Popular Music Perspectives: Ideas, Themes, and Patterns in Contemporary Lyrics

By B. Lee Cooper | Go to book overview

Chapter Three

Rebels and Outsiders

Beyond the boundaries of tradition and the barriers of law lies the territory of the outsider. The success of the contemporary rebel in capturing public attention in the United States defies rational explanation. Perhaps the activities of outsiders provide necessary psychological relief to a modern populace frustrated by bureaucratic complexity, social stratification, political insensitivity, and personal feelings of inadequacy, anxiety, and apathy. The following pages suggest that the lyricized behavior of outsiders in popular songs serve as emotional outlets enabling individuals to vicariously overcome the pressures of living in an alienating, repressive society.

Violent, anti-social behavior has frequently aroused public interest in America. Popular fascination with acts of physical coercion and torture is as old as the tales of vigilante tar-and-feather parties for British tax collectors. Likewise, the Boston Tea Party, erroneously described as an act of "civil disobedience" by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., was clearly an incident of overt violence and law-breaking in colonial Massachusetts. Even the traditional American heroes of history and fiction—Wyatt Earp, Billy the Kid, Jesse James, Mike Fink, John Dillinger, and Paul Bunyan—were anti-social men.

In recent times television and motion picture directors have spawned a new breed of hostile heroes. Billy Jack, Bullit, "Dirty Harry" Calahan, and Rambo have joined forces with a seemingly endless variety of roughnecks portrayed by such virile actors as Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, Sylvester Stallone, and Chuck Norris to titillate and intrigue the viewing public. Even the rise in popularity of professional football in what had been America's "Baseball Paradise" can be related to the emergence of individually identifiable renegades of the Mean Joe Green/Dick Butkus mold. It is hardly surprising, then, that the field of popular music should also contribute to the veneration of violent men.

Songs depicting the exploits of exceptional men are as traditional as the balladeer's trade. Prominence of the "folk ethic" in contemporary music has served to highlight the growing popularity of biographical themes. Tales of extreme courage are common. In contrast to the ancient hymns of valor, however, most of the characters described in modern lyrics are unattractive, unheroic, and unimaginatively violent in their expressions of hostility toward society. The audio image of the exceptional man is that of an outsider—a confused, arrogant, unstable individual with an established reputation for generating a particular style of mayhem and for surviving through a combination of charisma, luck, and brute force.

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Popular Music Perspectives: Ideas, Themes, and Patterns in Contemporary Lyrics
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Popular Music Perspectives - Ideas, Themes, and Patterns in Contemporary Lyrics *
  • Contents *
  • Acknowledgments 1
  • Introduction 4
  • Ideas *
  • Chapter One - Education (i) 9
  • Chapter Two - Railroads 25
  • Chapter Three - Rebels and Outsiders 37
  • Chapter Four - Education (ii) 48
  • Themes *
  • Chapter Five - Automobiles 59
  • Chapter Six - Christmas 68
  • Chapter Seven - Death 82
  • Chapter Eight - Food and Drink 94
  • Chapter Nine - Telephones 111
  • Patterns *
  • Chapter Ten - Answer Songs and Sequel Recordings 121
  • Chapter Eleven - Cover Records and Song Revivals 140
  • Chapter Twelve - Nursery Rhymes and Fairy Tales 155
  • Chapter Thirteen - Social Trends and Audio Chronology 172
  • Selected Bibliography 193
  • Index 210
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