The Killing Type

When Ken asked me if I’d be interested in participating in this conversation I was thrilled – there are so many songs, so many questions, and so many half-baked theories, that this blog provokes. A big one is “why do these songs have such power over us?” or more specifically, what does the music and the performance itself add to the tragic tales of murder and death that is their subject? In an attempt to answer that, I want to introduce you all to Amanda Palmer, and most specifically a song she wrote called The Killing Type.

Not sure how many of you are familiar with Amanda Fucking Palmer:  she’s a ubiquitous presence on the internet – constantly blogging, posting, tweeting and sharing in a way that attempts to break down the wall separating the audience from the performer.  She began her career as a street performer and then formed the “punk cabaret” band the Dresden Dolls.  Like all good cabaret performers, she engages in a constant flirtation with her audience.  Here’s a clip of her doing Pirate Jenny from the Threepenny Opera, which Ken discussed in his Mack the Knife posts:
So you can see – she’s a performer who puts it all out there, and with a Brecht/Weill song, she’s able to play up the emotional theatrics for all they’re worth.

But now, let’s listen to the Killing Type. This song Amanda wrote herself, and it talks about killing for passion:

The song starts off with her disavowals, she’s not the killing type – she wouldn’t kill to win a war, she couldn’t kill in self-defense, and she couldn’t even kill to bring her lover back. But, she exclaims, and finally here the band kicks in, she could kill to make you feel.

And yet even here she backs off and says,

I don’t mean kill someone for real
I couldn’t do that it is wrong
but I can say it in a song
As if the song itself is the murderous act. And I almost buy it, when she drops down into her lower register and says “I’m saying it NOW” – I almost believe that the song provides her the cathartic release that she needs.

But then, in the end her screams of “DIE! DIE! DIE!” lose me. They’re too over the top and somehow their directness feels inauthentic. For me – the song ends as a good and catchy pop song, but nothing more.

And yet – in the video performance of it, something else happens. The video, with its carefully painted kill, gives it the emotional power that, in my opinion, the song itself just misses. And it does this by drawing out the only actual murder that takes place – her “mercy killing” of a dying bird – and visually connecting the emotion of that kill to her emotions in bed, with her innocent lover.


The Killing Type — 1 Comment

  1. Thanks, Maureen, for introducing the song. Fascinating. I think it resonates with some other material we’ve looked at here, but is also quite novel.

    What do you make of the “Mack the Knife” reference? Visibility and invisibility play a huge role in MtK, but external among the multiple players. Here, the dynamic is entirely internal.

    I’m also curious about the bird. We have plenty of material to do a multi-week series on birds in murder ballads. I’m reasonably certain that Palmer is tapped into their symbolic aspects–perhaps having heard a bit about the Raven King.

    I also like that the song gives you an endless number of options about which lines of it to believe and which lines to discredit.

    I’ve recently started reading David Byrne’s “How Music Works.” In the opening chapter of that book, he talks specifically about how genres of music develop to fit their performance context, usually a space–rhythmic, outdoor music in African villages; slow, modal, sacred music played in cavernous, reverberating cathedrals. I agree with you that the video, despite or perhaps because of the disturbing imagery at the end makes the song more effective. In this sense, the piece is more performance art, and is probably not at its best in an audio-only presentation. I find that it’s not only the stagecraft, but Palmer’s facial expressions that give the lyrics new meanings that not always obvious in the audio. I don’t think this is a criticism of the song per se, but perhaps an example of the artificiality of separating faces from voices in musical performance.