On the 20th April 1999 two high school boys from financially comfortable, two parent homes, deep in the heart of suburban, middle class America, carried out an attack on their school, Columbine High in Littleton, Colorado, which left themselves, twelve schoolmates and one teacher dead. Eighteen year old Eric Harris and seventeen year old Dylan Klebold appeared to have everything; stable homes, intelligence, personable looks, good education and bright future prospects. In the stunned aftermath of the massacre, the question "Why Littleton?" was repeatedly posed, both in the media and in countless soul searching conversations across the nation. This was not a gang-ridden urban wasteland, or a dying industrial hinterland beyond the beltway. Rather, Littleton, Colorado, appeared to be the apotheosis of the American dream; leafy, comfortable and above all, safe.
The American media, with typical paradoxical cynicism, fed the hysteria with sensational and intrusive coverage while simultaneously turning itself inside out in a frenzy of collective soul searching and blame laying. Everything from poor parenting to the popular culture consumed by the boys was examined, and as James Gilbert writing in The New Republic summed it up, "the ultimate message was....: our childrens behaviour is out of control because our culture is out of control."(1) Using Margaret Meads premise of 48 years ago, that school is a society comprised of children, for children, (2) it was not difficult to interpret behaviour such as that seen at Columbine High as not only an attack on children by children but an indictment on the parent society of which the school is a microcosm.
But, as Gilbert goes on to point out, this is a debate that has been raging for many years across all spectrums of the American arena and that the "problem with the cultural explanation for teen violence is that, notwithstanding numerous scientific attempts to do so, it is impossible to prove--there are simply too many other possible causes to factor into the equation."(3) My paper examines this history, not only where the debates seek to establish a connection between popular music and the behaviour of the adolescent male, but also it seeks to give a voice to the despised perpetrators of that violence. Donna Gaines, writing in her important book on the subject puts it, " History is always written by those who survive, rarely by those silenced in it." (4) The events at Columbine High School, the media coverage of the event and the months of discussion and analysis which followed it, provide an apposite starting point.
The debate that popular music can be held responsible for at least some of the ills of American society is not a new one. Prior to rock and roll, trad jazz was seen to be threatening, primarily but not only, because of its links with the myth of the "Negro", the sexually "natural man." In an article cited by Deena Weinstein in Heavy Metal : A Cultural Sociology, she quotes Harry Christian when he says,
" for young whites...it served as a suitable vehicle for musical protest
because of its relative musical simplicity and its atavism offended their
elders, as did its racial connections....these factors could be reinforced
by the myth of the red light origins of New Orleans jazz, and the less
mythical association with gangster speakeasies of the prohibition era." (5) Claude Chastagner, in his article The PMRC: from Information to Censorship recounts how the trade magazines, Billboard and Variety, launched a crusade against the "leerics" in rhythm and blues songs which led to the banning of many R&B records by radio stations. He quotes the North Alabama White Citizens Council declaring in 1956 "that rock and roll appealed to the base in man, brought out animalism and vulgarity and was part of a plot by the NAACP to mongrelise America."(6)
From its earliest days rock and roll also began to be associated with violence, through its often challenging attitudes to authority. In an effort to understand what was causing the perceived "juvenile delinquency" sweeping the nation, the F.B.I., under J. Edgar Hoover, spent two years looking, without success, for subversive suggestions in the lyrics of a hit song of the period, Louie, Louie. With the benefit of hindsight, it can be seen that this authoritarian hysteria was unwarranted. What was construed as deviant behaviour in the 1950s, current psychological thinking, as represented by child psychiatrist, Lynn E. Ponton, sees merely as "risk-taking (which) is normative, healthy developmental behaviour in the adolescent."(7) In her opinion, the adolescent is merely embarking on the crucial process of identity formation in a civilisation where societal rites of passage are increasingly rare.
The vandalism and riotous behaviour associated with teenage rebellion which had begun in the 1950s with Teds slashing cinema seats and Mods and Rockers fighting for territory on Brighton Beach increased markedly in the1980s when heavy metal (in all its types) and rap, appeared to some observers to encourage violence either towards society or towards the self. (8) The formation of the Parents Music Resource Centre (PMRC) in 1985 by a group of politicians and businessmens wives, most prominent amongst them Tipper Gore, the wife of present presidential candidate Al Gore, provided the focus this mood of disquiet needed. In 1986 Ozzy Osborne was sued and eventually cleared in court in Los Angeles of any responsibility in the suicide of a fan who shot himself, allegedly after listening to Suicide Solution. In 1990 Judas Priest were sued in Nevada after two teenage boys entered into a suicide pact which resulted in one of them dying on the spot, and the other being hideously maimed. Despite the surviving boy avowing that the lyrics were like Bible verses to him, ordering him to kill himself, once again the court failed to convict. As Justice Whitehouse had made clear in his opening remarks, "There is nothing in the music, the sound effects, or the lyrics that is actionable, because they are constitutionally protected." The issue that actually was on trial; that of intentionally placed subliminal messages which encouraged alienated adolescents such as these towards self harm, being hidden in the lyrics was easily dismissed.(9)
In the aftermath of Columbine, this debate was reopened with what appears to a detached observer to be an almost frantic intensity. The fact that Eric Harris, the recognised leader of the two boys, had a personal web site filled with apocalyptic messages of hate and destruction was taken seriously for the first time. (10) When it was discovered that interspersed with the typical teenage rants of "if you dont like it, well.....you know what to do. Anything I dont like . ....SUCKS." (11) and paeans to Hitler, were the lyrics from German industrial groups such as KMFDM and Rammstein, the media had found, in the familiar demon of popular music, a scapegoat upon which to heap the sacrificial blame. By framing the debate in terms of the superficial instead of the complex, once again the media, with a few notable exceptions, demonstrated how they, as the mouthpiece of the community they serve, were largely only able to examine the details, not the terrifying complexities of a big picture that defied understanding.
It is typical of this lack of understanding that the earliest commentators, as opposed to journalists giving narrative coverage, tackled the externals, and saw significances that were not necessarily correct. Marc Fischer, style writer of The Washington Post (12) writing the day after the massacre, identified the boys as black trench-coated followers of the Goth music scene. While he doesnt mention Marilyn Manson specifically, his article, given it appeared in the widely respected and circulated Washington Post, was sufficient for those journalists ill-informed in the minutiae of teenage musical genres, to make a quantum leap of logic and identify Manson, who is often erroneously identified as a Goth, presumably because he wears white makeup, as a primary influence in the boys lives. This was conveniently easy, given that the boys had a year earlier written a school paper on Manson, but there were obvious fallacies in this line of reasoning. Most notably, that he is not recognised by Goth followers as a Goth. However the outcry was sufficient to ensure the cancellation of the upcoming Manson concert at the Denver Red Rock Amphitheatre which was to kick off the summer concert season. Manson himself made a statement on 22nd April that he felt it to be "tragic and disgusting anytime young peoples lives are taken in an act of senseless violence." (13)
While it was obvious that the Goth angle would consume many more column inches before its inherent weaknesses overtook it, other journalists investigated the more obscure, but ultimately far more chilling, rock music produced by German groups KMFDM and Rammstein, or Americas own Nine Inch Nails. Often called industrial because of its links to a presumed industrial "noise" such as the hammering of heavy machinery, this music has links stylistic and thematic links with "hardcore" heavy metal, and to the casual listener is challenging and difficult to admire. Todd Purdum writing in The New York Times (14) on 23rd April reports that in the weeks before the massacre one of the boys (presumably Harris) had worn a hat with KMFDM on it and had musical tastes that appeared to include the Goth and industrial genres. While he admits that "it is not clear that either of the presumed gunmen firmly identified himself as a Goth or industrial adherent or that their musical tastes had anything to do with the shootings." he does posit that they "apparently found comfort in the words of the darker bards of their age...in this case the depressive, anarchic nihilistic and suicidal musings of the disparate strands of fringe rock music genres known as Goth and industrial."
Simultaneously, numerous newspapers, television, radio stations and websites across the country quoted the lyrics from KMDFMs Son of a Gun that Harris had posted on his web-site. This song came from a CD, which because it was to be the final offering from the group, was named Adios. Although at that point unreleased, it would not have been difficult to fans with the computer expertise of the two boys to gain access to the songs on the CD in advance of its general release date, presumably via mp3.com. Significantly, this release date was to be 20th April; Hitlers birthday and the day Harris and Klebold planned to act. Adios seemed all too appropriate a word to describe what the boys had in mind for those they saw as their tormenters. The lyrics in question appeared to many who read them to be a blue print for the massacre which took place.
Apocalypse now, Walls of flame
Billowing smoke, Whos to blame
Son of a gun, master of fate
Bows to no god, kingdom or state
Son of a gun, superhero No 1. (15)
On 23rd April, the lead singer Sasha K of KMDFM followed Mansons example and issued a statement of regret, and denied that their music condoned or encouraged violence. " KMFDM are an art form - not a political party. From the beginning, our music has been a statement against war, oppression, fascism and violence against others." (16) Lyrics from an earlier song, which Harrris had not quoted on his website appeared to bear this out.
Our societies are saturated with bloodlust, sensationalism and violence as a
result of the alienation from oneselfs reality.
How much longer do we tolerate mass murder? (17)
Hilary Rosen, president of the Recording Industry Association of America, also issued a statement of regret, and also insisted that rock music "does not drive teenagers to violent despair, nor does it put guns and weapons in the hands of children.." (18)
Predictably the Christian right took a sternly moralistic stance. F.R. Duplantier, from Focus on Faith quoted their research manager, Robert Waliszewkis report at length. "Three decades ago, not one popular song encouraged robbery, rape, murder, assaults or using weapons to settle disputes. In todays popular music all these themes can be found...and worse! Nothing is taboo." (19) He links it to a statistic he does not give the provenance of; that violent crime has increased 500% in the same thirty years. He concludes that "the purveyors of this musical madness should be held accountable for the damage theyve done to an entire generation of young Americans."
However Ann Powers writing in The New York Times on 25th April (20) introduces a voice of caution into the debate. She points out that "Rarely do either the advocates or the enemies of popular culture approach the subject with clarity and close attention." Using KDMFM, Rammstein and Marilyn Manson as examples she agrees that while the lyrics of these groups often express destructive urges, and that when backed up by the sheer explosive force of the sound, it is certainly possible that they might "prod" an alienated youth towards violence. But, she argues, groups such as these operate in the theatre of the absurd, satirising and theatricalising the rage and confusion often felt by their teenage fans, and that adult responses to this "difficult music often fail to grasp the difference between metaphor and reality." She even goes so far as to state that all these groups link the "tumult they generate with a longing for inner peace" and makes the point that instead of exploring youth culture in the company of those who consume it, outsiders often look at it out of context and so misinterpret what the consumers themselves see as self-evident.
I would go further, for in my opinion, much of this music explores aspects of the theatre of cruelty, often in shockingly literal terms. Dionysian examples which spring to mind are Mansons pretended onstage self-mutilation, or the miked body of the lead singer being beaten being used as an onstage percussive instrument as with Einsturzende Neubauten. Exhibitions such as these are so abhorrent to the conservative outsider that they quite literally fail to see that they are not, in Deena Weinsteins words " a call to act out evil deeds, but a transvaluation of the values of a respectable society......a way of reconciling the emotional strain between grasping the goodness of vitality and not being able to escape, within oneself, from societys judgment of one as a failure. Heavy metal is a cultural coping mechanism."(21) Strictly speaking, the music that the boys consumed was not heavy metal, but Weinsteins explanation remains applicable
A week after the shootings the blame seeking was being replaced by a need to find answers. Writing in The Boulder News on the 28th April, staff writer Greg Glasgow also quotes KMFDMs lyrics from Harris website ;
Destroy what destroys you. Do or die.(22)
but although he agrees that these are "Heavy words," he asks "are they catalysts for murder?" Quoting University of Colorado professor, Janice Peck, at length, he comes to the conclusion that blaming media influences as the prime cause for tragedies such as this is, in Pecks words, "too easy... there is a desire to simplify what is so complex because it makes it less threatening and more understandable." (23) Glasgows conclusion, in which he quotes a local music publicist who suggests that perhaps the NRA and the availability of weapons have a larger share of the blame than do song lyrics, video games or movies, is representative in the way the debate is broadening at this time.
Larry Katz writing in The Boston Herald on 29th April continues the debate in this vein. He points out how by this point in the debate the media had realised that "This particular aspect of the tragedy didnt have legs." because "the only thing certain from these idiotic reports about the music-Littleton connection was that these breathless reporters and their editors had never heard of Goth music prior to the shootings." (24) Neither, in his opinion, did the bogeyman currently being excoriated in the media, the film and video games industries, but rather America should turn its attention away from unprovable suppositions and get behind those in government attempting to control the access to firearms. This point of view is also echoed in a lead story in the Los Angeles Times of the same day. This concludes, "But no weapon makes murder faster or easier than a firearm, and there is no reason, ever, that this deadly power should fall as it does now, almost effortlessly, into the hands of twisted people who can then embark on a killing spree." (25)
British rock magazine, New Musical Express (NME), weighed in on 1st May with a biting attack on the "acrid stench of convenience" about the demonising of a "jerk" like Manson who "has built an admirably lucrative career on absolutely nothing more than a talent for courting outrage." while allowing "the guns - the actual, physical weapons of destruction (to) be freely available to anyone who wants to buy one."(26)
Richard Corliss, published in Time (27)on May 3rd, but presumably writing in the week prior, continues. While asking whether self-proclaimed satanist Manson could be blamed for inciting violence as an answer to personal problems through his self promoting use of shock imagery and violent lyrics, Corliss initially appears to agree as he quotes an early Manson song,. . I got my lunch box and Im armed real well
Next mother f.... gonna get my metal
Pow Pow Pow. (28)
but he is at pains to point out that another Manson lyric discusses the failure of parents to "see the anguish in my eyes." The article concludes with the thought that if parents did try to look more deeply into their childrens eyes "they might even see the tragic/ Turning into magic."( 29)
This article resonates compellingly with another written for the same magazine some nine months earlier. In the earlier piece, John Cloud writing on July 6th 1998, (30) had examined the musical tastes of boys who, up to that date, had turned guns on their class-mates. Luke Woodham listened to Marilyn Manson, Mitchel Johnson to Tupac Shakur, Kip Kinkel to Kurt Cobain of Nirvana. Cloud sees Cobains lyrics worthy of particular mention because, although he never suggests that they incite violence, in his opinion "they are lush with nihilism". He quotes from Kip Kinkels favourite CD.
"Death/ With violence
Excitement/ Right here
Died/ Go to hell...
Take a chance / Dead. (31)
and in an eerie precognition of Harris web page quotes Kip Kinkels. Kinkels own words describe teenagers such as himself as being "revved up by role-playing games, heavy metal music, violent cartoons/TV [and] sugared cereal."
Almost without exception, the debate engaged repeatedly with the issue of the perceived alienation, the "psychic deadness" (32) of not only the boys central to these tragedies, but to the generation to which they belonged. President Clinton asked for a period of "national soul searching" and announced that there would be hearing and investigations at all levels of government to find the causes.(33) Echoing this call another type of music, this time Cheryl Wheelers country rock hit, from those same heartlands of middle America as Columbine High received wide air-play.
Maybe its the movies, maybe its the books.....
Maybe its the drugs, maybe its the parents...
maybe its the music, maybe its the crack etc, etc
But I know one thing:
If it were up to me, Id take away the guns."(34)
Jann S. Wenner, editor of Rolling Stone expands this theme.(35) He quotes frightening statistics. At time of writing there are 192 million privately owned handguns in the United States, with 7.5 million being added to that total each year. In a Rolling Stone/MTV poll taken15 April 1999, 5 days before the Littleton tragedy, 84% of 12-24 year olds said they had easy access to fire-arms. In 1996, 9390 people were murdered with hand-guns in the US. In the same period, 2 in New Zealand, 15 in Japan, 30 in Great Britain, 106 in Canada and 213 in Germany. Wenner also points out that the Second Amendment, so often quoted self-protectively by the National Rifle Association (NRA), does not in fact guarantee ordinary citizens the absolute right to bear arms. With polls showing that nearly 80% of Americans favour effective gun control laws, six former attorney generals (from both parties) signed a statement in 1992 that argued that the law can be changed within the permits of the constitution and that "the nation can no longer afford to let the gun lobbys distortion of the Constitution cripple every reasonable attempt to implement an effective national policy towards guns and crime." (36)
Where this debate seemed to be moving towards, albeit in media rather than academic terms, was a recognition that the notion of listening and taking from music is, in Husserlian (Husserl 1964) terms, a kind of social practice. This concept is explained by Harris M. Berger with the observation, that "while perception is deeply informed by the social context at a variety of levels, it is also situationally variable and actively controlled by the participants. Perception is not the mechanical reaction of the culturally trained nervous system to physical stimuli; it is an active, bodily achievement, informed but not determined by social context." (37) Thus, the consumer of popular music in the persons of the boys who committed the massacre at Columbine High, had the agency, the ability to have acted otherwise (38) Unhappily for those affected by the actions of these two particular consumers, Bergers point that he admits he only touches upon in this wide ranging paper has perhaps particular relevance; "the details of musical perception and the experiences of musical sound they constitute have political significance because they operate through a logic of consequences. Experiences of musical sounds entail rich meaning that, in context, may be consequential for the participants lives and, through their lives, for the broader society." (39)
What the media coverage and public debate around this particular event, both historical and ongoing, repeatedly illustrates, is that economic and political self-interest, coupled with popular naivety continues to block comprehension of the the issues at the heart of the matter. Practical solutions, such as gun control, which might go some way towards curbing violence of the type that took place at Columbine High, would be a start but are not the answer. Rather, it seems obvious to the detached observer that the "profound sense of powerlessness, blocked aspirations and hopelessness..... The isolation and alienation of suburban life, coupled with the need for individual autonomy and personal dignity," (40) described in the writings of Donna Gaines must be addressed. This powerful writer points out that the state of adolescence, (and by that she includes young adults up to approximately twenty-four years of age) is a social construct, and as such can be deconstructed as rapidly as it was created should the need arise. She argues that it was cynically created in the years immediately post World War Two to define the autonomy of an age group who were removed from the labour force, ostensibly in the name of their social and educational good, but really in answer to the economic needs of a society that had no place for them in the work-force. They had been cynically reconstructed as consumers, but not necessarily given the life-skills which would give them the economic power with which to consume.
But, in Gaines opinion, by the 1980s "the concept of adolescence is ...obsolete....and the social contract between adults and youths is null and void."(41) She describes a faltering society, where economic pressures demand that two parents, in the ever dwindling number of two parent families, work, in order to support a family. Where social pressures brought about by the huge increase in divorce (1 in 2 of American marriages now end in divorce) are made worse by changing demographic patterns and losses of jobs and community brought about by globalisation of industry. In the face of all this, she sees no constructive effort being made to replace the care and mentoring once provided by the vanished nuclear family and the "village" of established small town life. Most tellingly, even the protective environment of "The one institution where it was all right to be young." (Ernest Boyer 1983) or, what David Elkind (42) describes as the "modern era high school" (as opposed to the post-modern) of post war suburbia, has crumbled in the face of those same economic and social pressures. Thus the "protected area where they (the adolescents) could devote their energies to the task of personal, social and occupational growth without pressure from the real world outside." (43) was no longer capable of providing the place of safety for the child who was no longer a child but not yet an adult. Elkinds research and life work illustrates that the caring, informed help by concerned adults to negotiate the extended climb towards an independent future, necessitated by the economic construct of adolescence is also often lacking. The fact that a meaningful future is all too frequently a transparent illusion, another construct propagated by adults struggling to uphold a patently hypocritical system, is not missed by many of the very children who were being educated within it. For Eric Harris, this future included a desire to join the Marines, and follow in the footsteps of his decorated father. The poignancy that an attempt to belong as an adult to the very society which had rejected him as a child, also failed, blocked by his understandable need for the anti-depressant drug Luvox, almost defies description.
Thus it is not surprising, in fact the symbolism of choosing the post modern high school, as exemplified by Columbine High, as a focus for the primal scream of rage that erupted on April 20th, was as blatant and as political as much of that employed by the "hardcore" music the boys listened to. It seems clear that in their eyes they were carrying to a logical conclusion, a belief system that had enabled them to retain some sort of faith in themselves, in a society which remorselessly belittled, and in the Biblical sense, denied them. For too long Columbine High, and by extention American society, had celebrated a culture of intolerance, where the adulation received by the sporting and social elite, "the jocks", had tacitly encouraged by not forbidding the demonising of the other; boys such as Klebold and Harris who did not, or could not fit what constituted the norm.
The answer to the question so often asked, "Why Littleton?" lies therein. Instead of inhabiting a society where their difference and intelligence was celebrated, these boys were driven by factors within this same society, to commit an atrocity which will ensure them infamy for decades to come. The fact that their constant bullying by many of the acknowledged leaders of their peer society, was tacitly sanctioned by the uncaring attitude of a school whose head did not know their names or their problems, (despite the fact they were in their senior year in a school of approximately only 1800 pupils) is as great a crime as that of which the boys undoubtedly stand accused. In this context, Gaines statement that "Suicide is death before dishonour, heroism before defeat." (44) is, in my opinion, frighteningly applicable. It is here, in the leafy heartland of America, simply too facile to assume murder is the seminal crime. By killing as they died, for surely Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris died a little with each life they took, they rejected in the most emphatic way conceivable, the futures mapped out for them by the society that had failed them. For, unlike the working class kids written about by Gaines, these boys did have futures, by dint of their intelligence and privileged backgrounds. However, their actions shout loudly that they wanted no part in futures that were based on cruelty and hypocrisy, but would rather die as "proud pariahs," (45) or to use a Biblical analogy, die like Samson, bringing the walls (of what in their experience was a complacent and uncaring society) down around them. In the words of Jim Morrison, singer/poet of an earlier generation, their gesture signified, for themselves, their victims and for America, that unless tragic, angry wakeup calls such as these are heeded, this truly could be "the end..." (45), if not in actuality, but in terms of what is still good in American society as it seeks to survive in the cold waters of the third millennium.