On the final paragraph of his article on firearms and popular music posted a few weeks ago, Jaime Gonzalo sent a non-official invitation in case some other person dared and tried to complete this cartography of pistols and songs because carrying out his research he had realised that one thing was the map he was drawing and a very different one the territory. So I kneeled down to retrieve the glove thrown and have added to his text with the same idea in mind: many more things will be left out than in. That’s why this isn’t volume two of an encyclopaedia, just a parallel article exploring other areas of the pop (and many other music genres) fascination for firearms.
Should we really want to start from the beginning, right now we should be going back to Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, where we can find the first incorporation of cannons (played by trombones) into a musical score. But if Quentin Tarantino (who loves an armoury as much as a jukebox) considered there was no better start than Nancy Sinatra’s Bang Bang to his Kill Bill, just who do I think I am now to try and find a better opening piece? Besides, the reference of this song to how the innocent shootings of a kid’s game become more serious in old age serves this text in two ways: 1) it illustrates how firearms become part of our lives since kindergarten times in a playful-cultural sense, and 2) it’s a quick and even obvious correspondence between the sixties tandem Lee Hazlewood-Nancy Sinatra and the one formed by Serge Gainsboug and any partenaire he decided to choose. Oh, ugly-but-handsome Serge! How he liked to hold the grip, the rascal! On covers, proto-music videos, promotional pics or lyrics (Shotgun, Pistolet Jo, La Marseillaise turned reggae and renamed Aux armes et caetera…), he always considered firearms part of the fundamental atrezzo of his role as agent provocateur. Pop trivializing danger but also danger played down to the level of pop innocuousness?
A gunshot like a cannon
Even though the onomatopoeic opening title of the article refers to Nancy Sinatra’s song, there are more comic book sounding song titles that include shootings in other equally mythical sixties themes: like Joe Cuba and his boogaloo, a gunfire between Latin jazz and salsa that anticipated the keenness on holding guns that many later Latin artists resident in New York would show some decades later. The duo Willie Colón and Héctor Lavoe, without going any further, built their image, in the first years of their career, around a gangster look, when in fact they were but a couple of kids trying to seem older than they really were for the nuyorican establishment to take them seriously. Almost all the covers of their shared albums included some reference to noir films. That’s probably why their songs, as Francisco Casavella used to say, often sounded like a raid in Spanish Harlem. The fact that El Barrio, in the New York little sanitised by its seventies town council, was a place in which you had to go about with a revolver guardado en la cartera pa’ que no estorbe, as Rubén Blades sang in Pedro Navaja. But in the songbook of this Panama artist there are other deaths by gunfire that take place very far from the streets between 96th and 125th: in El padre Antonio y su monaguillo Andrés, the crime was directly inspired by the murder of archbishop Romero in El Salvador. A song about the widespread violence in Latin America that became a canon for other songwriters with the talent and will to create stories (fictional, real, semi-fictional or semi-real) about guerrilla characters: the cartoons full of Muñoz-Sampayo like sweat in Manuel Santillán, el León and Matador by Los Fabulosos Cadillacs would be a clear example.
The pistol and the heart
It’s almost inevitable to take a detour towards narcocorridos when we talk about firearms and music in Latin America. There’s no other genre that leaves behind such a gunpowder cloud of smoke. Already since the thirties, songs were transmitted orally from generation to generation; originally inspired by robber romances and first applied to the heroes of the Mexican Revolution, they started to focus on the bloodiest anecdotes of drug trafficking and its protagonists (particularly on the episodes taking place in the Texas border). That’s why this style is so difficult to silent, no matter the gag law passed: the mystification of the figure of the drug dealer is too rooted in the collective imagination and street culture of northern Mexicans. These songs are their musical counter-information newspapers. Should anyone want to learn more about this, listen to any of the songs (this one, for instance) by Los Tigres del Norte and/or watch excellent documentary Narco Cultura. There you’ll understand why it makes all the sense in the world that a series such as Breaking Bad could include a narcocorrido video devoted to Heisenberg as the cold opening for S02E07. And if anyone is interested in subsequent radical deformations, track the influence of narco-musical tradition in Brujeria’s Matando güeros or Cypress Hill’s No entiendes la onda. And you still wonder how Don Winslow’s books sound like?
My UZI weights a ton
Putting all this into perspective, tracking down hip-hop’s obsession with guns becomes fascinating. In fact, this could be turned into much more than a paragraph or an article: there’s enough material here for a whole book or thesis. Where’s the origin of all that? It’s true than in the life of any African American, artist or not, there’s no need for euphemisms and if bullets fly about (sometimes fatally: think of the tragic deaths of Sam Cooke and Marvin Gaye), well, you tell it like it is; but there seems to exist as well a kind of historical and musical background that explains this firearm omnipresence. Maybe it’s because almost all black music big fish made a blaxploitation soundtrack (Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, James Brown, Bobby Womack…) or even starred in one of these films (Isaac Hayes); maybe because the black panthers’ image was an ethical and aesthetical inspiration for hip hop when it changed sweatpants and gold chains for cartridge belts and Uzis (Boogie Down Productions imitating the famous picture of Malcolm X with a rifle and Public Enemy surrounded by a paramilitary dance troupe, the Security of The 1st World). The case is that since NWA’s Straight Outta Compton appeared, pointing its gun at us from the cover, since the L.A. riots after the Rodney King beating had an OST with explicit lyrics in real time and since gangsta rap was elevated from intimidating subgenre to hegemonic style in the nineties, we started to suspect that many rappers really did beep when passing under airports’ metal detectors. In fact, some even died in beefs that went too far in real life or for being immersed in easy-trigger surroundings: Tupac Shakur, Jam Master Jay, The Notorious B.I.G. or Scott La Rock (50 Cent, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Bushwick Bill or Scarface from Geto Boys also swallowed some lead, but with no fatal consequences). Maybe that’s why it’s one of the genres with more anti-arm songs: a clear sign that there’s far too many. In any case, in hip hop the mentioning of guns, shootings, bullets, etc., is almost another rhetoric element, a style prop. However, my mother’s scared face when she came into my room and heard the initial gunfire of Ice Cube’s Now I Gotta Wet’Cha proved that no matter how normal it seems to us now, sampling a shooting is always a shock.
As if it were an audio library resource free to use like any other, the sound of a shooting has an out of time and at the same time cool appeal in electronic and dance music. The times of disco-funk music bands fooling around with pistols on their titles (The Commodores, KC & The Sunshine Band…) was reduced to mere tacky anecdote compared to the machine gun samples by The KLF, who the day they took their stadium house to the Brit Awards (accompanied by, careful, the not very house Extreme Noise Terror) Bill Drummond even aired an AK-47 while he bit a cigar! If Alec Empire didn’t decide on that epiphany moment to start his own music band inspired by an armed band it was probably just because there was no BBC in Germany. Although, when you look at it, there’s no need for samplers to reproduce the spitting of a firearm, as Portishead well know. Or is there? If M.I.A. hadn’t included the shootings and charge changing noises between the passages she borrowed from The Clash’s Straight To Hell in Paper Planes, maybe it wouldn’t have become such a global success (yes, the fact that it was Slumdog Millionaire‘s main theme also helped) and she wouldn’t have to deal now with the bad girl fame she carries like a stigma.
A girl and a gun
Let’s correct Godard, c’mon! It always gives one a sense of inner joy. A girl + a gun no longer equals a film. A girl plus a gun equals pop music. If I were an insomniac-suffering member of the National Riffle Association looking to give myself some pleasure I’d spent my nights typing in Google Images the names of the latest and most famous female massive pop artists together with search terms firearms, guns, pistols, shotgun, machine gun, weapon, etc. And in almost all my attempts I would get my satisfaction. ¿Lana del Rey? Check. ¿Jennifer Lopez? Check. ¿Christina Aguilera? Check. ¿Britney Spears? Check. ¿Mariah Carey? Check. ¿Demi Lovato? Check. ¿Ariana Grande? Check. ¿Taylor Swift? Check. ¿Rihanna? Check. ¿Lady Gaga? Check. ¿Katy Perry? Check. ¿Miley Cyrus? Check. ¿Selena Gomez? Check. ¿Kesha? Double check, Double check, she even has a guitar-machine gun. Nicki Minaj? Check, check and check. All of them! It’s almost a coming-of-age ritual. And the pics are no set up. Even tracking down Madonna and Beyoncé, as different as they think they are, I would be lucky. For some reason, US mainstream divas (and aspiring ones) accept to appear in promo shoots or videos or take roles in films part of the budget of which is destined to the arm industry (and it seems it’s an exclusively American thing: don’t try it with Adele, despite the 007 songs; or with Shakira, even though there’s a similar tradition in Colombia). Those with a teen idol past, for sure, understand it is as quick a way into adult life as hyper-sexualisation. And those who don’t need to bid farewell to innocence as abruptly know that it’s an accessory to symbolise power, and depending on how they use it, it might be a kind of usurpation of the male sceptre: arms as a phallic extension of certain male artists with a virility complex. Bikini Girls with Machine Guns (and stars and bars on the background) as The Cramps used to say. Or better, let’s blame Harmony Korine and the Spring Breakers‘ number to the sound of Britney Spears! Dammit! Godard was right again…
Halloween spy costumes, colourful bank robbers, under-18 femme fatales, Bonnie Parker pop apprentices, Powerpuff girls with a license to shoot… All these disguises can be found at the costume department of Korean girl-pop music videos, often during their teenage phase. K-pop, as plasticky, sugary and harmless as it may seem, has in toy (or not toy) guns one the main elements of its imaginary. In this case, however, there’s at least some will to maintain the illusion of artifice, brushing aside any similitudes and embracing a kind of almost-anime fetishism. When 24K, Block B, MBLACQ, Dal Shabet, Secret, Trouble Maker or 2NE1 show a gun in their videos, the feeling of watching a pop, sexy and cool extravaganza, as well as a totally harmless one, is always present. It’s a conscious carnival. They play with cannon, drum and grip like Nancy Sinatra did at the beginning of Bang Bang. If Bong Joon-ho or Park Chan-wook’s Korean thrillers often shock us with their seemingly daft inappropriate remarks, K-pop disarms us, paradoxically, when it shows arms.
Revolver. It’s the key word to understand that pistols have their legitimacy also in pop. We’re not going to defend now the pre-Brit-Pop band of that name (and even less Carlos Goñi’s one). But if The Beatles entitled one of their albums of truth (the same ones that would later on utter that thing of Happiness is a Warm Gun), we won’t reproduce the cliché that firearms have no place in this supposedly tame and soft genre, compared to rock, a music that the topic says is much more for macho-men, much harder and much more dangerous, right? In fact, such an anti-rock band as Prefab Sprout has a song with machine guns on it, Machine Gun Ibiza (another mocking of rock Olympus; in this case Hendrix gets it, after Elvis or Springsteen). From then on, we can start our ballistics analysis by covering themes by Sparks (shooting sampler forerunners), Adam & The Ants and their new romantic Dick Turpin, The Jam beating the shit out of the Eton nepotistic nest, Duran Duran, New Order and the gun they didn’t see Ian Curtis was playing with, The Jesus & Mary Chain T.Rex-style, 10.000 Maniacs, Tori Amos, Gorillaz, Grizzly Bear, Dirty Projectors, The Radio Dept and even FM pop-rock totems such as Depeche Mode or U2. Far too many examples to consider them an exception to the rule!
Jaime Gonzalo was right: the field is so vast that it doesn’t enter the framing. It’s still funny trying to make it fit, of course. But where do we place exactly snipers such as Tom Waits, Rage Against The Machine, Kate Bush, John Zorn and his Naked City (the crime images taken at the city of Weegee included on his first album still give me the chills), Lemmy and his collector vices (the guy had a tank!), Today Is The Day (Steve Austin has a weapon collection valued in $200.000), Surfin’ Bichos’ Comida china y subfusiles and Rifle de repetición, or The Pogues, who have several gun songs (this, this or this) an even played a band of Mexican outlaws (drunken, of course) in Alex Cox’ spaghetti-western Straight to Hell? Should we also have remembered, now we’re at it, La Frontera or Los Pistones‘s western pop? Since this is starting to sound like a namedropping party (or, seen another way, like a pure Sam Peckinpah final gunfire salad) the most intelligent thing would be to leave it here. Again, if anyone dares, like us, to come down to the trench with enough ammunition for a part three, you’ll be more than welcome!