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Friday, September 26, 2008

Some Vacant Chatter on Deeply Meaningful Melodies

After reading Paul’s post below, I became very concerned that The Volokh Conspiracy might surpass this blog in vacant chatter, so I’ve decided to quickly add some more here so that we (like the Minnesota Twins last night) can once again take a half-game lead.

Here at Oklahoma City University School of Law, one of our great strengths over the past few years has been in law and rock music.  Alex Long, who has blogged about this topic before, published the seminal article on this subject while on the faculty here a few years ago (We’ve now sadly lost him to the Univ. of Tennessee’s Law and Lyrics program, but are committed to rebuilding our strength in this area).  Mike O’Shea has also made some trailblazing contributions to deciphering the mumbled, feedback-smothered words of My Bloody Valentine songs.   

Following the example of others who have started up a “research canons” project here on PrawfsBlawg, I’d like to begin this master compilation of law-related lyrics on various subject areas, along with my tentative hypotheses about their law-related meanings, so that we might – together – create a database on law and rock music that will one day replace the casebooks we currently use in class:

Property is the obvious place to start, since famous rock bands have been kind enough to write songs dedicated to takings clause questions (Joni Mitchell: “they paved paradise and put up a parking lot” and Jethro Tull: “They say they gave me compensation...
That's not what I'm chasing. I was a rich man before yesterday.
 And what do I want with a million dollars and a pickup truck?
 When I left my farm under the freeway”).  Evidence is also a popular subject among rock singers, as is clear from REO Speedwagon’s famous song about hearsay (“heard it from a friend who, heard it from a friend who, heard it from another you been messin’ around”) and from Arlo Guthrie’s song Alice’s Restaurant (that discusses the introduction into evidence of visual diagrams and photographs).

But what I think is of more interest to me are the more subtle legal analyses one often finds in more obscure indie rock pieces, like the following:


“Cause you go on and off, there ain’t no way of ever finding out.
It’s the law man, you gotta understand,
think about the [impossible to make out: symptoms too much?]. 
Never underestimate a single opportunity.”
(Moving Targets, Faith on the LP Burning in Water (1986))

This has got to be about Justice Kennedy and the impossibility of predicting whether he’ll be with the liberal or conservative bloc.  Note that the lyrics also insinuate – years before the damning New Republic article -- that opportunism may be at the root of this unpredictable behavior.  That's all just a (possibly mistaken) hypothesis.  But what’s remarkable about the song is its prescience:  it was released in 1986, over a year before Justice Kennedy was nominated to the Supreme Court!  Now I’m not saying that the quantitative analysis here is necessarily up to the standards of the best empirical analysis in legal scholarship, but it’s pretty good considering they didn’t yet have any votes from Justice Kennedy to analyze.


“They take away our freedom
In the name of liberty
Why don’t they all just clear off
Why don’t they let us be.”
(Stiff Little Fingers, Suspect Device, on the LP Inflammable Material (1979)

Isaiah Berlin is the most famous figure to outline the distinction between negative and positive liberty and to explain why it is dangerous to substitute negative liberty (the absence of constraints on, or barriers to, action) with positive liberty (liberty that consists not simply in being let alone, but in some type of human capacity, often one requiring collective action and constraint on individual choice in order to enable the relevant capacity).  But as powerful as Berlin’s essay is, I think that Stiff Little Finger’s restatement of the argument is in some respects more powerful – if only because they had much louder amps and, being a late 1970s punk band, screamed and growled their lyrics rather than simply singing them (over the otherwise irresistibly catchy melody).

“I try to find a way to be free
of everything that’s troubling me
But freedom’s such a fickle thing.”
(The Jean Paul Sarte Experience, Spaceman, on Bleeding Star (1993)).

Same as above.  According to the always correct Wikipedia, the band had to change its name to the "JPS Experience" in response to threats of a lawsuit from the estate of Jean Paul Sartre.  Goes to show that if you’re going to name your band or hit song after a philosopher, you might want to choose one whose heirs won’t take you to court over it (e.g., the Ohio band, “John Stuart Mill,” or The Dandy Warhols’ song “Nietzsche.”)


“There’ll be a calmer time when everything’s organized
Everything’s simplified
No one persuading me to seek some prize
That isn’t found anywhere
There’s karmic injustice here
But who do you sue?
(The Chills, So Long on Soft Bomb (1992))

That’s a really good question from Chills lead singer Martin Phillips.  A student once asked me that in Admin Law and I didn’t know the answer (Is there a Court of Karma? If so, is it an Article III Court or is it an agency tribunal within the Treasury Department?).  Since The Chills are from New Zealand, Phillips’ answer is likely to be quite different from the one we would teach in US law school remedies classes, (as is Culture Club’s “Karma Chameleon,” which comes from England), so I’m hoping an American band will cover this song and change the lyrics to reflect domestic law.


“The golden-eyed hypnotist
Who slides down our throats
Will turn us to supermen
We’re stuck in a loop again
And I’m waiting
For the recidivist
To change his ways
Or to reoffend”
(The Bevis Frond, Old School Rock, on Valedictory Songs (2000)).

An illuminating tune, from the always illuminating Bevis Frond, about drug regulation, or recidivism, or maybe the use of forced medication to transform hardened criminals into nicer people and/or trial-ready defendants.  As you can probably tell, I have no idea what this song’s about, but “recidivist” and “reoffend” clearly make it appropriate for criminal law classes.

“Come on babe
Come on set me free
I’ve paid for my crime
Come on babe
Come on rescue me
Just this last time.”
(Dinosaur Jr., Kracked, on Living All Over Me (1987))

Clearly about the Supreme Court’s review of habeas petitions.  Or maybe parole board proceedings.

“Every night it’s gotta be adventure
The way you live your life’s a crime
And if you’re guilty will you serve the sentence
You are already doing time.”
(Husker Du, Friend, You’ve Got to Fall, on Warehouse Songs and Stories (1986))

As far as I can tell, Husker Du is agreeing with Justice Scalia that government should be able to criminalize acts on the basis of public morality even if such acts don’t justify government restriction on the basis of John Stuart Mill’s harm principle.

“His lawyers said, ‘This boy is sick.
Blame the ratings for his crime.’
They said ‘Too much sex and too much violence on the idiot box
Spoiled his idiot mind’
He was a Television Addict!”
(The Victims, Television Addict, which was a single in 1978 and also on the LP “All Loud on the Western Front.”).

This just makes the obvious point that responsibility for violent acts should be that of the television shows that motivate them and not the people who commit them.


“Call me on the line
Call me call me any anytime
Call me . . .  you can call me any day or night”
(Blondie, Call Me – single (1980))

“You just call out my name, and you know where ever I am
I’ll come running to see you again.
Winter, spring, summer, or fall, all you have to do is call and I'll be there, yeah, yeah”
(James Taylor, You’ve Got a Friend, on Mud Slide Slim (1971))

I think these lyrics speak for themselves.

OK.  That’s enough vacant chatter on this incredibly important subject.  If anyone has lyrics that shed light on John McCain’s recent behavior regarding the proposed bailout, or on Sarah Palin’s CBS interview, please let everyone know.

Posted by Marc Blitz on September 26, 2008 at 01:57 PM in Music | Permalink


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Jay-Z, "99 Problems"

[Verse Two]
The year's '94 and my trunk is raw
In my rear view mirror is the mother fuckin' law
I got two choices y'all pull over the car or (hmmm)
Bounce on the double put the pedal to the floor
Now I ain't tryin' to see no highway chase with Jay.
Plus I got a few dollars I can fight the case
So I...pull over to the side of the road
I heard "Son do you know why I'm stoppin' you for?"
Cause I'm young and I'm black and my hat's real low?
Do I look like a mind reader sir, I don't know
Am I under arrest or should I guess some mo'?
"Well you was doin fifty-five in a fifty-fo' "
"License and registration and step out of the car"
"Are you carryin' a weapon on you I know a lot of you are"
I ain't steppin out of shit all my paper's legit
"Well, do you mind if I look round the car a little bit?"
Well my glove compartment is locked so are the trunk in the back
And I know my rights so you gon' need a warrant for that
"Aren't you sharp as a tack, you some type of lawyer or something'?"
"Or somebody important or somethin'?"
Nah, I ain't pass the bar but i know a little bit
Enough that you won't illegally search my shit
"We'll see how smart you are when the K9 come"
I got 99 problems but a bitch ain't one
Hit me

Posted by: anon | Sep 29, 2008 10:13:13 AM

Well, the album New Day Rising contains the song "Powerline", and it is the only song I know of that foresees a productive solar energy industry and seems to call for it to be subsumed under a nationalized, non-profit governmental entity.

"Strung high on every pole
How can this power be bought and sold?
Trying to harness solar rays
Making minutes seems like days"

Posted by: Daniel Holway | Sep 26, 2008 6:56:12 PM

Wow. That's right. After reading your comment, I went to the piece of technology whose emergence they predicted and tracked down this video of them singing their prophecy (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ozgik_JfaB8). And since, as Dave points out above, it's hard to imagine either of their two songwriters agreeing with Justice Scalia, it's probably more accurate to read that lyric as a prophecy as well (perhaps regarding Elliot Spitzer, Jim McGreevey or some other political figure recently undone by adventurous extracurricular activities). So what about "New Day Rising"?

Posted by: Marc Blitz | Sep 26, 2008 6:04:06 PM

In Hüsker Dü's "Divide and Conquer", written in 1984, they predicted the rise of the internet and its attendant problems of cybercrime.

"We'll invent some new computers
Link up the global village
And get AP, UPI, and Reuters
To tell everybody the news.

We'll be one happy neighborhood
Spread out across the world
But who's going to stop that burglar
From breaking in my house
If he lives that far away?"

Posted by: Daniel Holway | Sep 26, 2008 5:46:43 PM

Somehow, I just don't see Bob Mould (or Grant Hart, for that matter) agreeing with Scalia on much of anything... :)

Posted by: Dave! | Sep 26, 2008 3:03:44 PM

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