Songs are odd little things. Regardless of what their writers or performers intended, once songs are out in the world, we fill them up with our own experience -- our love and hope and sex and dreams, to quote Jagger and Richards. How songs become part of our personal soundtracks is a fascinating topic and is perhaps the most poignant explanation for why music matters.
But sometimes the ugly world intrudes upon our personal soundtracks, turning good associations into unavoidably bad ones. Someone or some event (or both) pushes that song that reminds you of your third grade field trip onto the front page and you just can't listen to that cut ever again – at least not without thinking about whatever awful thing dragged it into the news.
The following list compiles nine songs so closely associated with a crime or controversy that they're almost impossible to hear without thinking of their related news story.
This is one of the most recent entries into the "ruined song" bestiary. Everlast's 1998 hit had the misfortune of playing in Michael T. Slager's patrol car while outside, the Charleston, S.C. officer shot Walter Scott in the back and killed him. Everlast handled the coincidental controversy as well as can be expected, writing on his Facebook page: "I'm being asked a lot to comment on the dash cam recording of the Walter Scott shooting. All I really have to say regarding it is that my heart goes out to the family of the victim and to interject my opinions any further would seem self serving and rather opportunistic. What song was playing isn't even important it's just ironic a song about empathy and compassion is the soundtrack to this awful action."
With a title like Highway to Hell, AC/DC's fifth album was destined for controversy right out of the gate. But when an on-the-loose serial killer terrorizing California left a hat bearing the band's logo at one of his crime scenes, the Aussie band became inextricably linked to self-professed Satanist Richard Ramirez. During the hunt for Ramirez, the media deemed him the Night Stalker, a play on Highway to Hell's "Night Prowler," forever tainting the song. Our friends at Ultimate Classic Rock published a great piece on the case.
"Helter Skelter"The Beatles
When 32-year-old, small-time criminal Charles Manson was released from prison in 1967, the Summer of Love was in full bloom. Music, drugs, free love and communes proved a toxic combination for a manipulative sociopath like Manson. By the beginning of 1969, he had his followers convinced that a race war named "Helter Skelter" was coming – an event that they tried to trigger themselves on March 13 of that year with the grizzly murders of Sharon Tate and the other residents of the now infamous house on Cielo Drive. Manson follower Susan Atkins wrote "Pig" on the front door in Tate's blood, an apparent reference to another Beatles song, "Piggies." The next night saw the Manson Family commit the Tate-La Bianca murders, where "Death to Pigs" and "Healter Skelter" [sic] were written in blood at the crime scenes. Incidentally, a "helter skelter" is not a race war, but a British amusement park ride featuring a slide that twirls around the exterior of a tower. Missed it by that much, Charlie.
"Suicide Solution"Ozzy Osbourne
"Wine is fine but whiskey's quicker / Suicide is slow with liquor." So opens Ozzy Osbourne's 1980 ode to alcoholism. Is the song advocating suicide as a panacea for one's problems or defining booze as suicide in a bottle? The answer depends on one's definition of "solution." Remarkably, the two meanings of "solution" were not at the heart of the lawsuit filed by the parents of John McCollum, a teenager who shot himself after allegedly listening to "Suicide Solution." The McCollums' attorney argued that the cut included hidden messages, particularly "Why try? Get the gun and shoot." The lawsuit was eventually dismissed for lack of merit, but not before becoming the first thing people think about when they hear this track.
"Rock and Roll, Part 2"Gary Glitter
When released in 1972, "Rock and Roll" went top 10 in both the U.S. and the U.K. For the next 35 years, the instrumental track with its infectious "Hey!" was a sports stadium favorite. That all changed in 1997 when Paul Gadd, aka Gary Glitter, dropped off his laptop for repairs and techs found child pornography on his hard drive. What followed were years of legal issues as victims came forward with their stories. Gadd is now serving a 16-year sentence for his crimes and his biggest hit is forever tainted.
On January 8, 2011, Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot during a public appearance. She wasn't the only one: Jared Lee Loughner shot 19 people during that incident, killing six. Because Loughner was a fan of Drowning Pool, many rushed to the conclusion that their song "Bodies" had something to do with the tragedy. Regardless of whether that's true, those who followed the story can't help but think of that day when they hear this cut.
"Better By You, Better Than Me"Judas Priest
Another tragic suicide/heavy metal connection from the mid-80s, this time involving two kids from Reno and the metal gods, Judas Priest. This case focused on subliminal messages, which were all the rage for concerned citizens during the '80s. The lawsuit against Judas Priest alleged that the band hid the phrase "do it" throughout this song, which encouraged the two boys to tuck shotguns beneath their chins and pull the triggers. As in the "Suicide Solution" incident, the case was eventually dismissed.
"Age Ain't Nothing But A Number"Aaliyah
Aaliyah was only 15-years-old when her mentor, R. Kelly, wrote this song for her. Hearing a teenager sing, "Age ain't nothing but a number / Throwing down ain't nothing but a thing" was creepy enough. But when allegations surfaced years later that Kelly had engaged in some seriously inappropriate behavior with underage girls, the song became too disturbing for many listeners to enjoy.
"Girl You Know It's True"Milli Vanilli
Milli Vanilli have been a punchline since 1990, but there was a time when "Girl You Know It's True" ruled the airwaves. The song was an international bestseller, and it just missed number one in the United States. The duo even won the "Best New Artist" Grammy that year, only to have their house of cards collapse when allegations that they didn't sing on their own album proved true. It wasn't the song's fault that lip-synchers perpetrated fraud, but that didn't prevent it from being rendered unlistenable in the wake of the controversy. Who are we kidding? It was unlistenable in the first place.