If a man kills himself it’s suicide

If a man kills his wife it’s homicide (actually femicide)

If a man kills his family it’s a tragedy.

Or that’s the way media usually describe such news. The framing hides reality, makes the story palatable, and obscures the fact that (desperate and egoistic) men sometimes decide that killing wife and kids is the best for everyone.

It’s an old story in a new costume; should random acts of violence be treated with nuance or just be described in plain, factual detail. How do we describe someone who empties an automatic weapon on a crowd of people? Is he a terrorist, a lone wolf, a lunatic or just a killer. And taking it back to music, is ‘Hey Joe’ a song about a man killing his cheating wife or a song about a misogynist who can’t stand her leaving him?

Family killing has never been very popular in music. Probably because it has an extremely low entertainment factor and maybe also because the limited format of a song doesn’t lend itself for a complex, nuanced treatment of an egoistic act of killing.

Putting cheating aside as a motive, I only know 3 songs that managed to take the theme to an interesting level.

Suicide – Frankie Teardrop (1977). Young father slowly driven to madness by poverty. Things get progressively worse; he can’t buy food for the family, they get evicted. One day, seeing no way out anymore, he picks up a gun, kills his wife and baby, then commits suicide. The story doesn’t end there; he goes straight to hell, unable to move, basically dead in hell. It’s a rather experimental, 10 minute song, using only voice, shouting and very minimal electronics. Caused quite an uproar back in 1977, both because of the theme and the type of music.

Tom Waits – Frank’s wild years (1987). Man leaves his wild years behind, marries a woman and starts leading a normal life. They have a dog, a house with modern kitchen and a small car. Everyone seems happy and content until one day he takes a gallon of gas, sets his house on fire and drives off, supposedly because he couldn’t stand his wife’s dog, a chihuahua. All of this happens in just under 2 minutes. The beauty of the song is that it is very visual, and that Waits manages to keep you on a tightrope between horror and uncontrollable laughter.

Nick Cave – Song of joy (1996). Complex murder tale. Man marries a woman named ‘Joy’ who, instead of being happy, quickly becomes deeply sad and melancholic (‘became Joy in name only’). They have three kids in quick succession, but even that doesn’t help, they take after their mother and he soon finds himself in a sad quiet home without laughter. Being a doctor, he is often away at night servicing patients. On one of those nights he finds his family murdered upon return, apparently the work of a serial killer with a habit of quoting John Milton in blood. The twist of the tale is that he is telling this story on the doorstep of a stranger, a family man, explaining that the killer is still at large but that he also left his home and is now effectively wandering around. So…is he the serial killer himself? It’s a beautiful, somewhat sinister tale. In just over 6 minutes Cave manages to write a song with the complexity of a novel.