I don’t generally listen to the radio other than WYEP anymore, now that we have iPods and Pandora internet radio. So, while I generally know who Katy Perry, Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga are (and know that I don’t like them), I’m not very up on what’s “hip music” for teenagers right now.
Completely by accident this week, I heard a song by Bruno Mars called “Grenade.” My 14-year-old son calls it “catchy but kind of messed up.” I call it sick. Though, I’m not going to say that my generation didn’t also have its share of songs about being willing to die for a paramour.
In 1984 (when I was 14, my son’s age), Prince’s “Purple Rain” was amazing. One of the singles from that, shown in the movie of the same name, was “I Would Die 4 U.” Prince talks about himself enigmatically. He knows the girl has a bad reputation, but he loves her anyway. The purpose of the song is to say that while he is a mysterious person, and this might confuse his beloved, he wants to reassure her of his extremely deep love.
In the movie version, he accompanies the song with a gesture that implies a gun to his head. I don’t think any of us at the time thought of that as extreme but just motions in a dance. Looking back on it, I guess it could have been thought of by some as disturbing, but we didn’t really think about it because we were just dancing along with the video on MTV.
Then, in 1986 (when I was 16, my daughter’s age), Bon Jovi had a song on “Slippery When Wet” called “I’d Die For You,” in which he compares his relationship with his beloved to that of Shakespeare’s classic play Romeo and Juliet. (Jon Bon Jovi seems to have forgotten that the play didn’t exactly end well. He’s a cutie but never struck me as the sharpest knife in the drawer.)
In both of these cases, you have men singing songs to woo a woman, and both videos were arena concert footage. The songs are not so much about the women, but about the men and who they are, how they feel. The only description of a woman is when Prince refers to his girl as having a bad reputation, but that he’ll love her anyway. That’s big of him.
The Bruno Mars song, “Grenade,” released September 28, 2010, is a far cry from these, in my book. Mars offers to catch a grenade, slit his own throat with a knife, shoot himself in the head, and jump in front of a train. He berates the woman, but also criticizes her for being unwilling to do all the same things he just mentioned, to prove her love to him. The video also shows, among other things, gang violence.
Yes, when I was a teenager, we had a couple songs about being willing to die for love. However, I can’t remember any that actually offered graphic examples spelling out how to die. At a purely rational level, what the heck is wrong with Bruno Mars that he thinks badly of this girl but is still willing to harm himself to prove something to her? He needs psychological help. Critics have called this song “deeply personal.” My description is “deeply irresponsible.” When I looked up the release date of Mars’ song for this article, I realized a disturbing coincidence.
“Grenade,” was released on September 28, 2010. On the morning of October 21 that same year, 19-year-old Joe Gray was fatally hit by a train across the street from my house. I remember that morning very clearly because I was leaving for class, and the train whistles shook our whole house. Edgewood Police Chief Bobby Payne told WTAE-TV, “He had an iPod and we found some ear plugs near the front of the train. So, it's a possibility he was walking along the tracks listening to his iPod." Sounds that were loud enough to shake my house, across the street, would definitely have been heard by a kid, on the tracks, regardless of the volume of the iPod.
I hope the death of Joe Gray was simply an unfortunate accident, and my heart goes out to his friends and family as the anniversary of his death approaches. But hearing this song, about “I’d jump in front of train for ya,” and realizing the song was released just three weeks before this tragedy, gives me great pause.
“Grenade” has made me realize that as much as I might dislike Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber et all, I need to be paying more attention to what my teenagers are listening to, if only to talk through the messages of these songs and make sure they understand the wrongheaded unhealthiness in some of this music.