One of the stranger repercussions of the Dec. 14 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., was the temporary removal of the pop singer Ke$ha’s latest chart-topping single from radio playlists.
What’s strange is not that the song was removed. Its title is “Die Young,” after all. And although the lyrics have nothing to do with kindergartners or murder, the repeating titular refrain could have caused inadvertent pain at an uncommonly sensitive time.
What is strange is that it took the massacre of 20 children and eight adults, one of whom was the shooter Adam Lanza, for radio programmers to wonder whether repeated exposure to such a song might have deleterious effects on listeners or at least on the culture in which those listeners live, move, and have their being.
Relentlessly catchy and sung from the point of view of a hard-partying young woman whose lust and willingness to indulge it know no bounds, “Die Young” functions as propaganda for carpe diem hedonism at its most meaningless. And meaninglessness was certainly at least part of what Lanza was experiencing on the last day of his life.
A gleeful nihilism pervades the album on which “Die Young” appears. It’s called Warrior (RCA) but could just as easily have been called Copulate, Drink, and Be Merry. Like the electro-pop to which they’re set, the lyrics are often meretriciously perfervid. “Dirty Love” even finds Ke$ha and the godfather of punk, Iggy Pop, exchanging sexual single entendres over a 40-year age chasm. Listeners merely wanting a summary, however, need go no further than “Crazy Kids,” wherein Ke$ha avers that “We don’t give a [expletive deleted] / ’cause that’s just who we are.”
Lanza obviously didn’t give a [expletive deleted] either. And although he may have never heard one note of Warrior, he couldn’t have helped inhaling similarly toxic cultural stimulants during his 20-plus years in the public and semi-public education system. It wasn’t until he was in high school that his mother realized he’d have been better off taught at home.
By all accounts, Lanza was quite intelligent. Intelligent people get depressed when subjected to pedagogical nonsense. That his mother was his first victim last December suggests less that her decision to homeschool him was wrong than that it may have been too little too late.
As for Ke$ha, she too has marinated in cultural poison. Only 10 years old when Bill Clinton’s lying about Monica Lewinsky became acceptable because “everybody lies about sex,” she couldn’t have helped absorbing the idea that getting caught is the worst mistake anyone can make and that maxing out one’s sensual potential is an admirable goal. How else to explain Warrior’s Edna St. Vincent Millay–worthy exaltation of burning one’s sensuous candle at both ends?
Speaking of Millay, 2012 marked the centennial of her poem “Renascence,” which ends, “he whose soul is flat—the sky / Will cave in on him by and by.”
Some perspective: On Aug. 1, 1966, the ex-marine Charles Whitman went on a shooting spree in Austin, Texas, that left 14 dead. Like Lanza, Whitman began by shooting his mother (and then his wife) and ended by committing suicide. Yet there’s no evidence that radio stations scrubbed Napoleon XIV’s then-popular novelty song about being carted off to the looney bin, “They’re Coming to Take Me Away,” from their playlists.
By the rules of 21st-century sensitivity, they should’ve. Whitman was probably insane. Lanza may have been too.
But it’s the flatness of our souls that’s the bigger problem.