Brace yourself before reading this one. Making music about offensive things for shock value can come off as cheap and lazy, but these songwriters — cheeky, serious, and in between — know exactly what they’re doing. Whether it’s murder, oppression, or abuse that really turns your stomach, here are ten fantastic songs that make moral bankruptcy a little more listenable. You won’t like the people in any of them, but we suspect you’ll be singing along in no time.
Sufjan Stevens — “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.”
Sufjan Stevens can make beauty out of even the most unpleasant things (like, say, the BQE), so it’s somewhat unsurprising he could write such a tender song about a real-life serial pedophile and murderer. The heartbreakingly sweet music expresses profound grief — for Gacy’s childhood trauma, for the teenage boys buried under his floorboards, for the experiences we all have that bring us to a point of hopelessness. Grab a box of tissues before you listen to this one.
The Clash — “Clampdown”
“Clampdown” lays out in unmistakable terms the inexcusable nature of discrimination and specifically takes to task Nazis and other fascists. But it’s the Clash’s trademark snarl that turns the message into a confrontational anthem, challenging any “man born with a living soul” to actively fight against oppression. It’s easy to give up on what matters as you grow older and lose your youthful fire, they remind us, but that’s no excuse for letting the Man beat you into hateful submission.
Belle & Sebastian — “Step Into My Office, Baby”
We all want to get ahead at work, but sleeping with management isn’t really the honorable way to go about it. The narrator of “Step Into My Office, Baby” disagrees with this rule. He’s an eager — although exhausted — participant in an ongoing affair with his female boss, who promises him a raise if he’ll just put in a little overtime at her place. Although he’s obviously willing, over the course of the song he becomes increasingly weary of the arrangement and has trouble getting into work on time without looking like crap. We can only imagine what his coworkers are saying around at the water cooler.
The Decemberists — “The Rake’s Song”
The Decemberists excel at writing songs about people with questionable morals. Murderous Irishmen, leering sailors, and bicycle thieves all appear in the band’s catalog, but nothing can top the cruel protagonist of this tune. He gets married and his wife starts having kids he hates, so what does he do? Kills them all, duh! In painstaking detail, the narrator chronicles how he brought about each of his children’s demise and ultimately freed himself from an unwanted burden. But it’s his reflection on his actions that really makes him stand out among other unsavory characters. “I suppose you think I ought to be haunted,” muses the Rake, before concluding, “but it never really bothered me!”
Lily Allen — “Fuck You”
It’s pointless to attempt intelligent debate with someone who refuses to listen to reason. Homophobes are precisely those sorts of people, and it’ll drive you crazy if you talk to them about their wacky ideas. The healthiest way to let off steam on frustrating issues like this one is to gleefully and irreverently express your feelings, and this sugar-coated song is just the ticket. So if you overhear someone describe something as “gay,” instead of blowing a fuse, pop Lily in your headphones and you’ll be feeling smug and satisfied in no time at all.
Okkervil River — “Westfall”
This tale of a long-ago crime of passion sends chills down our spine. Okkervil River lay a horrible story over strong and beautiful instrumentation with their signature bluegrass sound, expressing the jailed narrator’s deep regret about a murder that, at the time, was the easiest thing he’d ever done. It’s a complex meditation on the true face of evil, providing no clear answers, which is appropriate considering that — as the narrator tells us — “evil don’t look like anything.”
Weezer — “No One Else”
This song isn’t about someone who’s done any one particularly horrible thing; it concerns, rather, someone with a really horrible attitude toward women. His girlfriend is talkative, outgoing, and has a life; he loathes these things about her and pleads with the listener to break up with her for him. What he wants instead is a girl whose sole purpose in life is to love and please him, who stays inside looking schlubby when he’s not around and has no other friends. He hasn’t found her yet, and we really hope he never does.
The Mountain Goats — “Hast Thou Considered The Tetrapod”
This is a gut-wrenching song with an important purpose. John Darnielle, the man behind the Mountain Goats, suffered for years as a teenager at the hands of his abusive stepfather, and most of 2005’s The Sunset Tree concerns this relationship. “Hast Thou Considered The Tetrapod” is the album’s most frank and graphic account of Darnielle’s experiences, and in it he somehow manages to turn deep trauma into amazing music that comes off as life-affirming instead of overwhelmingly depressing. He dedicated the album to young sufferers of abuse in hopes they would find inspiration in his survival: “You are going to make it out of there alive,” he writes in the liner notes. “You will live to tell your story. Never lose hope.”
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds — “O’Malley’s Bar”
This one’s not only great but also very long, and it’s because Nick Cave wrote at least one verse about each of the multiple murders the protagonist commits over the course of the song. In this portrait of swagger and bravado gone horribly wrong, the narrator goes through some pretty serious character development in 14 minutes. Although he begins overconfident and grows more maniacal with every kill, he eventually reveals himself to be deeply vulnerable and suffering from alienation and rejection. The cops get him eventually, but not before everyone in the bar lies bleeding on the floor. We’ve never heard a better cautionary tale to get out of the house more often.
The Beatles — “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”
Recording this song pitted Paul McCartney against the rest of the Beatles as he insisted on take after take until he got exactly what he wanted. After just over a month of production he was finally satisfied, and the result is excellent and damn creepy. Having your head bashed in with a hammer is one of the least pleasant ways we can imagine dying, but this song puts such a catchy spin on it you’ll almost forget the horrible subject matter. And that hammer clanging noise (an actual anvil, played by Ringo Starr) is unmistakable.