Part of the Solution, As Told By Part of the Problem

This morning, on NPR’s “The Record” blog, Ann Powers posted an entry called “The Allure of the Murder Ballad: Ruth Gerson does ‘Delia’s Gone'”. The brief blurb in my Facebook feed to plug the article described it thus: “Ann Powers interviews Ruth Gerson about her new collection of murder ballads and the bad things that happen to bad girls.”

Let’s ask ourselves, for a moment, what that article might be about. The “allure” of the murder ballad…hmmm. “Bad things that happen to bad girls.” Sexy! This could be HOT, what with all of the dead chicks and the songs about dead chicks — I bet they were doing something totally slutty when they died, too, amirite? Woohoo! It looks remarkably like an article about a sort of celebration of the murder ballad (in all of its woman-slaughtering glory — for the classic murder ballads, let’s not kid ourselves, are typically about dead women, not dead men, give or take a few exceptions). Why, one might ask, would a woman want to sing these songs? Why would she record an entire album about them? Is this another one of those “edgy” sellouts, more patriarchal ass-kissing in the form of a “hot” woman singing about sluts getting killed (like they deserve)[/end sarcasm]?

Oddly enough, a reading of the article reveals something much more nuanced and interesting. In the interview itself, we meet two women who have clearly been deeply troubled by these songs, and have  thought seriously about them and what they might imply about gender, about violence, and about human relationships. The interviewer and the singer alike avoid simply dismissing the songs or oversimplifying them. They both try to get at the appeal of the murder ballad, and of violence in general. Gerson has thought carefully about what it means to sing these songs, and about making the kind of empathetic connection with the protagonist (usually the killer) that is required to make him sound genuine and live. Gerson’s use of Levinas, in particular, is fascinating and important; she wants to humanize both the perpetrator and the victim of violence, and she rejects the notion that there is any sort of real retribution or repayment for murder. “I think the whole world pays for the murder of every face,” she tells Powers, and it’s an interesting claim. The whole interview, in fact, is much more intriguing than the sexy, sexy description given for it. The title and description do not even hint at what the thing’s really about.

The description is part of the problem that Gerson and Powers are talking about. Can you imagine how, and why?


About L. M. Bernhardt

For a good long while (15+ years), I taught philosophy at a little private university in northwest IA, and occasionally branched out into playing music, dabbling in photography, experimenting with food, and writing nonsense on my blog. The philosophy teaching part ended in 2017 (program elimination via prioritization), but never fear! I've recently finished my MLIS at San Jose State University, and I'm currently on the market looking for new adventures in either philosophy or LIS. For now, I labor at a fairly interesting administrative job in order to support my dogs in the lavish manner to which they've become accustomed.
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