Sweet Home Alabama is the ubiquitous feel-good song. It lends itself to everything from summer road trips to drunken frat parties to scenes of Forrest Gump dancing inflexibly with his Jenny. Its easy mix of blues, country, and rock tends to obscure the fact that it’s been a politically-charged and highly controversial song for over 35 years. Seriously, how often can a song about Southern racism, the town that jailed Martin Luther King, Jr., the guy who famously said, “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!”, and Nixon’s boldfaced Watergate scandal get your toes tapping?
A little history puts the contradiction into better perspective. In 1970 and 1972, Neil Young released Southern Man and Alabama, respectively, which contained angry accusations of Southern, cross-burning bigotry. Despite being from Jacksonville, Lynyrd Skynyrd took it upon themselves to write Sweet Home Alabama in 1974 as a response to Young’s attacks. (Not to mention, Retirement Home Florida just doesn’t have the same ring to it.) Although the combination of upbeat music and dark politics seems strange, the formula obviously works; rather than fight fire with fire, Skynyrd made their response light and inviting, which gives it the impression of brushing Young’s accusations off as ineffectual. (See also: I’m rubber, you’re glue.)
Sometimes, self-contradiction is what makes music work. Just think of Bon Jovi’s 1986 hit Livin’ on a Prayer, a song is about union strikes, blue-collar jobs, reaganomics, and fighting to make a relationship work. If that’s not enough for you, its protagonists, Tommy and Gina, are inspired by two of Bon Jovi’s high-school friends whose dreams were interrupted by an unintended pregnancy. Despite the fact that these themes make most people want to tuck tail and run, the song soars and triumphs in the tradition of arena rock. Hell, the music video even features Bon Jovi literally flying on wires over the Olympic Auditorium in LA. So what gives? Let’s break the song down by stanza.
The first and second stanzas have a dark, inorganic sound that puts you on edge, especially with “woah woah woah” coming through the talkbox. Beginning with “She says we’ve got to hold on,” the third stanza lifts the song’s mood somewhat, but now there’s a high, repeating keyboard note that sounds remarkably like the “re! re! re!” from Psycho. Although this stanza sounds like a chorus, before you know it, Bon Jovi is belting out, “Ohhhhh, we’re halfway there!” This makes about as much sense as screaming, “Woo! We’re scraping by!”, but there’s a kind of desperate joy in saying “screw it” in the face of impossibility. The implication of this musical buildup is clear: victory against the odds. And just when you think you’ve got the song figured out, Bon Jovi takes the third repetition of the chorus up to an inimitably high note, which seems to suggest that in music as in life, the third time is the charm.
For a more modern musical take on unexpected juxtapositions, let’s have a listen to M.I.A.’s Paper Planes, which you probably recognize from Pineapple Express, Hancock, or Slumdog Millionaire. This catchy 2007 tune discusses using and selling drugs, forging visas, and killing people; however, what makes it controversial is its use of children’s imagery, melodies, and voices in portraying the criminal lifestyle. The song’s “paper planes” are a metaphor for getting high; its “pirate skulls and bones” correspond to “lethal poison”; its “sticks and stones” are followed by “weed and bombs”; the line “Some, some, some I, some I murder” has the sing-song feel of a jump-rope refrain; the chorus is sung by a child’s choir and contains gunshot and cash register noises: “All I want to do is [blam blam blam blam] and-a [click, ka-ching] and take your money.”
The song claims to raise the issue of “third-world democracy,” so why the unnervingly cheerful melody? By challenging our expectations, M.I.A. pushes our collective outrage button; apparently, we’ve gotten to the point where expressing anger in an angry fashion just doesn’t get anyone’s attention. (Sorry, Neil Young.) Moreover, the song addresses the fact that criminality sometimes seems like the only option for impoverished people in the developing world – including children. (Think back on news interviews with Somali children who literally aspire to be pirates when they grow up.) Paper Planes brings delinquency back down to the human level by showing it from a child’s point of view. “Everyone’s a winner,” the lyrics say, reminding us that for much of the world, deviant behavior is the only way to feel in control of an otherwise helpless situation.