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Music and the Tucson shootings

January 12, 2011 |  2:27 pm

MEMORIAL_6_

Anyone who has been raised under the sway of a spiritual belief system -- Christian or Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist or pagan -- knows that when a crisis arises, one thing you do is listen for a sound. A still, small voice. A heavenly choir. A righteous cry unto the Lord.

Sound, especially music, often shapes our emotional responses and guides our thought processes. But since Saturday, when a gunmen identified by police as Jared Lee Loughner aimed his deadly weapon at U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and her consituency in Tucson, I've been waiting to hear something that might help me comprehend what's going on. And all I hear is static, like the restless turning of a radio dial.

Usually, when an event like the Tucson shootings occurs, a soundtrack quickly emerges. Music tends to play two roles in such situations. It focuses our anger or softens the impact of our grief.

If the disaster has a human cause, like the shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999 or Bard College at Simon's Rock in Massachusetts in 1992, music often fills the need for a scapegoat. Trying to grasp the motivations of young killers such as Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris at Columbine or Wayne Lo at Simon's Rock, those tasked with interpreting their mayhem looked for signs blasting from boomboxes.

The frenzy surrounding the Columbine shooters' alleged interest in industrial and goth rock eventually subsided; in his important book on the rampage, published a decade later, journalist Dave Cullen thoroughly disproved the link. And Lo himself denied that hard sound motivated him. In a prison letter to the rock critic Chuck Klosterman, he insisted that the T-shirt he wore that day -- emblazoned with the name of the hard-core band Sick of It All -- was an arbitrary choice, and wondered what conclusions observers might have drawn had he pulled one hawking Poison from his drawer.

It's mostly a good thing, I think, that music (or video gaming, another easy target) isn't being blamed for Loughner's alleged actions.

“These details are dug up by journalists in part to give 'color' and personality to the gunmen, often in haste and without much fact-checking,” journalist Beth Winegarner writes in an as-yet unpublished piece inspired by media reactions to Loughner's alleged deed. This time, former Alaska governor and Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin  and the odious Fred Phelps, founder of Kansas' Westboro Baptist Church, whose members were planning to picket the funerals of shooting victims, have provided all the color pundits need.

Winegarner, who is working on a book about media reaction to teen violence, notes that the media tend to focus on the cultural tastes of teens in such situations, while blaming mental instability when adults are responsible.

Drowning_pool_6_

Still, music's lack of traction in the 24-hour news cycle seems notable. Loughner had been in a band; he upset one of his college instructors by scrawling “Mayhem Fest,” the name of a touring summer festival, across a quiz. One of his creepy Youtube videos featured the already-controversial song “Bodies” by Drowning Pool. Ten years ago, people would have been stringing together these facts and drawing (or jumping to) conclusions.

Instead, the heat has gathered around another controversial cultural energy source. Almost immediately after the shooting became a national story, people were heaping scorn on the “gun sights” poster put forth by Palin's political action committee and, more generally, on "tea party"-generated hate speech. It's almost amusing that the one professional airbag to point a finger at music is Rush Limbaugh, the spiritual daddy of all those provocateurs otherwise being blamed. Events such as the Tucson shootings always trigger necessary conversations that leap the boundaries of relevant facts. This time, music-driven pop culture just doesn't factor in. America needs to confront other demons, ones who manifest on talk radio, at political rallies and, increasingly, in the halls of Congress. The spoken diatribe and the tweeted word, not music, scare and excite us now.

If music isn't helping us channel our anxieties, it still could be serving as a salve for our sorrow. Yet so far, no one song or artist's work has risen up to define that process. This seems like a failure to me, not on the part of anyone mourning, but of our pop-driven culture itself.

It may just be too soon. There hasn't been time for Bruce Springsteen to write a song such as “My City in Ruins,” as he did after 9/11, or for his mirror opposite, Toby Keith, to kick out “Shock and Y'all.” Yet consider how music mattered almost immediately after other incomprehensible events. It's hard to think of the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. without hearing Mahalia Jackson's voice ringing out on “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” or to revisit those cataclysmic first days after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and not recall Randy Newman's “Louisiana 1927.” Many still associate the patriotism that bolstered the Middle East policies of both Bush presidencies with Lee Greenwood's anthem “God Bless the USA.” As recently as last year, Haitians kept hope alive after that country's devastating earthquake by singing hymns in the streets.

Music must be healing some of the pain of the Tucson shooting -- there have been gatherings in churches and other sheltering spaces, including the Rialto Theatre, where local musicians picked up instruments and played. But so far, its strains haven't reached beyond those private moments.

Perhaps that's because most of today's hit singles are so aggressively flip, focusing on sensual gratification and life's material enjoyments instead of on the spirit. (Last year's best somber hit, Eminem's “Love the Way You Lie,” expresses too specific a form of loss to work in a broader context.) Or maybe we are all just too lonely in our listening habits now, clustering around indie music microcultures and keeping our playlists to ourselves.

When I asked my community of Facebook friends what they thought might be played during the memorial service the Obamas would attend Wednesday, no one reached agreement. Barry Shank, an American studies professor at Ohio State University who's written extensively about regional rock scenes, put it best: “The event must stay away from any political segmentation. It must be about unity. And music today is too segmented into presumed categories of affiliation (political and otherwise), to enable much of it to function as a unifying force at this moment. Is there any music now that everyone likes?”

There are many good things about living at a time when no one is presumed to like the same music. The seemingly infinite varieties of sounds available for pleasure and inspiration can be overwhelming. It does seem a little sad, though, that no songs now are helping us know that we shall overcome the senselessness of a terrible moment, or the sinister conflicts surrounding it. Americans could really stand to lift up our voices and sing.

-- Ann Powers

Images: A memorial in front of the University Medical Center in Tucson (EPA); Drowning Pool (Eddie Malluk)

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