Lyrics on Trial

I read a disturbing article in The New York Times back on March 26 and it has been resonating with me ever since. It discussed the phenomenon of rap song lyrics as evidence in criminal trials. The song lyrics quoted in court were always violent and often misogynistic — definitely not my kind of music — but I found myself siding with the defense against the use of song lyrics as evidence of guilt. Songs — like poetry and fiction — are made up. They may be confessional, or appear to be confessional, but they are not confessions.

I’m not discussing the crazy perpetrators who make video “selfies” while committing an assault, post it on the Internet and are then surprised when they get accused of the crime they’ve just publicized. I’m focusing on the right to write. I’m working on a mystery that includes a few brutal murders in the story. Could my fiction be used against me in a criminal trial?

Outside of my tiny, law-abiding, mystery writing corner of the world, lyrics and storytelling may indeed contain hints at clues, a few facts and even a “confession” in the form of a bragging chorus after a list of misdeeds in the various verses. But I still want prosecutors to rely on hard evidence in court and I want police to look further than song lyrics (and mystery fiction) when hunting a killer.

What do you think?


  1. It sounds very prejudicial to me. If we can use rap music then we could use metal. Heck, you want to go super crazy, we can use pretty much anything from Frank Sinatra as evidence in divorce proceedings and such.

    There is a segment of the world that misinterprets everything said as exactly what it means. They seem to lack the chromasome that allows them to understand fiction and anything of that bent.

    Of course much of this is where we also get hard core liberals and hard core conservatives, neither side able to come to a middle ground and cooperate.

    • Candy Korman

      I remember Metal Rock lyrics being used in court a while back. I think you’re observation about prejudice is spot on. All outsiders are “suspect” in some circles and when those circles are also missing the “Fiction Gene” the rest of us are in trouble.

      Of course there are idiots who videotape themselves mid-assault and are surprised when THAT turns up in evidence — by they are missing a few more genes including the ones that dictate common sense.

  2. Back in the 90s Judas Priest was put on trial when a kid killed himself. The parents wanted someone to blame so they claimed the music forced him to do it. Back then they were proven not guilty.

    It doesn’t surprise me that people still push these issues. They never learn really.

    When I was working on my business degree I wrote a paper showing throughout recorded history art has been used as a scapegoat for misfortune. At this time I defended the violence in video games (and still do).

    I had a woman in class who hoped my paper would give her a reason to stop her child from playing the games.

    My view will always be, be the parent. Quit letting your kids tell you what you can and can’t do.

    • Candy Korman

      I remember that case! I also remember Frank Zappa testifying before Congress. It was about another related issue. Since once generation thought Elvis was sex incarnate — and therefore evil, and a subsequent generation thought The Stones were too provocative, and a subsequent generation thought Judas Priest was about Satanic Worship and… Honestly, I’m more concerned about stupid, boring pop music causing rot in the musical taste buds than about music promoting bad (angry, violent, etc.) behavior.

  3. I remember all the publicity surrounding the Judas Priest trial as well. Quite a fuss was being raised over all the heavy metal lyrics at the time, and I really loathed Al Gore’s wife Tipper Gore for the crusade she went on against song lyrics. Can you imagine what the average writer’s internet search history looks like? OMG we could all be thrown in the slammer.

    • Candy Korman

      Yes, Tipper was definitely a character in that mix. Her crusade wasn’t even the thin edge of the wedge — it was a blunt instrument for destroying anything and anyone it its path.

      As for my internet research —OMG… A long while back, I subscribed to a newsletter for mystery writers that ceased publication after 9/11 because it gave information about bombs, guns, poisons, etc. It was really a great reference with suggested bibliographies on all sorts of mystery/murder subjects. I guess in the wrong hands it would be seen a a murderous library, but I have shelves like that still…

  4. Surely the most awful lyrics would still be wildly circumstantial? I’m with you, evidence in a court of law should not infer intent from any work of fiction.

    • Candy Korman

      You would think they’d be deemed “wildly circumstantial” but I think they sneak them in as a commentary on the “state of mind” but still… very scary for writers with WILD imaginations!