Are you convinced that all pop songs are about love, sex, money and… sex? Well think again – some of the world’s greatest artists have a dark side and aren’t afraid of getting in touch with it. It’s Halloween and if you’ve had enough of listening to Ghostbusters’ theme song or stuffing your face with E133-laced candy, then take a trip down the real gloomy lane with 5 songs about murder.
1. Eminem – Stan
‘Stan’ is the third single featured on The Marshall Mathers LP released in 2002. It tells the tale of an obsessed fan who sends tons of raving fan mail to Slim Shady (Eminem’s alter-ego). When Slim fails to reply to his letters, Stan goes haywire and records an audiotape of him driving off a bridge with his heavily pregnant girlfriend (played by Dido who features in the video and song) held captive in the trunk of the car. In the meantime, Slim had actually started writing a reply-letter to Stan. Ironic and bleak as f***.
Stan remained Eminem’s best concept song until he released his controversial single “Darkness” in 2020. In the track, the rapper sings from the point of view of mass murderer Stephen Paddock, who was responsible for the 2017 Las Vegas shooting that left 58 people dead. The music video concludes with Eminem urging fans to help change America’s gun laws.
2. Bob Marley – I Shot The Sheriff
The legendary 1973 reggae hit seems pretty straightforward; it’s about a man who “shot the Sheriff but he didn’t shoot the deputy”. The narrator claims to have acted in self-defense against the sheriff, but according to Marley’s former girlfriend Esther Anderson, the song has nothing to do with justice or politics. Anderson claims the lyrics are actually about Marley being opposed to her use of birth control pills at the time, and the sheriff was the doctor prescribing them.
3. Queen – Bohemian Rhapsody
This apparently uplifting golden oldie and one of the greatest songs of all time is actually a song about death. Underneath the epic harmonies and karaoke friendly lyrics that get drunk people at parties swaying arm in arm, is a song about a young man who snuffs someone by putting a bullet through his head. Still feel like chanting “nothing really matters”?
4. Sufjan Stevens – John Wayne Gacy, Jr
The song ‘John Wayne Gacy, Jr’ appears in Sufjan Steven’s album Illinois, a concept album, which describes Illinois from a historical, cultural, and personal point of view. So why write a song about America’s most notorious serial killer who raped and strangled 33 teenage boys between 1972 and 1978?
Gacy’s heinous method of hiding the corpses under the floorboards of his home while functioning ‘normally’ in society, even attending neighborhood events dressed as a clown, has inspired authors like Stephen King who published his horror novel, IT in 1986. The answer is Gacy, Jr. was from Illinois and Stevens wanted to highlight America’s morbid fascination with serial killers (the US produces 85% of the world’s mass murderers).
However, the songwriter does not portray Gacy as the gruesome clown. Instead, Stevens subtly relates to Gacy. Of course, he doesn’t forgive or justify his actions but finds elements that make him humanly relatable to the killer. Creepy, but also makes the point of looking beyond the monstrous figure to understand the human being.
5. The Smiths – Suffer Little Children
If you grew up in England, you will have heard about the Moors Murders. Between 1963-1965 a pair of horrendous British serial killers, Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, murdered five children aged between 10-17 and buried their bodies on Saddleworth Moor in Northern England. Brady’s apparent lack of remorse and his reluctance to collaborate and point police towards their graves make him one of the most hated criminals in England. The Smiths who originate from Manchester paid tribute to the children who would only have been a few years older than Morrissey at the time.
6. Bruce Springsteen – Nebraska
“I saw her standing on her front lawn just twirling her baton,” might make you think, “oh, it’s just a typical country-boy-meets-girl-and-they-fall-in-love type of song.” That is, until the second line hits and Springsteen is referencing a real-life series of murders.
In January 1958, 19-year old Nebraska native Charles Starkweather killed a total of 11 people in Nebraska and Wyoming. During his killing spree, Starkweather was accompanied by his girlfriend, 14-year old Caril Anne Fugate.
Both were convicted for their roles in the murders. Starkweather was sentenced to death via the electric chair. He was executed 17 months after the murders took place. Fugate, on the other hand, served 17 years in prison and was paroled in 1976.
7. Judas Priest – “The Ripper”
The song “The Ripper” is the metal band’s ode to one of history’s most notorious serial killers, Jack the Ripper. The gruesome killings took place in 1888, in the slum areas of the Whitechapel District in London. The five victims, all female prostitutes, were found with their throats cut and abdomens mutilated.
Jack the Ripper, also known as the “Whitechapel Murderer,” was never caught. His legend continues to inspire musical acts such as Morrissey, Motörhead, and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.
8. Foster the People – “Pumped Up Kicks”
In 2011, the song “Pumped Up Kicks” was hailed as the song of the summer, with teenagers left and right, bopping to the song. I wonder if they’d still have liked the song if they knew the real meaning behind it.
In an interview with Billboard, the band’s frontman Mark Foster explained, “I remember that week [that I wrote the song], there was some shooting that happened, and it really bothered me, because I recognized that it was going to continue to get worse. And that nothing was going to change. And then that song popped out. But the perception [of the song] 10 years later has shifted, because now it’s a reminder of this really painful moment in our country’s history.”
9. Prince – “Annie Christian”
In his 1981 track from his Controversy album, Prince recounts a string of true crimes that took place in the United States. The title is a play on “anti-Christ,” and the song references the individuals responsible for the child murders in Atlanta, the killing of John Lennon, the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan, and the government corruption unmasked by the FBI’s Abscam investigation.
10. Lloyd Price – Stagger Lee
On December 25, 1895, buddies William “Billy” Lyons and “Stack” Lee Sheldon were drinking the night away in a St. Louis bar. The two were having a heated debate about politics when Billy snatched Stack’s White Stetson off his head. Things took a turn for the worse when Billy refused to give back the hat. Stack shot him dead.
The events made Stack (aka “Stagolee,” “Stack-O-Lee,” “Stack O’Lee,” and “Stagger Lee”) the inspiration for the folk song “Stagger Lee.” It was performed by a handful of artists, including Ma Rainey , Nick Cave, and Ike and Tina Turner. However, Lloyd Price’s version is arguably the most well-known. It earned him the No. 1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1959.