Musicians have a long history of turning tragedy into art. From Neil Young's stirring indictment against the shooting of Kent State students in the 1970 song "Ohio," to the countless tributes and musical memorials to 9-11, artists often feel a need to make sense of the senseless and offer comfort through song.
But a new song and video from the lo-fi, psych-pop musician Jackson Scott raises questions about decency and the propriety of art when it comes to particularly horrific events. The song, "Sandy," a relatively sweet-sounding, if oddly affected pop tune, recalls the December 2012 shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., that left 20 children and six adult teachers and staffers dead. And while the song and video are thoughtfully and respectfully rendered, they leave you wondering whether some subjects are simply off limits.
"Little kids sitting all around / wishing they were sound asleep again," sings Scott in an almost unsettling, pitch-shifted voice, while teenagers party and play together. Without careful attention, it's easy to miss the lyrics all together under Scott's woozy production; and the video, directed by Tyler Floro, seems as innocent as the song's playful melody, giving no hint of the actual subject. Is it twisted irony or is it an intentional distraction?
I caught Jackson Scott by phone to talk about the video, and what motivated him to write "Sandy." He says he never set out to intentionally recount the Sandy Hook shootings in song, but was struck by a simple rhyme - one he's since forgotten - that led him to remember and reflect on the children who lost their lives.
You can read an edited version of our conversation below. Scott is currently on tour for Melbourne, the album that features this cut.
Did it cross your mind that you were writing about something that was maybe off limits?
It definitely crossed my mind, like, "Wow, this is very, very dark subject matter." Especially to be writing essentially a pop song about [it]. But it also fit in with a lot of different things going through my head, as far as writing songs [about] different kinds of moral and even philosophical ideas. A lot of times with things in my life, if something messes me up or something dark happens, I try to go out to get a little perspective, or take a step back and think about it in a different way.
I think one thing I was trying to get across with the song was [that] I almost didn't want to write it from too much of a moral standpoint. Clearly, I think it was absolutely awful. There's no question about that. But it's almost as if it passes this threshold where it's so inhuman that I wanted to have that come through in the song. I don't want the song to have any kind of answer to anything. I just want the song to be a question. When you start asking questions about Sandy Hook, or the meaning of it, or why it would happen, I don't think there is an answer.
You really focus on what the kids might have been thinking.
I think one thing that was hitting me about it, is that it felt as if something like this happened, and everyone was talking about all these things other than the event itself. Talking about gun control laws or whatever political stuff. I think maybe just people thinking about the act itself - it's a pretty hard thing to just sit around and think about. These things that started hitting me is this weird breakdown of what morals are, and if they even really exist, and the concept that you can be aware that the world can be a really awful place, and all this really bad stuff can happen. And you can even be aware that morals don't really mean anything, but you can still be a morally good person. It's another event that might further that concept. If anyone thinks there's some preconceived idea of the world [being] inherently good, I don't think that's true. I don't think it's inherently bad either, but I think it's the combination of the two that's kind of an eternal movement.
Was the [relatively] cheery tone or vibe of the song meant to be some sort of dark irony?
In some ways, I think it was. I think it was also representative of what you were saying: the kids and the innocence of the actual music, it was definitely supposed to mirror the innocence of childhood. That set against the subject matter, there's inherently going to be a dark irony there. But like I said, I wanted to make the song from a very objective standpoint. It's just hard to pinpoint anything with it, other than the fact that it's just so beyond awful.
There's just such a disconnect. The juxtaposition of what you're singing about and the actual tone of the music itself. If you weren't listening to the lyrics at all, you would think, "Oh, this is a pretty little pop song."
I think another aspect of that would be that I don't think that when something of this degree happens, or when really bad stuff happens, you can't always just fight it with more violence. Sometimes something really bad happens, and there's no way to force good out of it, other than a very gentle approach. If something bad happens in your life, I would imagine, at least for me, the best way to deal with it is just [to] let it be. You can't always try to force it away. You just have to gently get past it.
The video for the song gives no hint at all of the meaning of the song. I'm curious why you decided to go that route.
One thing going through my head was this concept [that] the kids the song is speaking about are never going to get past their very young childhood. They're never going to be happy teenagers, mindlessly having fun or partying. I'd say that would be a big element of it. Another element is this idea of when something really bad happens, it sounds odd, but the world just goes on. I think you could either be really cynical or optimistic about the concept that if something bad happens, people are going to think about it for a while, and then they'll go back to their normal lives, they'll go back to partying with friends, going to work, all that typical stuff. I think the video, I would hope, would further the odd vibe of the song I was trying to convey, in terms of a certain meaninglessness. Obviously, considering what the song is about, I could understand people wondering about it. But it's also, [in] a pretty straightforward manner, just supposed to be friends listening to a record and having fun. I think setting it up with the girl putting on the vinyl to me was supposed to show [that] these kids are just listening to the song and having fun. They might not even be thinking about what the song is about. They're just listening to the record, [and] I would imagine there [is] a decent amount of people out there who might hear the song and [won't] really know or think what it's about.
I'm wondering if you got any blowback at all for it.
So far, no. I think the extent of anything like that would be people asking, "What exactly was going through your mind?" or "Why would you do this?" And that is one thing I do want to make clear. Part of my goal with the song, [and] with the album itself, was taking a weird third-person approach, even to my own emotions. That song is about Sandy Hook, but a lot of the other songs are about stuff I was dealing with — anxieties, things going through my head. I was trying to look at them from outside of myself, and take a non-emotional or non-moral standpoint [toward] my own emotions and at my own morals. So I think with the song, what I hope people would realize, is that I'm not trying to make a statement on the events, necessarily. I literally [just] want people to think about it for a little bit, and not just forget about it. It's just one hundred percent meant to be a tribute to the children.
But, it's definitely a pretty emotional song for me. I'll play it all the time and get used to singing the lyrics, but sometimes I'll be singing it and it'll really hit me pretty hard. It's almost like I can't finish it. I have to stop singing it. I get too choked up.