The phrase “ripped from the headlines” doesn’t just apply to Law & Order episodes and Lifetime movies. Songwriters throughout the history of popular music have drawn inspiration from real-life tales of murder and mayhem to craft their tunes. From old-timey folk ballads to modern-day trap bangers, true crime songs shock and excite us while forcing us to consider the darkness lurking all around. Here are 14 of the best examples.
1. “Nebraska” // Bruce Springsteen
In January 1958, a 19-year-old Nebraska teenager named Charles Starkweather went on an interstate killing spree that left 11 people dead. Along for the ride was his 14-year-old girlfriend, Caril Ann Fugate, whose role in the slayings remains a point of debate. On the title track of his 1982 album Nebraska, Bruce Springsteen sings from the perspective of Starkweather on the electric chair, offering a chilling explanation for his crimes: “Well, sir, I guess there’s just a meanness in this world.”
2. “Georgia Lee” // Tom Waits
“Why wasn’t god watching?” asks Tom Waits in this 1999 ballad about Georgia Lee Moses, a 12-year-old black girl who was abducted and murdered in Petaluma, California, in 1997. Moses was a middle school dropout from a troubled home, and barely anyone noticed when she went missing. “Georgia Lee did not get any real attention,” Waits told LA Weekly in 1999. “And I wanted to write a song about it.”
3. “Annie Christian” // Prince
Over disorienting synths and a clipped beat, Prince references a handful of true crimes in this 1981 parable about evil in society, which was included on his Controversy album. The titular character—whose name is a play on “antichrist”—is apparently responsible for a string of child murders in Atlanta, the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan, the killing of John Lennon, and even the high-level government corruption unearthed by the FBI’s Abscam investigation.
4. “Stagger Lee” // Lloyd Price
On December 25, 1895, William “Billy” Lyons and his buddy “Stack” Lee Sheldon were knocking back drinks in a St. Louis bar. They began arguing about politics, and Billy snatched the white Stetson off Stack’s head. When Billy refused to give the hat back, Stack shot him dead. The murder made Stack (alternately known as “Stagolee,” “Stack-O-Lee,” “Stack O’Lee,” and “Stagger Lee”) an American folk antihero. He’s been immortalized in hundreds of songs by artists ranging from Ma Rainey to Nick Cave. R&B singer Lloyd Price reached #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 with 1959’s “Stagger Lee,” the most famous telling of this timeless story.
5. “1913 Massacre” // Woody Guthrie
Woody Guthrie penned this plaintive 1941 folk ballad about the “Italian Hall Disaster” of 1913, which took place at a Christmas party for striking miners and their families in Calumet, Michigan. Someone yelled “Fire!” in the crowded hall, and the resulting stampede killed 73 people, most of them children. It’s unknown who gave the false fire call, but many people—Guthrie included—believe it was an anti-union operative looking to spoil the party.
6. “Suffer Little Children” // The Smiths
Growing up in Manchester, England, in the ‘60s, Steven Patrick Morrissey was haunted by the “Moors Murders,” a gruesome series of child murders perpetrated by couple Ian Brady and Myra Hindley. Morrissey name-checks three of the five victims in “Suffer Little Children,” a song about the case featured on the 1984 self-titled debut album by his band The Smiths. Morrissey’s lyrics created a great deal of controversy, but the singer claimed he meant no harm. He even became friendly with Ann West, mother of Lesley Ann Downey, one of the slain children.
7. “Darkness” // Eminem
Depending on your point of view, Eminem either denounces or glorifies gun violence on 2020’s instantly controversial “Darkness.” Eminem raps this novelistic song from the perspective of Stephen Paddock, the mass shooter who killed 58 people at the 2017 Route 91 Harvest festival in Las Vegas, before reportedly turning the gun on himself. “You’ll never find a motive, truth is I have no idea,” Em raps. “I am just as stumped, no signs of mental illness.” The music video ends with a message urging fans to vote and help change America’s gun laws.
8. “Brenda’s Got a Baby” // 2Pac
2Pac was moved to write this harrowing 1991 hip-hop classic after reading a newspaper article about a 12-year-old Brooklyn girl who threw her newborn baby into a trash compactor. (Miraculously, the child survived.) In a 1997 interview with The New Yorker, Pac said he considered the song a political statement about poverty, child abuse, drugs, and other issues. “It talked about how the innocent are the ones that get hurt,” he said.
9. “Deep Red Bells” // Neko Case
“He led you to this hiding place,” sings Neko Case to open this 2002 country-noir stunner. The “you,” she explained to The New York Times Magazine in 2009, is one of the young women killed by Gary Ridgway, a.k.a. the “Green River Killer,” throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s. Ridgway is said to have murdered at least 49 women, many of them prostitutes and runaways. Case—who grew up in Tacoma, Washington, before Ridgway was apprehended—carried a knife with her to school.
10. “Son of Sam” // Dead Boys
For a yearlong stretch beginning in July 1976, New Yorkers lived in fear of the "Son of Sam," a mysterious figure who murdered six people with a .44 caliber revolver and taunted police with handwritten letters. In August 1977, police apprehended the killer, David Berkowitz, who claimed he was given the murderous orders by his neighbor’s dog. (Berkowitz later admitted that story was bogus.) Cleveland-born, New York City-based punk rockers Dead Boys seem to accept Berkowitz's initial explanation for the slayings on their 1978 tune “Son of Sam,” painting the infamous serial killer as a helpless slave (in his own mind, anyway) to demonic forces.
11. “I Don’t Like Mondays” // The Boomtown Rats
On the morning of Monday, January 29, 1979, a 16-year-old San Diego girl named Brenda Ann Spencer opened fire on Grover Cleveland Elementary School, which was located right across the street from her house. She killed two people and injured nine others, eight of them children. Asked why she did it, Spencer told a reporter, “I don’t like Mondays. This livens up the day.” Upon hearing this, The Boomtown Rats frontman Bob Geldof—the Live Aid guy—dashed off “I Don’t Like Mondays,” a mournful response to the senselessness of it all. The song reached #1 on the U.K. charts.
12. “Wildside” // Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch
Mark “Marky Mark” Wahlberg followed his 1991 chart-topper “Good Vibrations” with “Wildside,” a series of musical vignettes about the sorry state of the nation. He references two real-life crimes that shook his hometown of Boston. First, the murder of a pregnant woman named Carol Stuart by her husband, Charles, who blamed the killing on a fictitious black man in hopes of pocketing the insurance money. Next, the tragic death of 12-year-old Tiffany Moore, who was gunned down in a drive-by shooting.
13. “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” // Sufjan Stevens
Sufjan Stevens’s 2005 concept album Illinoise references many famous figures from the Prairie State, including serial killer John Wayne Gacy Jr., who murdered at least 33 boys and young men in the ‘70s. What’s interesting—and a little unsettling—is how tenderly Stevens sings of the man known as the “Killer Clown.” “I felt insurmountable empathy not with his behavior but with his nature, and there was nothing I could do to get around confessing that, however horrifying that sounds,” Stevens said in a 2005 interview.
14. “Hurricane” // Bob Dylan
In the court of public opinion, Bob Dylan’s epic 1975 song “Hurricane” went a long way toward clearing Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, an African American boxer convicted of killing three white people in Paterson, New Jersey, in 1966. Carter always maintained his innocence, and Dylan’s song blames the racist criminal justice system for jailing a man who “coulda been the champion of the world.” After being released in 1976 and then convicted again in a second trial, Carter was finally freed in 1985, when a federal judge ruled that the prosecution had based its case on “racism rather than reason and concealment rather than disclosure.”