This song! I was under the impression that our society looked down on encouraging teen suicide, but The Band Perry’s “If I Die Young” has disabused me of that notion. We usually think of the death of a young person as a tragic waste. This song, however, frames the early, virginal death of its protagonist as a deeply meaningful and affirming act. So go ahead, kill yourself!
The song begins with a romantic portrayal of a burial scene. “If I die young, burry me in satin/Lay me down on a bed of roses/Sink me in the river at dawn/Send me away with the words of a love song,” she sings. The sadness of the protagonist’s mother is ameliorated through her dead daughter’s lingering presence: “Lord make me a rainbow, I’ll shine down on my mother/She’ll know I’m safe when she stands under my colors.” And although she does not yet know “the loving of a man,” there is nonetheless a boy in town who says he will love her forever and of course her death turns his promise into a fact for her.
So if you’re a young teenage girl redefining your relationship to your mother but still need her love and affection, or perhaps you are going through your first painful love and wish that the feeling would last forever, this song has great advice for you: Kill yourself. Your death, this song maintains, would be the best expression of all those things that you wanted to say but were unable to say or that you felt went unheard. “Funny when you’re dead how people start listening,” the song claims. And besides, the song repeats in its melodic refrain, you may have not lived long but you’ve had “just enough time.”
It’s an outrageous song, as far as I’m concerned, and whenever it comes on I’m still kind of shocked to hear it. It would be like hearing The Cramps’ “New Kind of Kick” on Top 40 radio. That song thumbs its nose at bourgeois philistine complacency: “Life is short/Filled with stuff/Don’t know what for/I ain’t had enough.” Ultimately, what the singer says he wants and needs is drugs, more of them and different kinds. Everything would be better with lots and lots of drugs. There is nothing wrong with recommending heavy drug use or suggesting suicide to young people as such, but these are not sentiments I expect to hear on commercial radio.
What makes these songs different and why one is on the radio and the other one isn’t is only partially explained by their different musical qualities. Both songs address a lack, the feeling of incompleteness, of fragmentariness that sits at the back of our minds. We have a need to feel that our lives are adding up to the kind of narrative that we would want to read or a film that we would want to see. Instead, we often experience life as a series of disconnected and meaningless episodes. The Cramps have no answers for you. They just tell you that drugs will help you deal with it. The Band Perry have faith that our deaths will make our lives meaningful in the way that living them didn’t. Many of us want to believe them.