1. The Crystals, “He Hit Me (It Felt Like A Kiss)”
Though intended by writers Gerry Goffin and Carole King as a sympathetic story—inspired by their onetime babysitter, pop singer Little Eva—about an abusive relationship, 1962’s “He Hit Me (It Felt Like A Kiss)” was largely perceived as an endorsement of domestic abuse. To be fair, the lyrics do seem to glorify the relationship, as a woman exults in her lover’s reaction to her infidelity: “If he didn’t care for me / I could have never made him mad / But he hit me, and I was glad.” Music spookily arranged and produced by—you guessed it—Phil Spector.
2. Bessie Smith, “Outside Of That”
Blues legend Bessie Smith beat The Crystals to that sentiment by decades: Her 1923 song “Outside Of That” writes off her lover’s abuse as just one minor sticking point in their relationship. Though he’s “the meanest man in the land… heartless and also cruel,” she’s so swept up in their passionate love life that she’s willing to forgive him his bouts of violence. Or is she? When she tells him, “for fun,” that she’s leaving him, he blackens both her eyes, blinding her, then pawns everything he ever gave her… but as she says, “outside of that, he’s all right with me.” By the end of the song, where she’s calling him a dirty thief and he’s knocking out her teeth, the irony is getting pretty thick, and the song is beginning to sound less like a bluesy love song and more like a backhanded slap at women who choose to stay with men who give them backhanded slaps.
3. Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Jordan, “Stone Cold Dead In The Market (He Had It Coming)”
Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Jordan scored a popular hit in 1946 with their calypso number “Stone Cold Dead In The Market,” about a woman who publicly kills her drunken, abusive husband, either with a frying pan, a cookpot, or a rolling pin, depending which verse you believe. Both singers have clearly been in this mutually violent relationship for a while, and both sound entirely chipper about it: “He ain’t going to beat me no more,” Fitzgerald croons in an ersatz Jamaican accent, “So I tell you that I doesn’t care if I was to die in the ’lectric chair. Mon!” Jordan, for his part, jocularly ends the song with “Hey, child, I’m coming back and bash you on yo head one more time.” Presumably the jazzy, bouncy music, the exotic accents, and the overall air of good humor contributed to this song becoming wildly popular during an era when household violence wasn’t spoken of publicly.
4. Nickelback, “Never Again”
The kickoff track of Nickelback’s 2001 album Silver Side Up—which gave the world “How You Remind Me”—is a pretty typical Nickelback song, all growling anger putting a manly face on soft, squishy emotions. In this case, it’s a scared, miserable kid singing about his dad (“‘Father’ is a name you haven’t earned yet”) repeatedly getting drunk and beating his mom (“She’s just a woman… haven’t you heard ‘Don’t hit a lady’?”). The singer is filled with banal lyrics and impotent rage (“Kicking your ass would be a pleasure,” he thinks at Daddy Dearest), but like so many abuse victims in rock songs, mom eventually takes the situation and a weapon into her own hands and beats the kid to the punch, so to speak.
5. Dixie Chicks, “Goodbye Earl”
Leave it to three sweet-singing Texas girls to prove you can make a hit by finding the humor in domestic violence and subsequent revenge. “Goodbye, Earl” follows the exploits of best friends Mary Anne and Wanda as they plot the death of Wanda’s abusive husband Earl, who, after Wanda files for divorce, “walked right through that restraining order / and put her in intensive care.” (Dixie Chicks lead singer Natalie Maines delivers the line “It didn’t take ’em long to decide that Earl had to die” with particular glee.) Once Earl is poisoned by black-eyed peas, wrapped in a tarp, and dumped in a lake to rot, the police swiftly abandon the case, since Earl is “a missing person who nobody missed at all.” Taking the black humor of the song one step further, the celebrity-laden video features Dennis Franz as the mulleted Earl, who posthumously reappears as a dancing corpse.
6. Miranda Lambert, “Gunpowder & Lead”
Miranda Lambert updates the country tradition of female revenge songs by throwing in a dash of braggadocio. “His fist is big, but my gun’s bigger,” she sings, bridging the gap between self-defense and schoolyard taunt. “He’ll find out when I pull the trigger.” Like the other songs on Lambert’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, “Gunpowder & Lead” presents her as a kick-ass chick with a hair-trigger temper—definitely not the type an abusive man should come home to when he makes bail. Whether that shot gets fired at his hide or in the air, chances are he’ll get the message.
7. Martina McBride, “Independence Day”
Marrying patriotism and pre-emptive strike, Martina McBride’s 1994 hit is narrated by an 8-year-old girl whose mother burns down the family house with her husband still in it. Although subdued by the gun-ho standards of “Gunpowder & Lead” or “Goodbye Earl,” “Independence Day” (written by Gretchen Peters) lands some solid blows, particularly in its condemnation of a community that let the abuse continue unchecked. “Some folks whispered, some folks talked / but everybody looked the other way,” McBride sings. Trying to head off controversy, the video made clear that the woman perished in the blaze she set, whereas the song leaves her fate open. Evidently it’s all right for women to fight back, but only if they take themselves out as well.
8. Antony And The Johnsons, “Fistful Of Love”
Much of Antony And The Johnsons’ I Am A Bird Now revolves around finding pleasure in pain and unearthing profound beauty from overpowering ugliness. As the record’s centerpiece, the doo-wop-inspired “Fistful Of Love” takes that concept to its fiery apotheosis. Following a spoken-word intro from the patron saint of rock taboo, Lou Reed, frontman Antony Hegarty paints a picture of a romance where one party speaks with words and the other with fists. As the song builds to a rapturous conclusion, Hegarty’s fluttering vibrato conveys the truth that not every scar (metaphorical or otherwise) is left with malicious intent. Sometimes, he sings, “It’s out of love.”
9. Cheap Trick, “The House Is Rockin’ (With Domestic Problems)”
The whole joke of this Dream Police track is summed up in the title: Over one of Rick Nielsen’s simple yet twisty guitar riffs, Cheap Trick belts out what almost sounds like a celebration of a couple’s blowout fight and the “heavy, heavy, heavy troubles” that cause it. By the end of the song, it’s clear there are children and a gun involved, and not much else. The song maintains a silly mood by never identifying a victim or the consequences. Few people look to Cheap Trick for commentary on pressing social issues, but it does take a band like this to inject a little warped mischief into a chorus as simple as “oh boy, the house is rockin’.”
10-11. Billy Bragg, “Levi Stubbs’ Tears” / “Valentine’s Day is Over”
The so-called “big-nosed bard of Barking” has often told tales of individuals other than himself in his songs, so it’s no surprise to find that he’s touched on the topic of domestic abuse more than once. In “Levi Stubbs’ Tears,” Bragg sings of how the tunes composed for the lead singer of the Four Tops help one poor young thing endure after her sailor husband “put a hole in her body where no hole should be.” The narrator of Bragg’s “Valentine’s Day Is Over” has endured her fair share of abuse as well, but when she says “Thank you for the things you taught me when you hit me hard,” it’s an acknowledgement that she’s had all she can stand of such treatment—as she later clarifies, until he figures out that love is about understanding rather than physical violence, “you’ll find your things all stacked out on the landing.”
12. Tracy Chapman, “Behind The Wall”
After the first three songs of Tracy Chapman’s self-titled debut album, listeners had good reason to expect that all her material would be powered by acoustic guitar, but “Behind The Wall” is delivered with no instrumentation whatsoever, to chilling effect. “Last night I heard the screaming,” Chapman begins, launching into a tale of an apartment-dweller who awakens to the sounds of a husband beating his wife on the other side of the wall. Calling the police does nothing, she quickly discovers, as “they always come late, if they come at all,” and even when they show up, “they say they can’t interfere with domestic affairs between a man and his wife.” The song ends sadly, with the screaming ending, the wife being taken away in an ambulance, and a policeman telling all the bystanders to go home, adding, “I think we all could use some sleep.”
13-15. Eminem, “Kim”/“’97 Bonnie And Clyde”/“Love The Way You Lie”
Eminem’s contentious relationship with his on-again-off-again wife/girlfriend/baby-mamma Kim is well documented throughout his discography, but never more overtly and sinisterly than on the tracks “’97 Bonnie And Clyde” and “Kim,” both of which revel in Em hypothetically killing his nemesis/muse while taking their daughter Hailie along for the ride. (Sample lyric: “Da-da made a nice bed for mommy at the bottom of the lake.”) A decade later, “Love The Way You Lie” traded out the murder fantasy for a more tempered reflection on a mutually destructive relationship. Then again, having recent domestic-violence victim Rihanna sing “I like the way it hurts” on the chorus of “Love The Way You Lie” is almost as creepy as taking a baby to her mother’s murder.
16. The Beatles, “Run For Your Life”
The most menacing song in the Fab Four’s catalog, “Run For Your Life” is a two-minute string of threats to a girlfriend that closes 1965’s Rubber Soul. The song was written by John Lennon, who took the first line—“I’d rather see you dead, little girl / than to be with another man”—from the Elvis Presley song “Baby, Let’s Play House.” Lennon twisted the original song’s theme of desire into one of jealousy; the narrator refers to himself as “a wicked guy” with “a jealous mind.” Years later, Lennon admitted to Rolling Stone that he never liked the song, though George Harrison was apparently fond of it.
17. Florence + The Machine, “Kiss With A Fist”
Florence Welch is on record as saying “Kiss With A Fist” isn’t about domestic violence, but rather “two people pushing each other to psychological extremes because they love each other.” Fair enough, but she’s asking for literal interpretation with lyrics like “You hit me once, I hit you back / You gave a kick, I gave a slap / You smashed a plate over my head / Then I set fire to our bed.” Metaphorical or not, “Kiss With A Fist” is a laundry list of the pain two people can inflict upon each other, from broken jaws to black eyes to spilled blood, all in the name of true love. Because according to the chorus, “a kiss with a fist”—or a kiss with a metaphorical word-fist of psychological abuse, apparently—“is better than none.”
18. Archers Of Loaf, “Tatyana”
In this early Archers Of Loaf B-side—available again soon as part of the Icky Mettle reissue—the narrator loves his “Slavic girl,” and tells her so. But she sometimes makes him angry, at which point he grabs her hair and throws her into the wall. The people around them have the wrong idea: “All the neighbors say we’re happy… and they’re wrong.”
19. Travis, “The Blue Flashing Light”
After the 10 soothingly bummed-out tracks of The Man Who comes the hidden track “The Blue Flashing Light,” a terse portrait of life in a turbulent household. Singer-songwriter Fran Healy had an abusive father, who fueled both this song and the later “Re-Offender.” “Flashing Light” is fiercer, or at least as fierce as a Travis song can be, with a minor-key jangle underpinning Healy’s unflinching imagery of a man stumbling home and “spilling alcohol over the floor.” Violence is in the air, with dad yelling “you’re a slut, you’re a bitch, you’re a whore,” and though the narrator eventually gets his violent own back, the emotional damage is done.
20. Dresden Dolls, “Delilah”
Whether or not it’s intentional, Amanda Palmer seems to be channeling ’Til Tuesday’s 1985 hit “Voices Carry” on Dresden Dolls’ “Delilah”—only instead of singing about a domineering boyfriend, Palmer crafts a melancholy ballad about the song’s title character, a woman inexorably drawn to men who abuse her. “He’s gonna beat you like a pillow / You schizos never learn,” sings a frustrated Palmer, “and if you take him home / you’ll get what you deserve.” Apparently Palmer never heard the bit about not blaming the victim; still, “Delilah” winds up being brutally, bracingly honest.
21. Pink Floyd, “Don’t Leave Me Now”
Jealousy, insecurity, codependency: It’s a wonder the members of Pink Floyd weren’t domestically abusing each other by the time The Wall was released in 1979. It’s no surprise, though, that it contains “Don’t Leave Me Now,” a track that taps into Roger Waters’ neurosis following the disintegration of his marriage. One of the most harrowing chapters of the concept album’s story arc, the song’s ice-pick synths and wrathful guitar—not to mention Waters’ pinched, pained voice—add ghastly atmosphere to revenge-fantasy lines like “How could you go? / When you know how I need you / to beat to a pulp on Saturday night.”
22. Wilco, “She’s A Jar”
Wilco’s aptly named Summerteeth is an album of contradictions, combining Beach Boys-inspired poppiness with distressing undercurrents. “I dreamed of killing you again last night and it felt all right to me,” Jeff Tweedy sings on “Via Chicago,” as disconcertingly pleasant backing music seems to affirm his murderous fantasies. But the most disturbing moment comes on “She’s A Jar,” which describes a lover in phrases that could be read as compliments or insults: “My pop-quiz kid / a sleepy kisser / a pretty war.” But by the end, the situation has grown darker, and Tweedy’s last line—“you know she begs me not to hit her”—removes the last protective ambiguity.
23. Insane Clown Posse, “Hall Of Illusions”
In “Hall Of Illusions,” Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope of Insane Clown Posse play demented jesters who show sinners what their families’ lives would have been like had they chosen a more virtuous path. In keeping with the weirdly moralistic worldview of the self-styled “most hated band in the world,” Shaggy 2 Dope and Violent J torment these sinners—for the sake of an ultimate moral good—by illustrating how idyllic their lives could have been if they’d chosen not to beat their children or punch their wives in the face. They present two starkly different scenarios: in the alternate-universe reality without domestic abuse, children grow up to be doctors; in the real world of domestic abuse, they instead sell crack to each other en route to becoming gutter-dwelling crack whores. “Hall Of Illusions” presents a stark moral choice: Listeners can eschew domestic abuse and lead a life of good deeds before ascending to the eternal paradise of Shangri-La, or continue to behave in an ungodly manner and suffer the torments of the damned at the hands of the Great Milenko. We’re pretty sure that’s the subtext of “Goodbye Earl” as well, even if the Dixie Chicks remain maddeningly silent on where exactly their song fits into the mythology of Insane Clown Posse’s Dark Carnival.
24. Green Day, “Pulling Teeth”
There’s an almost country-like twang to Green Day’s lightweight pop-punk ditty “Pulling Teeth”—and accordingly, the song’s lyrics read almost like a classic Nashville take on domestic violence. The twist, though, is that Billie Joe Armstrong delivers his lines from the perspective of a battered husband held hostage by infatuation: “I’m all busted up / broken bones and nasty cuts,” he wails before confessing, “She comes to check on me / making sure I’m on my knees / After all, she’s the one who put me in this state.” In spite of the constant violence, he just can’t escape the lady (and apparently, the knuckles) he loves.
25. Sonic Youth, “Shoot”
Sonic Youth has never been known for straightforwardness. And the group’s song “Shoot” is—at least musically—as hazy and cryptic as anything it’s ever done. Lyrically, though, “Shoot” is on target. Sung by Kim Gordon in her eeriest whisper/screech combo, the song tells the tale of a pregnant young woman who secretly plans to put on a little lipstick, borrow some cash and a car from her abusive boyfriend, get an abortion, and hit the open road. Her reason is vividly, achingly clear: “Since we’ve been together, you’ve been good to me / You only hit me when you want to be pleased.”
26. Bobby Digital, Domestic Violence
For reasons known only to him, RZA cut his teeth as a filmmaker by making a nearly 15-minute-long film called Domestic Violence, ostensibly based on a 1998 track where RZA, in the form of his alter ego Bobby Digital, unleashes a devastating torrent of verbal abuse on a girlfriend. Voice rising to a fever pitch, RZA screams some of the most vicious insults ever put to wax: “And when you leave me, bitch, you’re gonna be a ho / Cellulite and gargoyle feet / I’d rather beat my meat / That raggy-ass pussy, a starving dog wouldn’t eat.” And an unnamed woman returns his verbal abuse volley for volley. The short film is abstract to the point of incoherence, though it conveys the theme of domestic violence much more viscerally than the track that inspired it; such is the way of the RZA.
27. Bob Mould, “Lost Zoloft”
As he chronicles in his new memoir, See A Little Light: The Trail Of Rage And Melody, singer-songwriter Bob Mould grew up in an abusive household, but “Lost Zoloft”—from Mould’s little-loved electro-rock album, Modulate—is about the underreported phenomenon of same-sex spousal abuse. “You think you know the animal until you strike a certain nerve,” Mould sings, which could be about any abusive relationship, until he mentions “a latent homosex becomes so violent when provoked.”
28. No Use For A Name, “Justified Black Eye”
Northern California punk band No Use For A Name touches some familiar themes in this anti-domestic violence track from 1995’s Leche Con Carne: The guy is a boozer who alternates between violent rage and remorse, the woman a lifelong victim who always comes close to leaving but never does. It’s a typical narrative, but with some affecting moments, like the song-closing line “Apologies until tonight and another justified black eye.”
29. Elvis Costello, “Boy With A Problem”
In the early ’80s, Elvis Costello alluded to domestic abuse several times—most obviously on “Beaten To The Punch,” from 1980’s Get Happy!!, and “White Knuckles,” from 1981’s Trust. But lyrically, those songs are slippery, in the vein of much of Costello’s writing from the period. Not so “Boy With A Problem,” from 1982’s Imperial Bedroom: “I even slapped your face and made you cry,” he sings remorsefully over Steve Nieve’s stately piano. It’s the same sort of endlessly circular bad relationship Costello sang so much about during that period, including on “Beaten” and “Knuckles.” Here, though, his depiction of a relationship’s dregs (“Nights spent drinking to remember… Came home drunk / Talking in circles / The spirit is willing, but I don’t believe in miracles”) is sorrowful as well as judgmental.
30. Lou Reed, “Caroline Says (II)”
Lou Reed reworked a number of old songs played and recorded by The Velvet Underground for his 1973 album Berlin. Much of that album—the story of a troubled relationship between drug addicts in the titular city—could qualify for this list, but “Caroline Says (II),” a rewrite of the then-unreleased Velvets song “Stephanie Says,” offers a sadly concise description of domestic violence: “Caroline says, as she gets up from the floor, ‘You can hit me all that you want to / but I don’t love you anymore.’”