Ten perfect pop songs with plots, shocking twists and body counts
It is a truth universally acknowledged (by me, because I write them) that the psychological thriller is the greatest sub-genre of crime fiction, itself the supreme genre of all time.
Psychological thrillers are really just old-school suspense; murder mysteries, but instead of the police coming to solve the crime the reader lives it through the victim’s or killer’s viewpoint – sometimes both.
If all art aspires to the form of music then no wonder people keep writing songs about murder. There are countless pop songs about ‘classic’ crime fiction: from Bob Marley’s I Shot the Sherriff to Johnny Cash’s Fulsome Prison Blues. These songs tell a subtler side of the same story.
The greatest domestic noir ballad ever. A small-town outcast finds love with Mary, who disappears in suspicious circumstances. (‘The first time that someone looked beyond the rumours and the lies and saw the man inside,’ suggests the backstory is a novel in itself). I have spent more hours poring over the lyrics than is healthy and have spotted a hole in the alibi. In the second verse he croons ‘the night she went out walking all alone and never came home.’ Yet just before the middle eight he says, ‘I swear I left her by the river. I swear I left her safe and sound.’ These two facts are clearly contradictory. Lock him in Hazzard County jail and throw away the key.
Killer Lyric: No escape for me this time / All of my refuges gone
An indie-pop murder mystery in E-flat, about a boy whose ‘friend’ (yeah right) Jenny has gone missing. There are those who say that this is a poor man’s Hazzard although actually the stakes are higher in this novel. Here our narrator appears to be actually in police custody, addressing the officers who hold him. If he’s telling the truth – and unreliable narrators are a staple of the genre – his insistence that ‘She said she loved me, but she had somewhere to go,’ suggests that Jenny had another close friend. We never find out whether he’s guilty but they must have at the very least strong circumstantial evidence to bring him in.
Killer Lyric: There ain’t no motive for this crime
A masterpiece in subtext: a young woman from the Mississippi Delta narrates the suicide of her classmate, Billy Joe McAllister. Verse by insidious verse she reveals her own tragic part in his decision to leap off the Tallahassee Bridge. In the original, Bobbie Gentry’s haunted voice is at eerie odds with the jaunty guitar picking and the twist in the tale is as disturbing as anything you’d find in a Gillian Flynn novel. Don’t tell the purists but I actually prefer the Sinead O’Connor* haunting cover version. However it is disqualified for having a baby’s cry sound-effect in the final verse. Show don’t tell, Sinead, show don’t tell.
Killer Lyric: She and Billy Joe was throwing something off the Tallahassee Bridge.
Iggy Pop rasps a warning that a serial killer is on the loose over looping bass and snaking oboe. In a reveal worthy of first-year crime-writing students everywhere, he turns out to be the killer. The vocal is chillingly convincing. By all accounts Iggy Pop is a lovely bloke in real life but you’ve got to admit it’s very easy to imagine waking suddenly in the small hours to find him sitting on the edge of your bed wearing nothing but silver trousers and unspooling a roll of duct tape. Subtle it ain’t, and the video loses points for a ‘whoops there go my clothes’ girl stumbling across in escape from a killer, but as a game of cat and mouse between predator and victim, this is the pick of the pops.
Killer Lyric: Aisha… he got out.
Witty, meta, disturbing, angry and catchy as all hell. Misfit super-fan Stan writes endless scratchy letters to his idol, rapper Slim Shady. Slim’s ongoing failure to reply and an accidental blanking of Stan outside a rainy stage door forces Stan to respond in a way that seems perfectly logical to him: by getting tanked up and deliberately driving his pregnant girlfriend off a bridge. In a truly Shakespearean twist, Slim Shady’s letter arrives one day too late. Uniquely in this list, Stan also presages a real-life crime in that it launched guest singer and video star Dido to global domination.
Killer Lyric: Sometimes I even cut myself to see how much it bleeds
Here’s your mild-mannered auntie on the outside of six Babychams at your cousin’s wedding, leading a chorus of hammered relatives in a jolly little sing-song about a violent misogynist who gets dumped, spies on his ex, catches her with another man and then stabs her to death but it was all her fault because she didn’t want to have sex with him any more, do you see? A masterpiece in victim-blaming.
Killer Lyric: Forgive me Delilah I just couldn’t take any more.
This is a dark, brilliant little vignette of a lonely man who takes wretched comfort in an imaginary relationship with a woman he knows only from pictures. Is she a magazine covergirl? A painting in a museum? His repression bubbles over in street violence ‘I’ve been starting fights’ and he finally confesses he can’t bear to think of her in a physical way, suggesting that if this fantasy woman ever turned up on his doorstep he’d go postal. It’s John Fowles The Collector with hand claps.
Killer Lyric: You are my girl and you don’t even know it
Only Nick Cave could release an album called Murder Ballads. The record’s breakout single Where The Wild Roses Grow gets all the attention because of Kylie giving it her best Ophelia in a wet nightie in the video, but this, adapted from a folk song, is just as dark. PJ Harvey’s deranged narrator tries to seduce Henry Lee who already has a girlfriend. Unusually for a man in a psychological thriller, Henry is a decent man of deep integrity. He pays for his fidelity with his life: she plugs him with a knife and throws him down a well. Folk songs pre-existing DNA fingerprinting, we’re assuming she got away with it.
Killer Lyric: That girl you love in that merry green land can wait forever for you to come home.
No musical genre does narrative like Country and this feminist revenge anthem – think Thelma and Louise in aural form – has a beginning, middle and a gloriously satisfying end. This is a deceptively twangy song about an abused woman who enlists her best friend’s help to poison her estranged husband’s black-eyed peas (bonus points for C&W brand consistency).
Killer Lyric: Ain’t it dark wrapped up in that tarp, Earl?
You might think it’s a chirpy little synth-pop classic, and on one level I concede that yes it is about a power struggle between two lovers torn apart by showbiz. But now listen to it again, imagining that the song’s dialogue playing out with the woman chained to a radiator in a cellar in Sheffield while police helicopters circle overhead.
Killer Lyric: Do you think you’ll change your mind? You’d better change it back or we will both be sorry.
We’d love you to add to our list – can you think of any more songs with a psychological thriller plot?