Let’s do some word association: Taylor Swift. Did you think murder ballads? No? Well, that’s exactly what she wrote and recorded with HAIM for her new record Evermore. Think Nick Cave’s Where the Wild Roses Grow, but instead of killing a woman with a rock you are throwing a cheating man’s body into a lake. Even though No Body, No Crime may be Swift’s first foray into the murder ballad genre, artists like Dolly Parton have been exploring this song structure for decades.
Much of country music stems from an English folk tradition of murder ballads. For those not familiar with murder ballads they are a genre of music where the song itself depicts the lead up to and the murder of another person. Traditionally, the song is about a man who murders a woman who has either cheated on him, led him astray or became a nuisance. In reality, these are songs about men killing women who go outside their traditional gender roles. These songs are firmly placed in English folk music, but have found their way in blues, country and indie music. A classic example is Knoxville Girl and a more modern example is The Decemberist’s The Rake Song. The latter track is about a man whose wife dies in child birth and he proceeds to kill all of his other children, because they are too much work and annoy him…ouch.
Well, Dolly Parton said “fuck that” and decided to tell murder ballads from the woman’s point of view. Dolly grew up on murder ballads singing them with her family in the mountains, but always wondered why they were told form the man’s point of view. So, she turned the murder ballad on its head and started making the woman as the central character and told her story. The most well known version of this type of murder ballad is her track The Bridge. On this track she sings about a woman whose boyfriend gets her pregnant and leaves her to give birth and raise their child alone. The song ends with her going to the bridge where they met and killing herself. Not the most uplifting Dolly track, but she is using the murder ballad structure to highlight violence / abuse by men, as opposed to men using these ballads to vilify women.
Swift teams up with HAIM to give Dolly’s murder ballad structure a modern twist. In true Dolly form, Swift centers her story on a cheating husband who eventually kills his wife and has his mistress move in. However, over time he also abuses his mistress and continues to flaunt his entitlement. You see, even though he cheats on his wife and kills her, there is never any direct evidence towards him and he walks free. However, the song ends with the speaker teaming up with the mistress to kill him, dump his body in the lake and collect on a large life insurance policy.
At its heart, most murder ballads are celebrations of male power over women. Swift takes this structure and subverts it on her track. No Body, No Crime highlights male entitlement and ownership of women in the beginning of the track, but then spins that around into a celebration of agency and holding men accountable for their violence. This fits Swift’s themes in folklore where she sings about violence against women from a variety of perspectives. It is very exciting to see Swift taking on a number of musical styles and structures in order to explore complex gender issues.
Musically, it is a very catchy song that crosses country and pop with HAIM, one of the hottest bands out there. However, the really exciting part of this song is seeing Swift’s writing stretch out into classic country / folk territory with a modern pop twist. I love this song. I mean, who doesn’t love a song about a sleazy man being killed and dumped into a lake? I hope Swift continues to give the Dolly treatment to murder ballads, because No Body, No Crime showcases both her lyrical and vocal talent.
Listen to No Body, No Crime