Blinded by Peppiness

  • Sumo

There is no shortage of commentary on the "Blurred Lines" case, and its $7.4 million dollar award to the family of Marvin Gaye. Tim Wu does a nice job of outlining the case in The New Yorker, and his reference to Vanilla Ice got me thinking of another case.

It is music related, from 1990, but didn't deal with copyright infringement. It didn't deal with intellectual property at all. It dealt with product liability, claiming subliminal messaging in the Judas Priest song "Better by You, Better than Me" forced two teenagers, already high, to make a suicide pact, go to a park with a shotgun and follow through. Raymond Belknap succeeded. James Vance did not. Both families sued Judas Priest, and its record label at the time, CBS.

Subliminal messaging bothers me, but not in the typical sense of being tricked into believing/purchasing something I otherwise ignore. Subliminal messaging bothers me because it shifts the focus to looking for something that isn't there instead of paying attention to what is right in front. We cannot get past the chord progression of heavy metal and thus go looking for messages of drugs, suicide and violence nestled inside the lyrics. The lyrics to "Better By You Better Than Me" without the music, read like poetry.

You are introduced to the narrator who is in the middle of something. You get the sense the narrator is struggling, and there are hints of death, hopelessness, in lines like "Tell her now I've got to go/Out in the streets and down the shore/Tell her the world's not much living for," but that can also be interpreted as a warning or a plea as there is the impression that the narrator is somehow handicapped. Or the narrator doesn't know how to communicate what he wants to communicate, and though you might jump to the conclusion of suicide, that is cast into doubt with the line "Guess I'll have to change my way of living/Don't wanna really know the way I feel/Guess I'll learn to fight and kill." That implies the narrator is escaping, by going to war. Granted you can go to war with yourself, but because we don't really know what that means, we have to guess. Like interpreting poetry. It gets complicated, and because nothing is clearly, or blatantly, stated, it's easy to crash down the hallway of subliminal messaging.

The Judas Priest case was thrown out, in the end, because the judge ruled that the so-called subliminal message of "do it" was the result of accidentally mixing up background lyrics. One of the experts in the case, Dr. Timothy Moore, wrote an interesting article about the psychology of subliminal messaging in the case.

We do not pay as much attention to the lyrics of peppy dance tunes, however. The chord progression of pop music makes our feet tap, our head bob and our cheeks break into smiles. We get caught in the euphoria, and turn deaf to blatant references to drugs, suicide and violence.

Take Ricky Martin's "Livin' La Via Loca" for example. That catchy 1999 tune many cite as putting Latin pop on the American musical map. The first few trumpet notes are unmistakable, and the Latin-infused beat makes your feet tap, your hips sway and brings a smile to your face. The lyrics are peppy, too, giving a Latin flare to the femme fatale.

The blatant suicide reference is easy to miss in its peppiness: "She'll take away your pain/like a bullet to your brain."

You can argue Martin is being encouraging if you include the "Come on!"

Look up the lyrics, and let's also examine them.

"She's into superstitions, black cats and voodoo dolls/I feel a premonition that girl's gonna make me fall." Read that, out loud, straight. Poetic, too, no? It is clear, however, that the narrator finds himself in an untenable, perhaps not yet dire, situation. The narrator is explicit in having a bad feeling about what is coming next.

"She's into new sensations/new kicks in the candle light/She's got a new addiction for every day and night." It is clear the narrator is drawn to the siren call, entranced by a "new addiction" all day and all night. There is science behind addiction, and you've read some of it if you've read news articles on forming good habits, breaking bad habits, what successful people do, etc. The payoff in the brain, the chemical reaction induced, is phenomenal. The circuitry in the brain gets rewired for it, much like it does from trauma.

"She'll make you take your clothes off and go dancing in the rain/She'll make you live her crazy life but she'll take away your pain like a bullet to your brain/Come on!" The first line describes a state of euphoria, as happens say, when taking drugs or doing something you wouldn't normally do. You feel a rush, invincible perhaps. Better than you did before. That's the payoff. You want more, so you'll "live her crazy life." Then that line slips in there. Blatant. Clear. "She'll take away your pain like a bullet to your brain." A bullet to the brain is permanent removal of pain, not a temporary state of euphoria.

"She'll push and pull you down/Livin la vida loca/Her lips are devil read and her skin's the color of mocha/She will wear you out/Livin la vida loca/Come on!" Clearly stated. Whiplash. Oscillating between being euphoric and being depressed, until you are pushed and pulled down into depression, worn out, tired.

"Woke up in New York City in a funky cheap hotel/She took my heart and she took my money/She must have slipped me a sleeping pill." Again, clearly stated. The narrator is lost, crushed and broke. When you feel lost, crushed or broke, do you feel happy? Euphoric?

"She never drinks the water and makes you order French champagne/Once you've had a taste of her you'll never be the same/Yeah she'll make you go insane." Payoff. The narrator wants that feeling of euphoria back, only it takes a little more to get there each time. The word for that is addiction. The brain has been rewired. Back to taking your clothes off and dancing in the rain, living her crazy life because she'll take away your pain like a bullet to your brain.

But it's a dance tune. It's peppy. So it's about that one crazy night with that one crazy woman, obviously. A night you got lost in the euphoric ecstasy of fun. Nevermind waking up in a cheap hotel, in New York, alone and broke. Nevermind the single-minded pursuit of finding her again and again to continually repeat the euphoric ecstasy of fun. The removal of pain. Like a bullet to your brain.

But this is a peppy dance tune, not a sad tune.

The thing about peppiness is that it gives you the energy and clarity to follow through. Things are bleak when depressed. Everything looks hopeless and thoughts of suicide are common. But depression also has physical characteristics. You are tired, lethargic. Getting out of bed is a hassle, let alone loading a shotgun or waiting for the bathtub to fill. The smallest thing requires tremendous energy so it is better, and easier, to stay in bed. But when you pop out, even briefly, have that euphoric feeling, taking action is easier. Normal. Expected. The brain is still fixated on elimination of pain. The pain is still tangible, still close, but now you have the energy to escape and the awareness that you do not want to return to that pain again.

There was a recent article in FastCompany about The Sync Project, which "will scientifically measure how music impacts the body to find ways to treat a range of conditions, including depression, fatigue, insomnia and autism." I'm intrigued by the project, and think it is worthwhile. Music does have influence. Technology lets us quantify that influence, investigate its nuances better understand its impact. It lets us compare songs, too, and I'm interested to see what comes of The Sync Project.

The more I think of things in terms of data points, the more data continually strikes me as a means to stop looking for what isn't there, and instead, be open to what is.

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