The Top Ten: The Top Ten Songs That Discuss Abusive Relationships

The Top Ten: The Top Ten Songs That Discuss Abusive Relationships

Hey Guys!

Sorry for the delay of this post, midterm season has really gotten the worst of me. But better late then never as I am here and ready to post!

Last Thursday, I thought it would be fascinating and informative to do a ‘Top Ten’ theme in relation to songs that discuss the issue of abuse in relationships. So, this week it was quite serious but also enlightening because we were able to explore songs that related to all different forms of abuse and which took on  different views, showing how  abuse effects more than just the victim.

Here is this weeks list for The Top 10: 

10) Luka-Suzanne Vega

  • “Luka” was released in 1987 and to this day, is her highest-charting hit in the United States as it reached number 3 in the Billboard Hot 100
  • This song was one of the earlier songs that dealt with the issue of child abuse
  • One critic expressed that, “the ‘happy’ music is a metaphorical denial, making this seem beautiful and serene while discussing something terrible and devastating. It is a wonderful use of tune as a metaphor for how many abuse victims also deny their abuse, and is a profound classic”
  • On a 1987 Swedish television special, Vega said: “A few years ago, I used to see this group of children playing in from of my building, and there was one of them, whose name was Luka, who seemed a little bit distinctive from the other children. I always remembered his name, and I always remembered his face, and I didn’t know much about him, but he just seemed set apart from these other children that I would see playing. And his character is what I based the song Luka on. In the song, the boy Luka is an abused child – In real life I don’t think he was. I think he was just different.”
  • “Luka” focuses on this boy who is abused but is not able to tell anyone that he is abused. As children, you are more susceptible to experience abuse and this song really focuses on this fact about what easy targets kids can be.

9) Goodbye Earl-The Dixie Chicks

  • Originally this song was recorded by Sons of the Desert in the late 90s but gained popularity when the country girl band The Dixie Chicks recorded it on their second cd Fly. The song was the girls 3rd single on this CD and reached #13 on the Billboard’s Hot Country in 2000. 
  • The song takes a different approach to the issue of abuse as it uses black comedy to tell the tale of two high school friends, Mary Ann and Wanda. After high school, Mary Ann leaves town and Wanda stays and marries a man name Earl who physically assaults her. As a result of the abuse, Wanda files divorce, however, Earl stops this from happening at once and the two friends decide that the only way to be rid of Earl is through killing him (“And it didn’t take them long to decide, That Earl had to die’).
  • Despite the fact that many critics see this song as empowering to females and I positive way of dealing with abuse, however, other critics have seen this song as romanticizing both murder and abuse.
  • One online critic said, “Goodbye Earl” can easily be mistaken as empowering and feminist, but feminism is not about taking the law into our own hands and becoming the victimizer instead of the victim. It is about en ding violence, against men and women, and changing the laws to make them more effective to that end. Some women who heard this song may have sympathized with these characters, and felt empowered to take control of their situation with a domestic partner. If so, I can only hope they chose to do so legally.” and also noted “The verse “[I]t turns out he was a missing person who nobody missed at all” minimizes the weight of the crime committed by these women. Just because he was a man, did not mean he was incapable of being victimized. In fact, the assumption that men are not victims of intimate partner violence is probably the reason the law enforcement in the song did not look into his disappearance.”
  • I believe it is important to look at both sides of this conundrum because it is important to take control of the situation if you are experiencing abuse but it is also important to deal with such an issue in a way that does not perpetuate violence.

8) Stone Cold Dead in the Market (He Had It Coming)-Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Jordan

  • This song was released in 1946 with both words and music by Wilmoth Houdini who is a Trinidad and Tobago musician. The song was recorded by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Jordan and his Typany Five on Decca and after that was included in Fitzgerald’s album Ella and Her Fellas. This was Jordan’s first single of five to reach the number one spot on the R&B Juke Box chart and reached #7 on the U.S. pop chart.
  • The song gained recognition again in the 2010 and 2011 with the release of L.A. Noire which the song is featured on.
  • “Stone Cold Dead in the Market,” is about a women who kills her drunken, abusive husband in the public market  with a frying pan, cookpot, or a rolling pin (each verse says something different).
  • The song, implies that both the husband and the wife are in a mutually abusive relationship and are strangely okay with violent relationship they are in.
  • One online critic stated: “Both singers have clearly been in this mutually violent relationship for a while, and both sound entirely chipper about it: “He ain’t going to beat me no more,” Fitzgerald croons in an ersatz Jamaican accent, “So I tell you that I doesn’t care if I was to die in the ’lectric chair. Mon!” Jordan, for his part, jocularly ends the song with “Hey, child, I’m coming back and bash you on yo head one more time.” Presumably the jazzy, bouncy music, the exotic accents, and the overall air of good humor contributed to this song becoming wildly popular during an era when household violence wasn’t spoken of publicly.”
  • According to First Lady of Song: Ella Fitzgerald for the Record, by Geoffrey Mark Fidelman, Fitzgerald and Jordan had worked up a more elaborate arrangement of “Stone Cold Dead in the Market” for this 1946 recording, only to have it nixed by the recording label.
  • This song was one of the first songs to explicitly deal with abusive relationships and for me it was important to put it on this list because the only way this important issue was going to be popularly received was in this comedic fashion. Since this time, abuse has been a topic that has been more discussed and more attention has been drawn to the tragedies associated with abuse.

7) Polly-Nirvana

  • “Polly,” is taken off Nirvana’s most popular albums Nevermind and bass player Krist Novoselic said in the VH1 Classic Albums documentary about Nevermind saying that Cobain was inspired to write “Polly” after reading a newspaper article about a tragic abduction, torture and rape of a 14 year old girl.
  • The song is about the actual kidnapping of a 14 year old girl in 1987 who was returning from a concert she had attended in Tacoma, Washington when she was abducted by Gerald Arthur Friend. Friend took the girl back to his mobile home and raped her. The young girl whose name was never publicly released was tortured by Friend with a razor, whip and blowtorch and managed to escape when Friend took her for a ride and stopped for gas. She got out of the vehicle, made a scene which attracted numerous people surrounding her. Friend was arrested and sent to jail.
  • After the release of this song, Nirvana played benefits to help rape victims including the “Rock Against Rape” concert in 1993 which raised money for women’s self-defense organization.
  • This song to me was important to add to this list because it was one of the few songs that took the viewpoint of the abuser with spine-chilling lines such as, “Polly wants a cracker/
Maybe she would like some food
/She asks to untie her
/A chase would be nice for a few.” This creates an unnerving feeling for listeners who may feel uneasy by such an approach to this topic. It shows how Cobain was trying to break convention and barriers regarding this issue making listeners feel uneasy from the controversial viewpoint Cobain takes.
  • Unfortunately, certain twisted people did not understand that Kurt Cobain was using this viewpoint to really create the horror of such an act but rather thought he was glorifying and condoning abuse.
  • One website stated how Cobain wrote about a horrifying incident which occurred after the song’s original release on Nevermind, in the liner notes to Incesticide: “Last year, a girl was raped by two wastes of sperm and eggs while they sang the lyrics to our song ‘Polly.’ I have a hard time carrying on knowing there are plankton like that in our audience.”
  • This song to this day can be seen as extremely groundbreaking in terms of the topic of abuse because it pushed audiences expectations of how such a controversial topic is discussed and takes the viewpoint of the antagonist showing the really twisted nature of such an act.

6) Every Breath You Take-The Police

  • This song is written by band member Sting and is on the bands 1893 album Synchronicity. The single was situated at #36 on the charts on 4 June 1983, however, it ended up being one of the biggest hits of this year and was on the  Billboard Top 100 singles chart for eight weeks. This song is also ranked at #84 on The Rolling Stones: 500 Greatest Songs of all Time. 
  • The song is about a “sinister, controlling” character who follows “every breath you take; every move you make,” of this other character.
  • Sting quotes in terms of writing this song, “I woke up in the middle of the night with that line in my head, sat down at the piano and had written it in half an hour. The tune itself is generic, an aggregate of hundreds of others, but the words are interesting. It sounds like a comforting love song. I didn’t realize at the time how sinister it is. I think I was thinking of Big Brother, surveillance and control.”
  • Sting mentions how misinterpreted this song is and how people make it seem  much more positive then it really is, insisting that the song is about the “obsession with a lost lover, and the jealousy and surveillance that follow.”
  • “One couple told me ‘Oh we love that song; it was the main song played at our wedding!’ I thought, ‘Well, good luck.'” When asked why he appears angry in the music video, Sting told BBC Radio 2, “I think the song is very, very sinister and ugly and people have actually misinterpreted it as being a gentle little love song, when it’s quite the opposite.”
  • One online blog stated, “This is one of the most misinterpreted songs ever. It is about an obsessive stalker, but it sounds like a love song. Some people even used it as their wedding song. The Police frontman Sting wrote it after separating from his first wife, Frances Tomelty. In a 1983 interview with the New Musical Express, Sting explained: “I think it’s a nasty little song, really rather evil. It’s about jealousy and surveillance and ownership.” Regarding the common misinterpretation of the song, he added: “I think the ambiguity is intrinsic in the song however you treat it because the words are so sadistic. On one level, it’s a nice long song with the classic relative minor chords, and underneath there’s this distasteful character talking about watching every move. I enjoy that ambiguity. I watched Andy Gibb singing it with some girl on TV a couple of weeks ago, very loving, and totally misinterpreting it. (Laughter) I could still hear the words, which aren’t about love at all. I pissed myself laughing.”
  • As Sting expressed this song is about this obsessive desire to know somebodies every move and actions of an individual also known as stalking. Stalking can be seen as, “frequent phone calls,  being upset if calls aren’t returned very quickly, insisting that the survivor call to check in frequently, questioning about all activities, not allowing partner to have relationships with a person of opposite or preferred sex, not allowing partner to keep conversations private, not allowing partner any private or alone time, opening partner’s mail, checking their phone log or directory, cancelling appointments for the survivor (in contrast to never making appointments for the survivor), going through the survivor’s purse or dresser, asking others to keep an eye on partner, questioning others to reconstruct partner’s movements, following partner, not allowing partner to go alone to an activity only they are  interested in, not allowing a partner to go somewhere the batterer doesn’t want to go, showing up unannounced or uninvited, showing up very late or very early, showing up at a workplace, etc… In extreme cases, primary aggressors have installed video surveillance, recording devices, or computer programs that track computer use.”
  • This song to me was important to add onto this list because it deals with a huge issue abuse victims deal with and that is the idea of dominance. Dominance, as defined by a website dedicated to abuse states, “Abusive individuals need to feel in charge of the relationship. They will make decisions for you and the family, tell you what to do, and expect you to obey without question. Your abuser may treat you like a servant, child, or even as his or her possession.” And this is exactly what this song directs its attention to, this idea of a loss of freedom and identity of this individual who is experiencing this form of mental abuse.

5) Not to Blame-Joni Mitchell

  • “Not to Blame” is off of Joni Mitchell’s 1994 album Turbulent Indigo and is the story-telling song of how a mans abuse leads a girl into committing suicide showing just how life-threatening and tragic the repercussions of abuse are. Obviously, abuse is a horrible horrible thing and just how important it is to draw attention to such. In addition, it is important to add this song to this list because it reminds us that we must provide help and accessible resources so people do not feel so isolated and alone that their only option is taking their own life. That is never okay and must be stopped.
  • This song, upon release, caused great controversy because it was rumoured that Joni Mitchell was inspired to write this song about her former ex-boyfriend Jackson Browne who was alleged to have beaten his girlfriend of the time, Daryl Hannah. Mitchell denies all such allegations. The words, “The story hit the news/From coast to coast/They said you beat the girl/You loved the most/Your charitable acts/Seemed out of place/With the beauty/With your fist marks on her face,” made it hard for the public not to assume that the song was inspired by Browne.
  • On a blogpost, this controversy was addressed extensively stating, “In an interview with The Dallas Morning News, he describes Mitchell as a “violent” woman who twice physically attacked him. He also calls her a “very embittered” artist who believes she has not been given her due as a musical innovator and who has carried a torch for him since they broke up more than 20 years ago. 

The song, he says, was “beneath her.” 

”Joni Mitchell is, unfortunately, she’s not really well,” Browne says. “At this point in her life, you know, she has had deep fallings out with many people in her life. I think there’s quite a few people that she’s no longer on speaking terms with. She’s not a happy person, and what she says in that song is absolutely, 100 percent wrong. And it’s really very nasty, very, very ill, you know, very bad-spirited of her to make this kind of conjecture when in fact as she and every one of her friends knows … it’s all about carrying a torch for 20 years.” 

A spokesman for Mitchell’s record company, Reprise/Warner Bros., requested and received a copy of some of Browne’s comments, but he said she was busy in the studio and would not respond. 

In “Not to Blame,” Mitchell discusses a breaking news story in which “they say you hit the girl you love the most.” 

Darryl Hannah accused Browne of beating her in 1992. 

In 1976, Browne’s wife, Phyllis Major, committed suicide. She “had the frailty you despise/And the looks you love to drive to suicide” the song says. A particularly nasty line seems to refer to Browne’s son, who was 3 when Major died: “I heard your baby say when he was only 3/’Daddy, let’s get some girls, one for you and one for me.'” 

”It was abusive to employ that image of my son as somebody who treated his mother’s death lightheartedly,” Browne says. “I mean, he was a 3-year old baby, you know. This is inexcusable.”
  • Unfortunately, this controversial took away the importance of this songs message which is the repercussions of abuse. Whether or not this song was about Browne, the story draws attention to an important issue which is the life-threatening repercussions for victims of abuse.

4) Daddy-Korn

  • Korn’s leader singer Jonathan Davis has stated that he wrote this song because of his own personal experience of being molested as a child and not being believed of such. Many people thought that this song was written about Davis’ dad abusing him however, he publicly denies being physically or sexually abused by his father and the title and concepts of the song are entirely regarding the fact that his father simply did not believe him. This caused a source of embarrassment for his father. However Davis has said in numerous interviews that this song is about a family friend who sexually abused him and how as a 12 year old boy nobody believed him. Neither Davis or his father will reveal who the culprit was but they both specify that it was a woman.
  • Here is Jonathan Davis’ response to the song from Kerrang! magazine: “When I was a kid, I was being abused by somebody else and I went to my parents and told them about it, and they thought I was lying and joking around. They never did shit about it. They didn’t believe it was happening to their son…. I don’t really like to talk about that song. This is as much as I’ve ever talked about it….” – Jonathan Davis
  • “The song eventually leads to Davis acting-out being stranded in a room, and shouting hostile things to whom it is not clarified which then leads to Davis weeping for a long period of time as a lullaby by vocalist Judith Kiener is heard and the band continues on playing an instrumental track until eventually a door is heard shutting. The rest of the band did not know that the song was about his childhood prior to recording.”
  • “I don’t play that song live because it’s just magic,” Davis said. “If I play that song over and over every night, it’d lose its meaning. I don’t want people to expect me to freak out like I did on that. That was what happened in that point in time, and that magic was captured, and I don’t want to fuck with it.”
  • This song to me was an important addition to this list because it deals with an issue that many abuse victims deal with and it is the idea that nobody will believe them. Many victims of abuse will not say anything about such experiences because they are scared of how it will be received or are scared that nobody will believe them. This is not okay. It is important for victims of abuse to feel like they will be believed and are in a comfortable environment where they are aware that help is available. Daddy, draws attention to the fact that abuse is often under-noticed and therefore is able to continue happening with little repercussions for the culprit.

3) Better Man-Pearl Jam

  • It can be difficult to understand what Pearl Jam’s song “Better Man” is about, until you read the lyrics and it is then you realize that the song is about an abusive husband causes his wife to dream of the days when he was a better man.
  • “Better Man” was written by vocalist Eddie Vedder when he was in high school. He said, “I wrote “Better Man” before I could drink—legally—on a four-track in my old apartment.”[1] In another interview, Vedder stated, “Sometimes I think of how far I’ve come from the teenager sitting on the bed in San Diego writing “Better Man” and wondering if anyone would ever even hear it.”[2] Its melody and chord progression are based loosely on the song “Save it For Later” by the English Beat which the band sometimes jams to live after Better Man. He first performed it with Bad Radio. Vedder later recorded it with Pearl Jam, although Pearl Jam was initially reluctant to record it and had initially rejected it from vs. due to its accessibility.”
  • Al Weisel of Rolling Stone called the song a “haunting ballad about a woman trapped in a bad relationship.”[4] Before a performance of the song at Pearl Jam’s show on April 3, 1994 in Atlanta Georgia at the Fox Theatre, Vedder clearly said “it’s dedicated to the bastard that married my Momma.”
  • When Eddie Vedder introduced the song on VH1 Storytellers in 2006 he introduced this song as being a song about “abusive relationships.”
  • This song is important for this list because it also discusses a common battle that many abusive victims deal with which is the notion that abuse victims feel inferior and like they can find nobody better. This is not true. You can.  It is important for abuse victims to know that. And to know that it is even more important to get yourself out of this kind of relationship because you will find someone better…even if that someone is yourself. You deserve better for yourself .

2) Behind the Wall-Tracy Chapman

  • After the first three songs of Tracy Chapman’s self-titled debut album, listeners had good reason to expect that all her material would be powered by acoustic guitar, but “Behind The Wall” is delivered with no instrumentation whatsoever, to chilling effect. “Last night I heard the screaming,” Chapman begins, launching into a tale of an apartment-dweller who awakens to the sounds of a husband beating his wife on the other side of the wall. Calling the police does nothing, she quickly discovers, as “they always come late, if they come at all,” and even when they show up, “they say they can’t interfere with domestic affairs between a man and his wife.” The song ends sadly, with the screaming ending, the wife being taken away in an ambulance, and a policeman telling all the bystanders to go home, adding, “I think we all could use some sleep.”
  • This song deals with a theme that has been touched on throughout this compilation but is not explicitly addressed until this point. This is the idea that people feel like they shouldn’t get involved in domestic disputes. However, this is only justifying performing as a bystander. It is not okay. If you know something is happening, then there is always something you can do to help. Don’t let yourself be enabling this kind of behaviour.
  • One fan mentions, “Tracy Chapman emanates a rare beauty, even when talking about the ugliest of situations.  In the song Behind the Wall from her 1988 debut album Tracy Chapman, the speaker is a helpless neighbor who is a witnesses to domestic violence.   This song was clear in my mind many years after I first heard it when the bedroom of my apartment shared a wall with an abused child who lived next door.  Chapman’s Behind the Wall captures the horror – AND  Her song is sung entirely a cappella– just her voice against the silences she creates.  It’s striking how she lets the notes sit there in the air, for what feels like no one to hear except you at that moment– as if she’s singing into a dark night on her fire escape and you, the listener, just happen to overheard.”

1) Janie’s Got A Gun-Aerosmith

  • “Tyler said he came up with the title and melody before he knew what direction he wanted the song to take. It had taken nine months to finish the lyrics; after Tyler read a Newsweek article on gunshot victims, he was able to connect the song with the theme of child abuse and incest.[1][2] The singer declared that “I got really angry that nobody was paying homage to those who were abused by Mom and Dad”.[3] The line “He jacked a little bitty baby” was originally “He raped a little bitty baby,” but was changed for commercial purposes. Tyler often sings the original line when performing live. In addition, the line “…and put a bullet in his brain” was sometimes changed to “…and left him in the pouring rain” for the radio airplay version to make the song sound less graphic.”
  • The song is often misread by listeners because of the upbeat nature of the song. However, this contrasts the really raw, and dark lyrically content of the song. The song focuses on Janie, a girl who shoots her father because the numerous times he had sexually abused her.
  • “I looked over at a Time magazine and saw this article on 48 hours, minute by minute, of handgun deaths in the United States.” He continued: “Then I got off on the child-abuse angle. I’d heard this woman speaking about how many children are attacked by their mothers and fathers. It was f—ing scary. I felt, man, I gotta sing about this. And that was it. That was my toe in the door.”
  • Steven Tyler admitted to Rolling Stone that he was attracted to his daughter, Liv. Said Tyler, “How can a father not be attracted to his daughter, especially when she’s a cross between the girl he married and himself?” He continued: “All a man has to do is be totally honest with himself and he can see it. However, the real man knows that’s just a place to never go. Instead he celebrates it by telling his daughter how beautiful she is and what a precious child of God she is. There’s ways to love it without making love to it – I wrote ‘Janie’s Got A Gun’ about fathers who don’t know the difference.”
  • This song I chose as my number one because it really was the main song that drew attention in a public, explicit manner about the issue of (sexual) abuse. Steven Tyler really wanted this song so that it would make it more public how terrible this problem is and how it needs to be stopped. For me, this song is important because it created accessibility into an issue that is often not discussed. 


So today’s post is a bit longer than I anticipated but I think it was important to explain why I chose the songs I chose and draw more attention to this issue. I hope you enjoyed and tune in tomorrow for another great Top Ten! 



Robin Daprato (The Top 10) 

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