed suffer but they are not “the real victims” and perpetuating established modes of storytelling where killers get glory and victims get forgotten concurrently perpetuates institutional modes of hegemonic erasure. Intention matters, apologies matter, but they don't undo harm done.

19. "The Dirt Is Your Lover Now" – Thea Gilmore
and outside the all-night in an orchestra of rain
you fell in love with a hurricane

That's it for straight-up killer songs for now; we're taking a detour through revenge and fugitive outlaws as we transition to mostly third-person narrator songs and using this piece as a pivot point because it says a few very different things depending on how you read the narrator's relationship and attitude towards the victim and the “shaking fingers”. Does the narrator blame and shame the victim for getting killed, in the grand tradition of “you should have known better”? Are the lines about “[falling] in love with a hurricane” and “[proposing] to the bedrock on your way underground” digs, attacking the victim for promiscuity or for giving hir heart away too easily? Is the narrator in fact the killer? Or does the narrator resent the heckling crowd for allowing hir loved one to die and for their subsequent titillated gossip?

20. "Hunted" – Cowboy Junkies
“just one question I'm dying to ask,” you said
“do you know what it's like to be hunted?”

In case I've been too subtle up to this point in asserting that we are socialized into a paradigm of enforced, normative gender violence in which, among other unpleasant and occasionally contradictory biopolitical regulatory practices, women are conditioned to live in fear of sexual or lethal assault by men who are encouraged to prove their entitlement to privileges of masculinity by doing or joking about violative, agency-denying power-over things and people with more complicated gender histories tend to get stuck with the worst of both worlds, well, read this sentence over again starting with “we are socialized” and proceeding up to “worlds”. Some days the line about trap lines and wire snares hardly feels like an exaggeration, with all the pressure leaning in on us to make coercion easy and consent hard, this poisonous “battle of the sexes” rhetoric and all the metaphors drawn from games in which one party has to lose so that another may win. It's gross, and it doesn't sound like that much fun for anybody. The line about inviting a strange man into your home because he's carrying a gun is especially potent, given the role that law enforcement and linked institutions play in promoting secondary victimization (and I don't find it at all surprising that it was an incident like this [and at a university where one of the first jokes you hear when you enroll is that the new school year hasn't officially started until there's been at least one rape in the library] that finally ignited the gargantuan well of frustration and justified anger that fuel the globe-sweeping SlutWalk movement, which I heartily support) and the diseased workplace culture of power corrupting that saturates many if not all of the world's police forces including the Toronto Police ~Service~. Guess what, everyone who tries to tell anyone else how not to get raped/abducted/murdered—no matter what you say, no matter what we do, it still happens and it will keep happening until we manage to change the cultural script to match the reality that the responsibility to prevent rape lies with the rapist, and it will never, ever, be “the victim's fault”. In the meantime, where it looks like justice is a long way off, I have a hard time resenting the desire for vengeance and admit a certain low-burning affection for revenge narratives (preferably with a focus on the revenge rather than an exploitatively fetishistic dwelling on the aggravating assault and where the wronged parties themselves get satisfaction rather than having their pain appropriated by men so that those men can have adventures and cry and pretend they're the ones most hurt by this event), and that's what I kinda hear in the denouement of this song, Margo's insistent and intonation-experimental repetition of the question “do you know what it's like to be hunted?”—a warning that you might be about to find out (note: I am NOT IN FAVOUR of threatening rape as a punishment for rape, the logic of “eye for an eye” makes me generally uncomfortable and the “joke”/advice that the reason dudes should not rape chicks is because it will lead to them getting raped by other dudes in prison makes me want to scream and puke and kick things, but I am human and every once in a while I succumb to the guilty pleasure of pretending the world is fair and people who do wrong will get their comeuppance).

21. "Gasoline" – Nathan
where you ended I'll pick up, onwards to Tuktoyaktuk
about as north as you can drive before you drop

I love this song so hard! It's exactly the kind of revenge narrative I enjoy, and I find it in every detail believable and sympathetic. The verse about the relationship's slide into abuse, “down it goes from there on in/ I'm a sucker for attention when/ it revs up to me wheeling like a screech/ but by degrees his grip got tight/ suspicion turned his knuckles white/ had to drive them in my face to find relief” gets right under my skin and makes me shiver, and I'll confess to admiring the narrator's grit stealing her dead trucker's vehicle for her getaway, maybe even completing his delivery in the process? I also can't help but wonder if the chorus's “a brand new name, haircut, hell make me a blonde/ if it'll blend me in” has additional meaning for singer/writer Keri Latimer who is to my knowledge the only lead vocalist of colour on this list (an unfortunate consequence of genre bias), daughter of Scottish and Japanese parents who grew up, iirc, in some of the most endemically racist and xenophobic territory in Canada (suburban Calgary and rural Alberta).

22. "Thelma and Louise" – HorrorPops
fears left behind, girls on a ride
no truce, just like Thelma and Louise

Know what else is sexy and thrilling and glamorously dangerous/dangerously glamourous, besides dying beautifully young and tragic and being driven beyond reason with the desire to gain intimate access? Outlaws. Renegades on the lam living more in each breath they draw before sailing off a cliff or bursting into red mist in a hail of bullets than you have in your entire safe and sedentary life. No small fraction of outlaw stories begin or cross Rubicon with murder, and there's the extra romance of fugitive duos and gangs bonded co-dependently by peril (and by their intimate access to one another in moments of peril). Highways are also a recurring theme in murder ballads, broadly, and appropriately so in their enterprise as liminal spaces, existing in the interstices and granting passage between home and elsewhere, safety and adventure, life and death, and so on.

23. "Bonnie & Clyde II" – Martina Sorbara
we'll drive like bandits on the Queensway
we'll hold hands like in the movies
I'll say “oh Clyde, you drive me crazy”
you'll just capture me like it was armed robbery

Another bandits-on-the-run (or feeling like it) song, this one a little mellower and set in my approximate nowadays neck of the woods. I'm also a fan of references and literary and pop culture awareness on the part of characters in the media I consume, so I appreciate the characters in this song and the last one framing their experiences in terms of established (movie) outlaw stories.

24. "Clay Pigeons" – Collapsis
we could make a killing, just you, your gun and me
silly boy, don't stop me now, I think we're on a spree

Comes from a movie of the same name and carries the subtitle “The Ballad of Lester Long”. Clay Pigeons-the-movie is . . . special. The soundtrack is very strong (it's where I first encountered Firewater!); it's spectacularly slashy; the FBI agents (Janeane Garofalo and Phil Morris) are rather great; and it's full of pretty scenery shots. On the other hand there's enough sex and violence (mostly against women) for me to call it gratuitous or at least sensationalist and Agents Shelby and Renard (yes it's an X-Files gag) and the town sheriff are really the only characters I find at all likable. On balance it's still pretty fun, but caveat spectator. It's a dark comedy set in rural Montana about a dude named Clay (Joaquin Phoenix) with terrible luck/taste in friends, insofar as they keep killing people and manipulating him into covering it up. The song is essentially an even queerer (how is this possible, I don't know) summary of the story, in the approximate form of a love letter from “Lester” (Vince Vaughn) to Clay, skewing somewhat AU from implied post-movie events. Cheesy, yes, but I know of nothing else quite like it.

25. "Bang Bang!" – The Metasciences
they tried to get away but they knew it was too late
a perfect end to a perfect evening, what an awful date

A charming outgrowth of the folk wisdom that real friends will help you move bodies, this quirky little number both rounds out the outlaw fugitive portion of the list and introduces a short run of exceptions to the “humans doing bad things to humans with no supernatural retribution” rule, at least according to my reading of the brake failure that sends murderer and friend off the cliff as a “mysterious accident” as suspiciously coincidental as the ship sinking in “The House Carpenter”. *shrug* It's The Metasciences. They do (did?) adorkable geek-folk. I actually rather like the friend who is all “this is fucked” but goes along to the cliff anyway, and the fact that this is as much a song about (dysfunctional) friendship as it is about murder and karmic revenge.

26. "The Sad Sssad Story of Rosa Rabbit and Sasha Snake" – Wendy McNeill
as she hugged him goodbye they both started to cry
so he held her tighter

This song is amazing, basically; it's like if Beatrix Potter wrote a tragedy about partner violence, in waltz form, with accordions. I love that, as a story about talking animals, it doesn't disregard biological and ethological facts but rather weaves them together with anthropomorphic motives to drive the plot. Rosa—who is possibly not a rabbit but a snowshoe hare?—has to break her promise not to leave Sasha in order to migrate for the winter, while his response to cooler weather is to hole up at home, and he reacts to her attempting to leave by getting, quite literally, smothery. I recognize that it's just a somewhat melodramatic song about a dead bunny, but I find the particulars of the story poignant and maybe disproportionately empathetic.

27. "Love Henry" – Jolie Holland
“oh I can't fly down and I won't fly down and light on your right knee
a girl who'd murder her own true love would kill a little bird like me”

Can you tell that I'm getting as tired of writing these “analyses” as you are of reading them? I want this thing to be done and postable. This is, I think, the only other traditional murder ballad on the list, and it also features a talking animal but this time it's one that's recognized as “speaking human” (though this one is more articulate than most). It's also one of those folk songs where people's actions make no sense—you bribe him to stay with you; he rejects your affection but lies down with you anyway; you stab him then beg him to get better; when he dies you throw his corpse in the well and curse him; and then you notice that your parrot has been watching the whole debacle, what? I'll give the parrot credit for not taking her bait, anyway.

28. "Water to Sky" – Thea Gilmore
they dragged her out to the lakeside stones
take her to the frozen earth, God

Pretty as a lullaby with a dusty Southern gospel flavour, here's a prayer for an outsider attacked by a “they” (pack or mob, it's unclear) and left in a lake. The pub chatter that fades up in the background is a neat touch, I think, especially as I can't make out anything they're saying; it lends an interesting “alone in a crowd” feeling to the narrator's bittersweet contemplation (as with “The Dirt Is Your Lover Now”, I have trouble deciding how the narrator actually feels about the story told and the people in it).

29. "Crosses" – Dan Bern
flowers of yellow and purple they mesmerize you
keep your eyes open and lock all your doors

As I mentioned earlier regarding “The Circus”, and it's cropped a few other places, part of what makes a murder ballad work for me is the specificity and sensuality of detail and particularly scene-building details that conjure a sense of place (The Handsome Family are great for this, btw; try “Far from Any Road” for a taste of what might happen if you stray from the relative safety of the tarmac in the same terrain that “Crosses” visits, though their work is so visual that easily half their songs immediately put the attentive listener “there”, in one place or another). Some places appear more often than others; notice the prevalence of highways, truck stops, forests, caves, isolated or abandoned houses and particularly the subterranean parts of same, and water in many shapes or speeds, rivers, lakes, wells, and their environs . . . murder seems to just come with the territory. Here it is a particular highway, or universal ever-moving Highway pausing in a particular brimming/barren country, desert, bad-lands, specifically the desert of the North American Southwest, and though no murder “happens” in this song onscreen as it were, it's still there, staining the clouds and perfuming the wind. Death lives here. (No wonder this is such a popular setting for 'murder ballad' movies, either.)

30. "Maybe" – Julia Stone
maybe she got what she came for
laying naked on the pine floor
lonely we dance around the dying
maybe she got what she came for

A creepy, melancholy lull (catch your breath, it's nearly over) that maybe raises the “asking for it” question more explicitly than “Winter on the Weekend” but otherwise works better thematically here, at the end (there's also the acoustic possibility that the “she” in question did get what she came for, on some level?). This song speaks for itself better than I can. The album art for The Memory Machine is remarkable in its own right; there's a vintage movie poster-style painting for each track, with lyrical scraps incorporated as tag lines and details like tiny film ratings board labels and award laurels from imaginary festivals. The “poster” for “Winter on the Weekend” includes a written warning (which goes here because I say so that text block is already very long it applies at least as well here as it does there): “this film contains scenes which are considered shocking. no one should be afraid though as most things in life are shocking & strange & it is a good way to grow”.

31. "Murder, Tonight, in the Trailer Park" – Cowboy Junkies
homicide is tying yellow ribbons around her silver Airstream
red cherries slashing up the night, cutting through that cordoned crime scene

Yep.

32. "Deep Red Bells" – Neko Case
it always has to come to this
the red bells ring this tragic hour
you've lost sight of the overpass
but daylight won't remember that

And Neko brings us home, or rather refuses to take us home but leaves us at the dump site of yet another highway casualty who died because no one could not be arsed to stop the killer. The song is inspired by Ms. Case's youth in Washington and B.C. during the active years of serial killers Gary Ridgway and Robert Pickton (among others—it's apparently a very popular sport in the region), each of whom were responsible for the murders of dozens of women and who were allowed to operate for as long as they did because their victims were mostly sex workers and runaways (and in Pickton's case at least many were First Nations), so they pretty much had it coming, right? (As the song asks, “where does this mean world cast its cold eye? who's left to suffer long about you?”) I feel like a creep for saying this, knowing that both the existence of this work of art and my enjoyment of it were made possible by the actual deaths of actual people, but every line of every verse of this song is a morbid treasure. It's all here: the intimacy of the act of ultimate access; the sensuality and specificity of detail; the delicious tang of fear; the liminal world of the highway and its bordering ecosystems; the terrible threat of being twice lost, dead and forgotten, and the ghost's promise to persist through both; and the thrill and risk of going up to that edge, looking into that darkness, where the red bells ring like thunder.

Thank you for your patience. Take care, and try not to murder anybody.
isagel: (dw cage)

From: [personal profile] isagel


Oooooh, this looks awesome! Downloading. Thank you for making and sharing. :D
suzume: This is a parody of Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind featuring Sasarai from the Suikoden series (How artful!)

From: [personal profile] suzume


Fascinating and awesome. I downloaded your mix last night and I am just listening to the last song now (oh how I love Neko Case). Thank you very much for taking the trouble to make and share this!
amor_remanet: (pic#4827101)

From: [personal profile] amor_remanet


*comes to the party two years late with Starbucks* oh my gosh, so. I found this mix trawling through the fanmix tag at kink bingo and your meta/analyses for all the songs are absolutely enthralling. I was just wondering if you still have the zip file, though? And if you do, would you mind reuploading it? The 4shared link seems to be broken.
kore: (Orpheus & Eurydice)

From: [personal profile] kore


HOW did I miss this earlier? I love murder ballad mixes. Thank you!
.

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