Songs of Derision

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Song is a forceful implanter of information. Whether we want it to or not, a properly proportioned and memorably melodious tune can mold our thoughts long after the music has ceased. Because music imbues words with emotional content and fastens them into memory, song is an invaluable and penetrating purveyor of opinion. There is no shortage of studies and anecdotes espousing the aptness of melody for communicating (and manipulating) viewpoints and ideas. Rhythm, repetition, tempo, pattern and other devices act as tools of indoctrination, reiterating convictions and influencing attitudes.

Melody is a neutral carrier of a singer’s intentions. The music is a means of transmitting content, but cannot by itself relate definite viewpoints. The same tune might be used to tell of lost love, impart a moral lesson or petition a deity. When the focus is a human being, the singer might paint that person in a positive or negative light. In the vast treasury of world music, there are probably as many songs extolling individuals as there are songs ridiculing them.

Songs of praise and songs of disparagement are equally capable of sculpting our judgment. Melody encodes the characterization into the brain, where it rests so comfortably and is recalled so effortlessly that there is seemingly no reason to question or refute it. Its message becomes our own.

Depending on the tone of the lyrics, people songs can be a source of uplift or a cause of pain. We can imagine the subject of a heroic ballad being puffed up by the glowing terms with which he is described (hyperbolic though they usually are). We can also picture the subject of a mocking song feeling deflated or fearful at the words he hears. Songs of the latter type are all the more devastating as they typically contain untruths and exaggerations aimed at inciting hostility and aggression.

Derisive songs are meant to break people down. Their success in doing so is proven by their historical prevalence; they are sung because they work. Jeering songs crowded the repertoires of the jesters of Aztec Mexico, skalds of Scandinavia and minstrels of Anglo-Saxon Europe. They remain popular among folk balladeers of West Africa and the Bahamas, and are heard on schoolyards everywhere. The psychological toll of such music is documented, among other places, in the Hebrew Bible.

Although the lyrics of mocking songs are not part of the biblical record, their consequence is described in several verses. The psalmist bemoans, “I am the taunt of drunkards” (Ps. 69:12). Job weeps, “Now I am the butt of their gibes; I have become a byword to them” (Job 30:9). The author of Lamentations cries out that he has “become a laughingstock to all people, the butt of their gibes all day long” (Lam. 3:14). In each instance, the ridicule is felt so deeply that the person turns to divine help. Heavenly reassurance seems the only possible antidote.

Presbyterian minister William Swan Plumer (1802-1880) called scornful songs “an old weapon of the adversary.” He cautioned that the blend of piercing melody and spiteful verse makes taunting music especially hard to bear: “Few have courage to endure it. Under its stroke thousands quail. The natural temper of most men quite unfits them for this kind of suffering. . . . They dread the finger of scorn more than they do the warrior’s steel.” If there is any truth to the tired aphorism, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” it most certainly does not apply when words are sung.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

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