In three signature songs by three major musicians, prison and imprisonment play a central role. Prison and the artist’s view on imprisonment is informed especially by their chosen genres of music and its role in popular music has evolved over time. Specifically, folk music, early rock’n’roll, and modern techno-pop will be examined.
Johnny Cash – Folsom Prison Blues (1955)
Born to a working-class family in rural Arkansas during the Great Depression, Johnny Cash grew up in the era characterized by social turmoil, including ubiquitous racism. His father, Ray, was a violent man and an unapologetic racist who boasted of attending several lynchings [BBC News, ‘Johnny Cash and his prison reform campaign’]. The young J.R. Cash, as he was known then, began working in the cotton fields at the age of five and his family’s personal and financial struggles later influenced the working-class themes of his music.
‘Folsom Prison Blues’ is one of Johnny Cash’s defining songs as an artist. The song was written and released in the mid-1950’s, during the peak of Cash’s popularity as a musician. By the time the ’60’s rolled around, his career began to wane quite a bit until 1968, when he decided to perform live at a number of prison venues in order to encourage nationwide prison reform, including the eponymous Folsom.
Despite Cash’s well-documented avoidance of any long-term imprisonment, the lyrics of Folsom Prison Blues are sung from the perspective of someone who has committed murder and recognizes that his punishment is justified. The power of Cash’s song and lyrics lies in the ostensible realism of Cash’s persona. Though his character admits to the crime, we can almost empathize with his lament and sympathize with his loss of freedom.
I hear the train a comin’/
It’s rolling round the bend/
And I ain’t seen the sunshine since/
I don’t know when/
. . .But I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die
The singer imagines an ‘Us vs. Them’ comparison in the second stanza which seems to alienate him (and other ‘poor’ inmates) from the wealthier class who enjoy the luxuries of fine products and freedom:
I bet there’s rich folks eating from a fancy dining car/
They’re probably drinkin’ coffee and smoking big cigars/
Well I know I had it coming, I know I can’t be free
But those people keep a movin’
And that’s what tortures me.
Johnny Cash identified his music as belonging to the folk genre, and as such, the lyrical content is of prime importance. In this case, Cash illustrates a ‘rational choice model,‘ in which the singer/offender knows what he did was wrong, but also recognizes a need to seek redemption, mostly through suffering [JCJPC 17(1) 2010 164]. One of the main arguments for Cash’s characters is that they are indeed flawed, but are also still very much human in their emotions. Johnny Cash used many of the characters from his music to argue for prison reform, specifically for emphasizing the rehabilitative aspects of prison, corrective measures for ensuring that criminals would not recommit their crimes because Cash’s music likewise emphasized that people could become better if they suffer enough. Many of his listeners are able to identify with these human qualities.
Elvis Presley – Jailhouse Rock (1957)
Two years after Folsom Prison Blues was released, Elvis Presley shook up the nation with Jailhouse Rock, another song purportedly sung by an inmate. As an example of early rock n‘ roll, Jailhouse Rock’s lyrics are composed of simple rhymes and a catchy tune that makes it fun to dance. Elvis lists the inmates by their nicknames and how they participate in the jailhouse rock ‘party,’ including playing various instruments, dances, etc. The song culminates in one inmate attempting to use the occasion to escape while another refuses due to the liveliness of the party:
Shifty Henry said to Bugs, “For Heaven’s sake/
No one’s lookin,‘ now’s our chance to make a break.”/
Bugsy turned to Shifty and he said, “Nix nix,/
I wanna stick around a while and get my kicks.”/
For Elvis’ song, prison is a venue of pure entertainment, a place to ‘get your kicks’ and the warden himself is the party-planner. The lightheartedness and catchy tune of the song made it a staple of early juke joints throughout America and solidified its popularity among the nation’s youth.
‘Jailhouse Rock’ has been cited as the very first music video. Here we can see an early relationship between visual and lyrical elements. In this case, Elvis jumps about and regularly performs his infamous pelvic thrusting.
His all-male backup ensemble wear a stylized version of the prisoner’s black-and-white striped outfit and dance about wildly. This ‘bubblegum pop‘ version portrays prison as a contemporary dancehall. Throughout Jailhouse Rock, Elvis references several real people and organizations, although he imposes some artistic interpretation in order to accommodate the song’s theme.
Spider Murphy played the tenor saxophone/
Little Joe was blowin’ on the slide trombone/
The little drummer boy from Illinois went crash, boom, bang,/
The whole rhythm section was the Purple Gang./
. . .
Shifty Henry said to Bugs, “For Heaven’s sake,/
No one’s lookin,’ now’s our chance to make a break.”/
Bugsy turned to Shifty and he said, “Nix nix,/
I wanna stick around a while and get my kicks.”/
Shifty Henry was a well-known musician in the Los Angeles area and not a criminal. The Purple Gang, on the other hand, were a well-documented criminal enterprise based out of Detroit, Michigan in the 1920s. The members were predominantly Jewish and they pursued a wide range of illegal activities, including murder, extortion, theft, armed robbery, kidnapping, gambling, and most notably, bootlegging throughout Prohibition.
Lady Gaga – Telephone (2010)
Lady Gaga’s Telephone is pure techno/dance/pop music and as such, the lyrics lack much depth of narrative as seen in Johnny Cash’s Folsom Prison Blues or even Elvis’ Jailhouse Rock. Without this lyrical depth, Lady Gaga prefers to deliver her story in a highly elaborate video. Telephone is the only song I am analyzing that was written and produced after the MTV music video period (1982-onwards) and as such, it continues and expands upon the conventional music video.
The 9-minute video is a sequel to Lady Gaga’s previous ‘Paparazzi‘ music video, which ended after she (the singer/speaker) was arrested for murdering her boyfriend by poisoning his drink. At the start of the video, she is taken to a women’s prison where she is led to a cell, stripped of all her clothing by the two female guards and mocked by the other women inmates. Within the first minutes, we find Gaga engaging in absurd activities, culminating in wearing sunglasses made from cigarette butts.
The opening of the song begins as Gaga makes a call to Beyonce Knowles (a guest singer):
‘Hello, hello, baby, you called?/
I can’t hear a thing/
I have got no service/
In the club, you say? say?/
Wha-wha-what did you say, huh?/
You’re breakin‘ up on me/
Sorry I cannot hear you
I’m kinda busy/
. . .
After a dance routine with an all-female backup ensemble, Gaga is bailed out of jail and finds Beyonce waiting in the ‘Pussy Wagon’ as seen from Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Kill Bill’ movies. After they leave the prison, they find themselves on a desolate highway and stop at a lonely diner; after a brief interlude, we see that Gaga poisons everyone’s food in the diner, followed by a gruesome sequence in which everyone chokes to death on this poison. The two singers dance merrily around the corpses and then escape into the sunset with the ‘Pussy Wagon’ in time for ‘To Be Continued’ to flash onto the screen.
Several critics have argued that the video demonstrates a very feminist viewpoint. Women populate the video and are in full control of the action throughout, even when the action includes such inhumane acts of murder. In fact, one of Gaga’s defining characteristics throughout her music video series is how cold and calculating she seems. Apart from any moral obligations or lessons, Lady Gaga is foremost an entertainer. For her, the image of the prison, beyond the simple dancehall image of Elvis, is a place where cruelty can be harsh yet stylish.
Poisoning is what landed her in jail originally, and yet she commits this crime dozens of times over in the blink of a dance sequence. This is Gaga as a shock entertainer; in the current day and age, violence is cool among youth adults and her inclusion of the ‘Pussy Wagon’ reminds the viewer of Tarantino’s exceedingly violent Kill Bill, where Uma Thurman’s ‘Bride’ literally slays hundreds of people with a samurai sword in the bloodiest way imaginable.
Three different songs from three different genres and three different artists were examined. As consummate entertainers, crime and imprisonment first had to serve the needs of their specific medium. Johnny Cash used his song later to emphasize and encourage the rehabilitative quality of imprisonment and to help lower the recidivism overall. Elvis succeeded at making jail seem fun and entertaining, as if it were another sockhop venue and not focusing on the crimes that landed the people in jail in the first place. Lady Gaga’s techno-pop song reached a wide market by its entertaining beats and rhythms, while her video garnished awards for portraying crime in punishment in a grotesque but arguably stylish manner. The role and interpretation of the prison system served the specific needs of each artist, which was in turn influenced by the conventions of their chosen genres.
Cash, Johnny (1955): Folsom Prison Blues. http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/johnnycash/folsomprisonblues.html. Accessed 11.07.13
Gaga, Lady. (2009). Telephone. http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/elvispresley/jailhouserock.html. Accessed 11.07.13
Gerkin, Patrick; Rider, Aaron; Hewitt, John (2012): Johnny Cash: The Criminologist Within. In: Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture 17 (1), p. 152-183.
Machin, David (2010): Analysing popular music. Image, sound and text. 1.Ed. Los Angeles: SAGE. p.1-31.
Presley, Elvis (1957). Jailhouse Rock. http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/ladygaga/telephone.html. Accessed 11.07.13
Robins, Danny (2013): Johnny Cash and his prison reform campaign. BBC News Magazine. BBC World Service, Arkansas. Retrieved from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-21084323?print=true
Tunnell, K.D.; Hamm, M.S. (2010): Singing across the scars of wrong: Johnny Cash and his struggle for social justice. In: Crime, Media, Culture 5(3), p.268-284.