Well, god fucking damn it.
I was going to start this post with a mention of the mass shooting at Orlando’s Pulse Nightclub last month, as well as the gun murder–in the same city, on the same weekend–of YouTube singing star Christina Grimmie by a deranged fan. Then I was going to talk about how at the beginning of this month, two innocent African American men, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, were killed by police for carrying firearms–to the deafening silence of the National Rifle Association, despite the fact that at least Castile was within his legal authority to carry. Then, while I was at it, I would have mentioned the scattered retributory shootings of police officers across the country since the Sterling and Castile shootings, most notably in Dallas. But the very day I started work on this post, I opened my web browser to find that another mass shooting had occurred in Fort Myers, Florida; this morning, meanwhile, the news has just come through that two police officers were shot in San Diego.
Obviously, the recent shootings listed above stem from a morass of issues, not just guns: from racism and police brutality to celebrity Internet culture to homophobia and even, maybe, terrorism. But you’d have to be especially dense to not recognize that guns are the one issue that connects them all. Simply put, gun culture in America is out of control; the sheer regularity with which shootings are being reported–to the point that I can’t even write a dumb blog post without having to append references to two new ones before publishing–is, frankly, terrifying. And while we obviously can’t do much about it (at least in our capacity as Dystopian Dance Party: please vote, write your Congressmen, donate to the Brady Campaign, etc., etc.), we can at least hold up a magnifying glass to the ways in which guns are glamourized, glorified, and in some rare cases, even criticized in our popular culture.
So here’s a playlist about guns. Like I said, it isn’t much, and is no substitute for political action, but at least you can dance to it. You might want to listen to it at home, though; these days, dancing in public seems like a dangerous thing to do.
1. Rick James: “Love Gun”
(from Fire It Up, 1979)
For the record, from everything I know about Rick James, he is not a man I would trust with an actual firearm. But on his 1979 funk-rock jam “Love Gun,” James envisions a different kind of weapon: one that “shoots you with desire.” And to be frank, from everything I know about Rick James, I’m not sure I’d trust him with that one, either. Still, the song’s lyrics seem to suggest that it’s something he wants to be shot with, rather than the other way around, so I guess we’ll let this one slide.
2. AC/DC: “Shoot to Thrill
(from Back in Black, 1980)
Like Rick James, Brian Johnson of AC/DC seems to be singing about a different kind of “gun” on their 1980 track “Shoot to Thrill.” Still, it’s kind of amazing what a difference 36 years makes, as the use of gun violence as a metaphor for sexual violence sounds even ickier in a post-Isla Vista world (that’s the one where the kid shot a bunch of women as “retribution” for not having sex with him, in case you need help distinguishing it from the dozens of other recent mass shootings). So, yeah, maybe not in the best taste. It’s got a kickass riff, though?
3. Tom Waits: “16 Shells from a Thirty-Ought Six”
(from Swordfishtrombones, 1983)
Few musical artists can sound as convincingly like a gun-wielding maniac as Tom Waits: when he bellows he’s “gonna whittle you into kindlin'” on this off-kilter highlight from 1983’s Swordfishtrombones, I’m pretty sure you can report it to the police as a legitimate threat. It doesn’t even matter that the rest of the song’s lyrics are surrealistic doggerel in Waits’ typical wheelhouse; if anything, that just increases the feeling of being accosted in the street by a person suffering a violent schizophrenic episode. Especially in the wake of tragedies like the 2012 movie-theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado, gun control advocates have lobbied for some form of enhanced screening against the sale of firearms to people in mental health crisis; if you’ve ever wondered why, just listen to this song and ask yourself if you want Tom Waits to be armed.
4. Public Enemy: “Miuzi Weighs a Ton”
(from Yo! Bum Rush the Show, 1987)
Relax, frightened white guy from “Incident at 66.6 FM“: Chuck D isn’t talking about a literal Uzi on this song. And that’s a good thing, because if the aforementioned police killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile have taught us anything, it’s that White America’s reverence for the Second Amendment tends not to extend to Black people. But then again, maybe he should still be worried; if you remember the earlier shooting of Jordan Davis for playing his music too loud at a Jacksonville, Florida gas station, then you also know that Black people’s First Amendment rights aren’t too high on the list of White America’s priorities, either.
5. Lou Reed: “The Gun”
(from The Blue Mask, 1982)
Lou Reed tends to be thought of as an amoral storyteller: his best-known work portrays a vision of urban desperation and violence as unsparingly grim and nihilistic as the best noir fiction. But on “The Gun,” from his 1982 album The Blue Mask, he seems to let a bit of moral judgment slip in. Reed’s vocal performance is as flat and emotionless as ever, but somehow that just makes the disdain he feels for his sadistic protagonist all the more evident. And his sardonic delivery of the chilling mid-song monologue does the opposite of glorifying handgun violence, depicting “carrying a gun” as a pathetic and cowardly act.
6. Kate Bush: “James and the Cold Gun”
(from The Kick Inside, 1978)
Guns, of course, have a storied history in American popular fiction as symbols of power and bravery, wielded by men (almost always men) of action. Leave it to Kate Bush, then, to turn this idea on its head with her 1978 song “James and the Cold Gun,” pleading to the titular character who “left home to live by the rifle”: “You’re a coward, James / You’re running away from humanity / You’re running out on reality / It won’t be funny when they / Rat-a-tat you down.” While we’re at it, leave it to Kate Bush to perform the song in full cowgirl regalia, wielding a fake rifle and pretending to shoot it at the audience. Kate, are you selling your soul to a cold gun?
7. Prince Paul featuring Kool Keith: “Weapon World”
(from A Prince Among Thieves, 1999)
Hardcore hip-hop is often criticized for glorifying gun violence–particularly since it’s being marketed to a community that is disproportionately affected by gun-related homicides. Just don’t blame Kool Keith; his demented sales patter as arms dealer “Crazy Lou” on Prince Paul’s 1999 “rap opera” A Prince Among Thieves is downright nightmarish, and should definitely give pause to those who would otherwise consider browsing his wares. Let me put it this way: anybody who promises a gun “has the effect to put a six foot gorilla with the…aluminum skin of an alligator to a 4 point 8 pterodactyl” should be selling angeldust, not weapons.
8. Parliament: “Bop Gun (Endangered Species)”
(from Funkentelechy vs. the Placebo Syndrome, 1977)
Like Rick James’ “Love Gun,” Parliament‘s “Bop Gun” is a different, better kind of weapon: instead of killing or maiming, it just makes the victim funky. Which, if it were real, would probably solve the gun control debate single-handedly: just replace all normal guns with bop guns, and voila, the U.S.A. becomes One Nation Under a Groove. Come to think of it, Wayne LaPierre is basically a less funky Sir Nose D’Voidoffunk…I don’t know if there’s a gas leak in my apartment or what, but this is really starting to come together as a viable political satire!
9. Chief Keef: “Shooters”
(from Nobody Part II, 2015)
Rapper Chief Keef reached the mainstream public consciousness around the same time as the explosion of gun violence in the inner city of his native Chicago; as a result, both he and his abrasive, nihilistic brand of trap music, known as “drill,” have been inexorably associated with the city’s skyrocketing murder rate. And you kind of can’t blame critics for making that connection, since when Keef isn’t recording songs like the self-explanatory “Shooters” he’s posting pictures of himself brandishing guns on Instagram–or, for that matter, actually being arrested on gun charges. This isn’t necessarily a referendum on Keef in particular–like all great gangsta rap, his art reflects the brutal social conditions of his surroundings–but it is a sad example of the way America’s toxic gun culture has infected its most oppressed underclass.
10. Johnny Cash: “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town”
(from The Fabulous Johnny Cash, 1958)
But hey, maybe you’re tired of listening to my lecturing. So instead, just listen to the Man in Black, who somehow managed to sneak a trenchant gun control anthem onto a country album in 19-fucking-58. Like Kate Bush, Johnny Cash punctures the mythology of the “good guy with the gun” with the tale of a hot-blooded “young cowboy named Billy Joe” who ignores his mother’s advice, brings his guns to town, and finds out too late that the “dusty cowpoke” who picks a fight with him is faster on the draw. The next time you’re in a heated Facebook argument with a friend or relative who thinks mass shootings could be prevented if everyone was strapped, just drop them a link to this song.
11. G-Unit: “My Buddy”
(from Beg for Mercy, 2003)
Okay, back to me lecturing. 50 Cent was basically the Chief Keef of the early 2000s: rising to fame after being shot nine times at close range–and also, not coincidentally, releasing a shit-ton of mixtapes–then immediately turning around and raking in the cash with songs like “My Buddy,” in which he lovingly croons the theme song to those toy commercials from the 1980s, only instead of singing about a doll he’s singing about his gat. He also references the “say hello to my little friend” scene from Brian DePalma’s Scarface…say, whatever happened to Tony Montana after that scene, anyway? Eh, who cares.
12. Skid Row: “18 and Life”
(from Skid Row, 1989)
When I think of Skid Row, the New Jersey glam metal group led by prolific TV cameo artist Sebastian Bach, introspection isn’t exactly the first thing that comes to mind. And yet, on their 1989 breakout single “18 and Life,” they spun a tragic yarn of working-class desperation like the second-string Bon Jovi they were, all about a “young boy” named Ricky who ends up in prison for his recklessness with a firearm. Hell, the song’s music video is practically a public service announcement for gun safety. Who says butt rock can’t be educational?
13. The Beatles: “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill”
(from The Beatles, 1968)
I know, “Happiness is a Warm Gun” would have been the more obvious choice. But “Bungalow Bill” is arguably the cleverer skewering of that firearm obsession unique to the most fragile of masculinities, now popularly known as “ammosexuality“: a cartoonish theme song for a self-styled “Great White Hunter” type who the song’s writer, John Lennon, mockingly describes as “the all-American bullet-headed Saxon mother’s son.” Lennon himself later dismissed “Bungalow Bill” as “a teenage social-comment song and a bit of a joke.” At least it’s a catchy one, though; and, considering Lennon himself would later be killed with a gun, I’d say it’s a joke he was well within his rights to make.
14. Obie Trice: “Pistol Pistol (Remix)”
(from Eminem Presents: The Re-Up, 2006)
Hey, remember Obie Trice? Only vaguely, you say? Good enough. “Pistol Pistol” is the one-time Eminem protégé’s remix of a track by Em’s rap crew D12, in which Obie takes the original‘s more literal lyrics and turns them into a simultaneous threat to his would-be assassins (he was shot in late 2005) and an ode to his dick, complete with gunshot sounds both sampled and man-made. Obie, I know you say your “penis is a mag,” but if it actually makes that noise, you’re going to want to get that looked at.
15. Lynyrd Skynyrd: “Saturday Night Special”
(from Nuthin’ Fancy, 1975)
As you might expect from a band that both hung out with Neil Young and proudly flew the Confederate battle flag at concerts, Lynyrd Skynyrd is kind of difficult to place on a neat left-to-right political continuum. Case in point: 1975’s “Saturday Night Special,” which you might expect to be a Ted Nugent-style paean to packing, but is actually a grave warning of the dangers of indiscriminately selling cheap handguns to desperate people. At one point, singer Ronnie Van Zant even proposes that we “dump” all the handguns “to the bottom of the sea,” which puts his position on gun laws well to the left of any of the current presidential candidates. That’s right, folks: not only Johnny Cash, but also Lynyrd Fuckin’ Skynyrd wrote a gun control anthem. This is going to be a hard playlist for a lot of conservative dads.
16. Jimi Hendrix: “Machine Gun”
(from Band of Gypsys, 1970)
Among his many other innovations, Jimi Hendrix pretty much invented the technique of making his guitar sound like a gun; and on this live performance from New York‘s Fillmore East on New Year’s Eve, 1970, Hendrix put that technique to intense, poignant use. Dedicated to “all the soldiers that are fighting in Chicago and Milwaukee and New York–and, oh yes, all the soldiers fighting in Vietnam,” the lengthy jam finds Hendrix and his final backing band, funk-rock power trio Band of Gypsys, painting a vivid picture of the titular weapon’s destructive power purely with music: even the already-scant lyrics feel superfluous. And, while the “soldiers fighting in Chicago” are a little different today than in 1970 (and the soldiers “fighting” overseas are more likely to be piloting drones), the second or so of stunned silence that follows Jimi’s performance still speaks volumes. “That’s what we don’t want to hear anymore, right?”