As a nation, we Americans are still in mourning over the horrific massacre of 26 people (including 20 first-graders) at Sandy Hook Elementary school in Newtown, CT last Friday. The repercussions can be felt almost everywhere, including on the radio airwaves.
Perhaps as an attempt to be sensitive to a public audience still reeling from the shock, as Spin Magazine reports, many radio stations have pulled Ke$ha’s hit single “Die Young” from their rotations, causing an 11-percent drop in airplay from last week. Gone also from many playlists is Foster the People’s 2010 hit “Pumped Up Kicks,” a song about the murderous thoughts of a troubled teen.
Aware of the negative context in which her song is now placed, Ke$ha responded with an apologetic Tweet: “I’m so sorry for anyone who has been effected [sic] by this tragedy. and I understand why my song is now inappropriate. words cannot express.” Apparently, an earlier attempt at damage control was quickly deleted from the singer’s Twitter account, in which Billboard reports she claims she had an “issue” with “Die Young” but was “forced” to sing it.
Sensitivity is certainly a legitimate factor during times like these, and when artists fail to exercise sensitivity, it can come back to bite them. A perfect example of this is when Madonna reportedly simulated firing a gun at her audience in Denver hot on the heels of the Aurora theater shooting. It simply makes sense to take context into account and to consider the appropriateness of the moment.
At the same time, it should be mentioned that sensitivity can be taken to the point of misplaced blame and scapegoat-hunting. Simply put, when something this bad happens, we naturally want to find something to blame, and it’s easy to blame the wrong thing or person. In the case of mass shootings like this, debates about gun control and flaws in the mental health system are inevitably rekindled—but then there is also the tendency to place blame on violence in the media (i.e., movies, video games, and yes, even music), as though these things actually provoke this type of behavior. And that presents us with a very grey area, bringing up the inevitable chicken-or-egg question: does media actually promote bad thought and behavior, or does it merely reflect it?
Take, for example, Foster the People’s “Pumped Up Kicks.” While it’s completely understandable that this song is currently off the airwaves because people’s wounds are so fresh, it would be a major stretch to blame school shootings on this song. According to frontman Mark Foster, who wrote the song, “Pumped Up Kicks” was actually written to expose the issue of violence among youth, not encourage it. One of the band mates even has a relative who survived the 1999 Columbine shooting, so the song has a very relevant meaning for the band. Yet they have had to continually defend the song against critics who claim it carries the exact opposite message of its original intent.
Then there’s the recent hit “Die Young.” While the message of this song is far from upright, in all fairness, it is a party song, having nothing to do with the killing of young children. To pull this song from playlists because the phrase “die young” hits a sore spot right now is certainly understandable. But to forever place a stigma on this song because of it would be misplaced blame.
Then, of course, there is the question of specific genres in which violent speech is a continual staple, like death metal or gangsta rap. Marilyn Manson, for example, was prompted to write an essay about his take on violence because his music was wrongfully associated with the Columbine massacre—not because Manson ever encouraged such behavior, but because the shooters were dressed in black.
So what do we make of it? Does violence in music, movies and games promote violence in the real world? Or is it a reflection of the violence that already exists around us? I suppose arguments can be made on both sides. I can certainly see how a violent scene portrayed in a movie or song could place an idea in the head of an already troubled youngster. At the same time, I know people personally who have had violent pasts and were abused as children, for whom violence in music and movies are actually tame. These people listen to violent music as a cathartic experience to diffuse the anger in their souls. These are actually some of the most peaceful people I know. The music seems to provide an outlet for them to direct their inner violence in such a way that they do not act out in real life. So you can actually see it both ways.
For what it’s worth, to lend a little perspective, even the media has admitted that mass violence is not actually on the rise; we just hear about it more in an age of instant information. We also apparently have short-term memories. While the Sandy Hook tragedy has been touted as one of the worst massacres in our history, very few people are even aware of what happened in Bath, Michigan in 1927, when a madman set off several explosions at an elementary school, killing 38 children, himself, his wife, and injuring many others in the process. This was no less horrific for the people who experienced it, yet most of the world never knew it happened, mainly because it happened in 1927, not 2012.
The horrors that took place at Sandy Hook have filled us collectively with an abundance of emotions: grief, empathy, shock, and a very righteous anger. It is something that will take us a long time to recover from, and many of us never will. Our hearts go out to those who have suffered loss, because we are connected, and their loss is our loss. It should be emphasized that these remarks are not intended as either a defense or condemnation of violence in the media, nor are they intended to downplay the magnitude of what happened. These are just questions, more than anything else, as we all try to make sense of what happened and ask what could have prevented it.
At the same time, it’s important to remember that placing blame wrongfully is not going to make anything better; it will only hurt more people who don’t deserve to be hurt. If certain songs need to be taken off the airwaves for now for the common good, I’m all for it; but I wouldn’t want to see these artists bear the brunt in the long term for a horrific act they had nothing to do with, and would never have promoted. At the end of the day, we need to remember that the one to blame is the one who committed this atrocity.