Songs You Probably Didn’t Realize Are About Dark Things

Mind=blown.

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The clock at Grand Central Terminal waits for nobody.

“Blown Away,” Carrie Underwood. What it’s about: In this song from Underwood’s album of the same name, the story centers around a girl with a dead mother and an abusive, alcoholic father. When a tornado hits their Oklahoma home, the girl leaves her passed-out father as she locks herself in the storm shelter. We can assume that he is destroyed when the twister rips through the house. Ouch!

“Unworthy of Your Love,” Stephen Sondheim. What it’s about: At first glance, this number from the Broadway show Assassins sounds like a standard, beautiful love ballad. But it takes on an entirely different tone when you realize it’s being sung by Squeaky Fromme and John Hinckley- a wannabe Manson follower and Jodie Foster’s stalker, respectively. These two also attempted to assassinate U.S. Presidents in an effort to win their beloved’s attention. Now that’s what I call tainted love!

“I Don’t Like Mondays,” The Boomtown Rats. What it’s about: This staple rock song is deceptively catchy for such dark lyrical inspiration. The title comes from a quote by Brenda Ann Spencer, a troubled teen who was asked why she sniped ten people in a playground (two died). Though composer Bob Geldof received some flack for allegedly “exploiting a tragedy,” which he denies, the record became the Boomtown Rats’ biggest hit.

“Pumped Up Kicks,” Foster the People. What it’s about: In a similar vein, the earworm-worthy hook of this band’s debut single masks some morbid subject matter. When closely listening to the lyrics, it becomes clear that the song is about a school shooter, in the vein of Columbine. “Pumped up kicks” refer to the designer shoes worn by the narrator’s intended victims. The lead singer, Mark Foster, said that he wrote the piece to raise awareness for teen mental illness.

“Sweet Painted Lady,” Elton John. What it’s about: A majority of the tracks from Elton John’s smash Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album manage to be incredibly fun while telling some grim tales. In this slow, sea-soaked jam, a sailor sings of the prostitute he’s hired for the night and wonders how she feels about the life she leads. With its thoughtful lyrics by Bernie Taupin, the song achieves a certain poignancy.

“At the Ballet,” Marvin Hamlisch. What it’s about: This number from A Chorus Line is a semi-torch song for a trio of women. Typically sung by soubrettes, it conveys three distinct dramas that have something in common: their heroines all found relief when they went to the ballet. Sheila’s parents had a loveless marriage, Bebe’s mother made her feel unattractive, and Maggie’s father was absent entirely. Audiences who get lost in the glitter of the show tend to forget the inherent sadness of this scene.

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On Writers and their Dark Sides

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Recently, I read a forum member’s assessment of the new play being presented by MCC Theater: Yen. Their description was as follows:

It’s a stellar production of a disturbing, twisted, and dark play… there are no physical effects or vampires to be found here. It is a raw, animalistic portrayal of 4 characters who cannot love themselves, and are doomed from the start…recommended, but not for the faint of heart.

As I read such an evaluation, I am reminded of works like The Pillowman or even Desire Under the Elms. These are not mere tragedies…these are dark, sword-of-Damocles stories that go beyond the unspeakable side of life. As a reader, I stay away from this kind of lachrymose literature. As a writer, I marvel (is it a form of admiration?) at these other authors’ guts. Where do they come up with these plot points? How is it that they can reach into the darkest depths of their hearts to tell such grim tales?

Jeez Louise. I can’t help but wonder how some playwrights are able to dig into the darkest parts of their souls to come up with such twisted elements. Hell, I had to write a MODERATELY political ONE-ACT last weekend and could barely stand it. I simply do not have the fortitude to stir the pot in this manner. I’m all for making people think and feel through art. But a part of me truly believes that shock value or “wrist-cutting theatre,” as I’ve heard it called, is not the most effective channel to use.

Yes, I know that Shakespeare and Greek tragedians were among the pioneers of this genre. Their plays were chock full of bloodshed and sometimes graphic monologues on how the bloodshed occurred. Shakespeare’s descendants in writing modified these aspects to reflect an ever-evolving world. And they make for compelling, emotional evenings of theatre. I get it.

But at the same time, I surmise that there is a certain “breaking point” of bleakness that nullifies what these playwrights aim to do with their work. We all want to change the world with our art, but audiences can only be pushed so far. They will go from a place of determination to one of despair. And, in many cases, despair manifests as inaction. You get this feeling of, “What is the point?”

When I write, I’m not afraid to include some death or melancholy- of course. Yet I also try to maintain a balance between that stuff and a sentiment of redemption. After all, before anyone can strive for goodness, they must be reminded that goodness still exists. Am I making sense here…?