Myth in Modern Rock Music: Universal Imagery in a Sea of Vapid Love Songs

A man standing on a stage

Music and mythology have shared stories for as long as recorded history can tell us. In the times of Greek plays, music was an integral part of their staging. In the dark ages, bards made a living roaming the countryside telling villagers of great mythic heroes. Classical music is no exception, with its most notable contribution being Richard Wagner’s massive operatic cycle “Der Ring des Nibelungen”, with 4 operas and nearly 14 hours of music telling an epic Teutonic myth.

When we start to look at modern music, in particular rock music, many people consider it void of meaningful references, mythic or otherwise. Too often, modern music is judged by its poorest examples for intellectual content, and perhaps with good reason. It is easy to point at the lack of intellectual content from the band hellogoodbye’s 2006 song “Here in Your Arms”, with lyrics like “I like where we are/When we drive, in your car/I like where we are…. Here.”

Whether it is the argument that the listeners are younger and less educated, so references to arcane myths are left out, or that the musicians themselves are producing simpler music, there is a perception that, in its mainstream form, rock music stays away from confusing references.

Surely there are exceptions to this steadfast judgment. Bands like Iron Maiden and Led Zepplin intentionally used the world of literature and mythology as references in much of their music. In the end, few would argue that the music of the last twenty years has left these references aside in favor of accessibility to a larger audience.

I argue that these references are more common than one might think, and that with a little bit of attention paid to the lyrical content these references can become clear. The basis for this argument comes from the feeling that the references used are so universal, that they can neither help being used nor being understood. Matthew Sweet detailing that he “…came in from a dark world, and everything I ever loved is dead…” carries meaning, even if we don’t superimpose the knowledge of his anti-hero archetype; every angst-ridden teenager has felt the same way at some point or another.

To show the universality of these references, I have selected three songs. The oldest one, “CreepingDeath”, written in 1983, was off of Metallica’s second album, Ride the Lightning, and is still a staple of their concerts. It is also the most direct in its presentation of mythic material. On the surface, it is a retelling of the biblical story of Passover.

With its very aggressive setting and rhythm, it gains an edge that the original bible story does not have. No longer is the Angel of Death merely carrying out a job for the benefit of his devoted followers, but he is now doing it in a way to impose fear and repentance on the Israelites.

The other two are more allegorical; Matthew Sweet’s “Devil With the Green Eyes” appeared on the 1993 album Altered Beast and Nick Cave’s duet with Kylie Minogue, “Where the Wild Roses Grow”, appeared on the 1996 album Murder Ballads. They are softer in their presentation, but certainly not any less in their message. With Devil it is too easy to fall into believing that the devil in question is a lover, most likely coming between the singer and his current relationship (the classic demon tempter/temptress).

All of the mythical allusions certainly point to that conclusion as well, but I believe that to be intentional on Sweet’s part. Instead, I think that the whole point of the song is personify jealousy itself; as the symbolism is pointed out, I will elaborate on that further.

With Wild Roses, the message seems very clear cut and simple, although the story ends in a tragic twist. The music itself sounds too sad to be a love song, and we realize the real end for Elisa Day by the end of the ballad. Of the three songs, I think that this one could be the most honest; there is nothing else going on, it is just telling the tragic story.

To that point, I will elaborate on some of the possible alternate meanings; the weakness of their arguments brings me back to that singular conclusion of utter starkness. The nameless man in the song fits so neatly into the typical dark hero package, that this song just couldn’t be ignored. As well, this song employs a lot of mythic symbolism which underscores the universal meanings to these references.

Archetypes

There are several characters alluded to or referenced by the three songs that I am looking at, and to fully understand the scope of the stories that are being told we should look at the archetypes employed. There are some cursory observations that we can make about all three songs. There are four characters involved in the telling of the stories, and all are in first-person. One is directly supernatural, one is telling her story posthumously.

These are the only two voices that we know exactly who they are; both Creeping Death (otherwise the Angel of God) and Elisa Day tell us specifically who they are (to such a degree that I believe it to be highly symbolic of their situations). The other two are more ambiguous; the main voice in Devil could be anyone and even the male voice in Roses could be several different characters.

Roses gives us the two most interesting characters in the group. At the start of the song, Elisa’s character fits the archetype of the Goddess of Regeneration, specifically the virgin presentation. We can see this in several of the descriptions of her in the song. The male voice refers to her both “the one” and “more beautiful than any woman”, pointing to his noted attraction. Even once we learn what his end purpose is, we learn that it is because “…all beauty must die”.

Her innocence is made clear if only by the statement that he would be her first man at the opening of the song, as well as her referencing her trembling and her crying, an allusion to her having just lost her virginity.

When we look at the male voice in Roses, I think it is too easy to automatically paint him has a Death God because he kills Elisa at the end, and only after taking away that which, by nature of her archetype, should have remained in her possession. It is possible to view his actions differently, however. As with CĂșchulainn in The Tain, we see that the hero often must undergo a change from an event which will color his actions throughout the rest of his life. I think that the case can be made that while he is clearly not purely good, that he had to kill Elisa, for some purpose which is yet to be seen. He was not meant to be Superman, he was meant to be Batman. The strongest piece of evidence for this argument comes from his action after he had killed Elisa, planting a rose between her teeth, possibly symbolizing that he does honestly love her.

If there is some question as to whether the male voice in Roses is the Destroyer or an anti-hero, the male voice in Devil is clearly the true Byronic Hero. He is truly remorseful for what is happening in his life, yet cannot deny the source of it all. He knows the attraction that the person he is singing to feels for him, and rightfully knew that it was going to happen from the very beginning. But it was also destined that his life was not going to work out in the way that he wanted it to. In the song he makes several references to his past (“Every love I’ve ever known is dead”, is a prime example), and several references to his inability to stop it (“The devil… said you were never meant to be mine”). No matter how sympathetic he is to his lover’s situation, he is in no position to fix it, even if the cause, as I proposed earlier and will explain in more detail below, is his own jealousy.

Where Devil clearly gives us a character that fits the anti-hero archetype, “Creeping Death” very clearly paints the picture of the Destroyer God. The story itself is taken directly from the Bible and references the Tenth Plague of Egypt. Moses had warned the Hebrews to paint their doorposts with lamb’s blood so that the Angel of Death would recognize the houses and pass over them.

The way that the song is written, this is the Angel of God speaking directly to the Hebrews before the Exodus, instead of from Moses who had received the word. Also contrary to the story as told in the Bible, and perhaps augmented by the type of music that Metallica gives the song, the Angel of God is portrayed not as a balancing God of Death with a combined interest in renewal and resurrection. Instead he is painted viciously, and selfishly (“Heed to his every word, live in fear”). In fact, this portrayal may lend this iteration of the destroyer more similarity to Odin as a ruthless god of battle, than the traditional accepted view of a benevolent God, punishing the Hebrews’ captors. Mythic Symbols

Each of the songs is filled with symbolism adding a wide variety of information to the stories that they tell. All of them do have something in common in that they deal with death, but they all deal with death in a different manner. In Creeping Death, we see death used as a tool of retribution and revenge against the Egyptians for the slavery that they forced on the Hebrew’s. Death is used as a warning to the Hebrew peoples, and they are delivering a pre-cursor to let them know how not to swept up in the same carnage. There is very little redeeming factor to the message, and it is clear that the singer is looking to lash out (“Blood/Running red and strong, down the Nile”) because of the treatment endured (“Something must be done, four hundred years”).

In Devil, we see death as a fated conclusion that the main character is telling us that we have to expect because it has always happened previously. This of course leads us to a couple of possible conclusions, should the story continue. There is a possibility that it happens exactly as he says that it will, such as with Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye, where there is no real resolution to either his internal or external conflicts. The other possibility is that he is wrong this time that the universe recognizes that there is something special about this relationship, and despite the warning from the Green-eyed devil it will endure. This transition, like Beast from the classic Fairy-tale Beauty and the Beast, is rare, but not unheard of.

With Roses, we see death as the central part of the story. It is the climax of the entire song, highlighted by the only time that the female voice speaks first, and the male voice responds. Whichever reading of the male character you believe, whether he is Destroyer or the dark hero, clearly her death marks a transition for both of them. For her, she is elevated to a new plane of existence, having been sacrificed down by the river. This is evident in the reversal of the voices in the final verse, where she speaks first. But we also see it some very simple symbolism within that last paragraph. Her death happens on the third day and on a river bank, where the river presents itself as highway to the other world (similarly, in Creeping Death the very human and the supernatural combine in the imagery of blood running down the Nile). Even in his words, where he describes the wind, we can see it as stealing her soul and carrying it off to another world. Clearly, she has ascended to another plane of existence, securing her as Transcendent Virgin.

He also becomes someone different in this process. There are two sentiments that he expresses in that final stanza that showcase his transition. For one, it is the first time that he expresses his love for her, by kissing her on the lips. Previously, she would describe his actions but here we have him telling us, so we were left to posit his intentions. His emotion throughout the song has been rather dour and depressed, but here in the final scene we see him smiling at her (granted, as he is about to carry out the murder).

In nearly complete opposition, love is also a clearly expressed emotion in all three songs, although like the motif of death is expressed in different ways. The argument as to whether or not Elisa and the strange man are in love or not can be made, although there are a lot of signs that suggest that there was true emotion. I have already talked about some of the supernatural symbols regarding how she is killed, and with the number and proximity of them, we are lead to believe that there is something otherworldly being experienced.

Note that while the motif of the roses permeates Cave’s song, they can carry double meaning. The choice in meaning hinges upon the very questions posed above, and whether or not you believe that Elisa and her suitor are in love. If you believe that there is love between them, then clearly the roses are a symbol of that love, both physical and emotional. If you do not believe that they are in love, then we can take a reference from both Greek and Celtic mythology that considered the rose a symbol of silence. In this case, Elisa will not be able to name her killer, because her tale will not be told. This is emphasized by Elisa telling her own story, with the killer adding his own take on the events; there is no one else that knows she is dead.

To take this a step, or leap, further, we can draw a parallel to old vampire folklore that says that a vampire can not cross the path of a wild rose. Perhaps our hero, who clearly must embark on dark paths, is a Ven Helsing-style hunter seeking out those who defy the natural order? From the very beginning of the song, we see that she is “the one”, which carries an assumption of supernatural beauty or allure. Of course, if we decide to look at it in this light, her role changes from Transcendent Virgin, to a variation on the Destroyer Goddess and his role becomes clearly solidified in the dark hero archetype.

In Devil, the love that the narrator feels is tainted by his own belief that it must go unrequited. He is clearly empathetic to the situation that he has placed on his love interest, yet can not do anything about it. He does not want her to die, like all his previous lovers (“Well, it’s hard to take it/When you know happens each time”). Like stated before, we don’t know which way the story will end, even though is seeing that the only way to resolution is to leave her (“I might fade away with the coming of a new dawn”).

When we are discussing the love implications in Devil we have to look at the green-eyed devil that is causing the problems to begin with. I believe that in the context of the song, the problem arises from the narrator’s own jealousy. Aside from the parallel of jealousy normally being portrayed as a green-eyed monster, there are other clues in the way that Sweet talks about how his life has been to let us know. If we look at the line “I will tell you why you’re feeling so uncertain”, we see his assertion that his lover is having doubts, but not that they have made any allusion to it. As well, he knows that anything that he suggests is bound to come true, even if only in his own imagination (“Every word I say [turns] evil in you”). He has the perception that his lover has been faking their relationship. As a constant theme throughout the song, the narrator realizes ultimately that he is causing his own undoing, yet does nothing to stop it.

With Creeping Death, the love motif is vastly different than in the other two songs. This love is about salvation from a force that the narrator knows has the capacity to harm many more than the enemies he is targeting. This motif is shadowed in the biblical story of Noah, where God lets him know of the impending deluge in enough time for him to construct his own escape. In a separate way, it is also paralleled in the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, where Orpheus is given instructions from Hades on what he has to do to avoid living his life without his love. When Orpheus can not follow the instructions, Eurydice is snatched back into Hades. So it will be with Creeping Death, where the Hebrews can avoid the agony of the plagues of Egypt, if they just follow God’s instructions.

Appendix A: Song Lyrics

Where the Wild Roses Grow, Nick Cave and Kylie Minogue – Murder Ballads (1996)

CHORUS:
They call me The Wild Rose
But my name was Elisa Day
Why they call me it I do not know
For my name was Elisa Day

From the first day I saw her I knew she was the one
As she stared in my eyes and smiled
For her lips were the colour of the roses
They grew down the river, all bloody and wild

When he knocked on my door and entered the room
My trembling subsided in his sure embrace
He would be my first man, and with a careful hand
He wiped the tears that ran down my face

CHORUS

On the second day I brought her a flower
She was more beautiful than any woman I’d seen
I said, ‘Do you know where the wild roses grow
So sweet and scarlet and free?’

On the second day he came with a single rose
Said: ‘Will you give me your loss and your sorrow?’
I nodded my head, as I lay on the bed
He said, ‘If I show you the roses will you follow?’

CHORUS

On the third day he took me to the river
He showed me the roses and we kissed
And the last thing I heard was a muttered word
As he stood smiling above me with a rock in his fist

On the last day I took her where the wild roses grow
And she lay on the bank, the wind light as a thief
As I kissed her goodbye, I said, ‘All beauty must die’
And lent down and planted a rose between her teeth

Devil with the Green Eyes, Matthew Sweet – Altered Beast (1993)

I can understand you’re living in a prison
I know you can only see me as a vision
I might fade away with the coming of a new dawn

And your heart is breaking.
What are you gonna do now
That you’re tired of faking it?
Well, it’s hard to take it
When you know what happens each time

The devil with the green eyes
Said you were never meant to be mine
‘Cause I came up from a dark world
And every love I’ve ever know is dead

If you come close enough to see I am inhuman
I will tell you why you’re feeling so uncertain
Every word I say has a way of turning evil in you
And your heart is breaking.

What are you gonna do now
That you’re tired of faking it?
Well, it’s hard to take it
When you know what happens each time

The devil with the green eyes
Said you were never meant to be mine
‘Cause I came up from a dark world
And every love I’ve ever know is dead

And your heart is breaking
What are you gonna do now
That you’re tired of faking it?
Well, it’s hard to take it
When you know what happens each time

The devil with the green eyes
Said you were never meant to be mine
‘Cause I came up from a dark world
And every love I’ve ever known
Every love I’ve ever known
Every love I’ve ever know is dead

Creeping Death, Metallica – Ride the Lightning (1983)

Slaves
Hebrews born to serve, to the pharaoh
Heed
To his every word, live in fear
Faith
Of the unknown one, the deliverer
Wait
Something must be done, four hundred years

So let it be written
So let it be done
I’m sent here by the chosen one
So let it be written
So let it be done
To kill the first born pharaoh’s son
I’m Creeping Death

Now
Let my people go, land of Goshen
Go
I will be with thee, bush of fire
Blood
Running red and strong down the Nile
Plague
Darkness three days long, hail to fire

Die by my hand
I creep across the land
Killing first-born man

I
Rule the midnight air, the destroyer
Born
I shall soon be there, deadly mass
I
Creep the steps and floor, final darkness
Blood
Lambs blood painted door, I shall pass

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