Saturday, January 7, 2012

Death and The Band Perry

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.


  1. After reading this, I was listening to "Kiss Off," by the Violent Femmes. I never realized that was a suicide song before. Makes me like it even more.

  2. Other great suicide songs:
    I will follow you into the dark, Death Cab for Cutie
    Keasbey Nights, Streetlight Manifesto

  3. I guess my point is that there is a way to talk about suicide artfully. Kiss Off captures a certain kind of bullied frustration in an oddly resistant way. The Femmes commit suicide in the song so you don't have to in real life, and they encourage you to say fuck off to your tormentors in whatever way you want. Suicide (or the threat of it) becomes a kind of power, something that no one can control but you. That song doesn't make me want to kill myself, though. Of course, I only figured out it was a suicide song yesterday, so there's that.

    I had never heard "If I die Young" before, either. Just listened to it 5 minutes ago, and watched the video. There is a sadness in it, but also hope for a different future, it seems to me. A wish to be taken seriously that I think is more powerful than the wish to die to make it happen.

  4. I really think this is about those who die young -not of their accord. I got into a debate with someone about their assertion of such, and only found this blog because I was Googling other's thoughts on the lyrics.

  5. my daughter died in september of 2011 and on her facebook page this song she had posted on there makes me sick to hear it that song and never will listen to it just another song of suicide for children to die and the singers to get rich from hope the band enjoys their fortune while parents live the rest of their lives in sorrow

    1. I'm so very sorry to hear that. I'm the father of three, and I can only imagine the pain you must feel at losing a child. Thank you for commenting and be well.

  6. "Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it."

    Go ahead, keep deleting my posts. As I've made abundantly clear, I'm not attacking those posting here. Perhaps I'm a bit blunt, however, help isn't always best served with hollow reassurances. Would you rest better having told many people that they can deflect their sorrow, or having helped many others to prevent the same sorrow from occurring?

    It doesn't have to be one or the other, but that's the approach you've been taking.

  7. Demonizing a song does nothing to prevent it from happening to others. Trying to prevent your children from listening to such music often pushes them in the opposite direction.

    This song has no implicit suicidal implications.

  8. Fine, I'll leave these on here. I erased the other ones because you essentially blamed a parent for the death of his/her child. You know nothing about that situation, thus it's probably for the best for you not to comment on it. That I'm leaving these here is not a validation of your point, which I find unsubtle, but they should remain in order for all the other readers to decide for themselves what they think about this song and our respective arguments. Be well and thanks for caring enough to engage with this post.

  9. i think you get it: teenagers don't have the life experience to understand that romanticized visions of people crying about you, eulogizing you, etc are never heard: the person is dead and gone and never hears the nice things people say... teens are all susceptible to this appealing drama, especially s.o. at risk of suicide