Nietzsche, in one of his many incisive aphorisms, differentiated between two distinct types of vengeance, or "elements of revenge." The first--and one must assume cruder--form of vengeance, in Nietzsche's reckoning, is purely reactionary, a "return blow of resistance which is almost an involuntary reflex." What marks this type of revenge is a will toward self-preservation: For example, if you accidentally pinch your thumb-meat in the swivel joint on a pair of pliers, you will more likely than not hurl those pliers violently against the wall, or smash them furiously to the floor. This is raw human nature. "We act that way," wrote the dead German, "without any wish to do harm in return, merely in order to get away with life and limb."
The second form of vengeance that Nietzsche expounded upon is more relevant to our discussion. This is a more sublime and devious type of revenge--requiring, first and foremost, time: a period of gestation "when instead of concentrating on oneself one begins to think about one's opponent, asking how one can hurt him the most." In this instance, the party seeking revenge is totally indifferent to what the opponent (be he Pope John Paul or Paul McCartney) has yet to do; the crucial consideration--the factor that determines "the strength of the counterblow"--is what the opponent has already done. And as for this higher form of vengeance, "reflection on the other person's vulnerability and capacity for suffering is its presupposition." Nietzsche calls this, somewhat ironically, "the revenge of restoration," and goes on to explain that it is often so relentlessly and obsessively pursued that the person committing the vengeful act cares little or not at all for his own well-being. In fact, "the intent of showing one's utter lack of fear goes so far in some persons that the danger their revenge involves for them is for them an indispensable condition of all revenge."
It is this second level of vengeance, and the delicious madness that attends it, that drives the narrator of Edgar Allen Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado" to such poetic heights: "I must not only punish, but punish with impunity. A wrong is unredressed when retribution overtakes its redresser. It is equally unredressed when the avenger fails to make himself felt as such to him who has done the wrong."
Can't you almost taste it?
In 1971, John Lennon--former Beatle, adherent of Jungian primal-scream therapy, lover of Yoko and hater of hypocrisy--released Imagine. It is a spare, beautiful, emotionally cathartic and intensely confrontational piece of work, a stripped-down statement of personal integrity, and a slap in the face of pretty pop and everything it fails to stand for. Tucked not-so-quietly away on side two of the record is a song so unrepentantly brutal and scathingly personal that it still, after so many years, makes the little hairs on my arms stand up. For its impolite demonstration of righteous anger, for the consistency of its disgust, and for its relentless desire to inflict psychological torment and artistic humiliation, "How Do You Sleep?" stands as the purest act of vengeance in the history of rock and roll.
The song opens with some mock Sgt. Pepper crowd chatter; then a fat bass note sounds, over which Lennon immediately begins to sing, taking dead aim at his victim. It is impossible to misconstrue his target.
So Sgt. Pepper took you by surprise
You better see right thru that mother's eyes
Those freaks was right when they said you was dead
The one mistake you made was in your head
How do you sleep at night?
You live with straights who tell you you was king
Jump when your mamma tell you anything
The only thing you done was yesterday
And since you've gone you're just another day
A pretty face may last a year or two
But pretty soon they'll see what you can do
The sound you make is Muzak to my ears
You must have learned something in all those years
What's most shocking and, let's admit it, secretly satisfying about this song is not its bold sentiment, which anyone with a modicum of artistic discernment must at least understand, if not wholly agree with. That John Lennon had the cajones to donate this sublime act of vengeance to public record is what gives it its special power, its cathartic force. As Nietzsche writes: "Here it is the absence of fear that wants to prove itself by means of the counterblow." The attack is, above all else, characterized by absolute fearlessness.
It's impossible to listen to Lennon's lyrics and not wonder how his old friend Paul must have felt the first time he heard them. You almost feel sorry for the guy. And what is it, exactly, that McCartney has done to warrant such a grievous sock to the jaw? Has he stolen Mr. Lennon's favorite guitar? Pushed him down the stairs? Seduced his wife? No. McCartney's crime, according to Lennon, is simply that he sucks.
The best kind of musical vengeance contains, along with a requisite dosage of sheer nastiness, two very crucial elements: grace and relevance. "How Do You Sleep?" exhibits both of these qualities. If McCartney hadn't once been a Beatle, it probably wouldn't matter much that he stinks; and if Lennon hadn't been such a fantastic lyricist, his barbs might have come off as too sloppy or base. As it stands, Lennon's verbal and instrumental assault is completely justified, because McCartney's idiocy has the appearance of a decision--he has perverted his obvious talents by pandering to his audience with silly love songs. Lennon, who was nothing if not a responsible artist, found this unforgivable. He was driven to a supreme act of iconoclasm (there are few things as satisfying as watching one icon bash another icon); his own personal sense of vengeance was transformed into an accessible act of public revenge instigated against McCartney's offensively bad taste.
(Other stellar examples of vengeance in song include Elvis Costello's "Tramp the Dirt Down," Nirvana's "Francis Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle," Aimee Mann's "You Could Make a Killing," The Replacements' "Seen Your Video," Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama," Bob Dylan's "Positively 4th Street," and Mudhoney's "Overblown.")
The importance of grace and relevance in the execution of musical vengeance is perhaps best driven home by an example in which these two qualities are entirely absent. Eminem's "Kim" is a horrible, nerve-wracking, ad hominem attack on the artist's own wife; as an act of vengeance, it is numbingly inarticulate and criminally violent. The song achieves nominal relevance only as potential court evidence in an inevitable homicide conviction, and whatever the song's intent might be, the effect it has on the listener is anything but cathartic. It's just depressing. Lines such as "Sit down bitch, you move again, I'll beat the shit out of you" and "Get the fuck away from me, don't touch me, I hate you" reveal nothing more than the artist's own deplorable attitudes regarding just about everything. And the music supporting these lines is utterly monotonous, in the way repeated blows to the head with a tire iron could be considered utterly monotonous.
To work, revenge songs must balance the extremely private nature of vengeance with the very public aspect of exposure: No matter how personal, a good revenge song should either touch a familiar emotional chord in the audience, or else it should appeal to a collective sense of moral outrage or righteous indignation. As with Lennon's chumping of McCartney, the song should elicit in the listener a mixture of discomfort and relief, and we should come away from it with an admiration of the avenger's amazing courage to vent. Obviously, it is not enough to just yell "Fuck you!" at the offending party (though a few tastefully placed expletives always help the cause); the revenge must be as sweet for the listener as it is for the perpetrator. And while the instinct for vengeance often plunges great songwriters into the depths of anger's twisted-up vocabulary (as with artists like Costello and Mann), sometimes a few simple lines do the trick. Witness the Replacements' revenge against an unnamed foe on their album Let It Be:
Seen your video
It's only rock and roll
We don't want to know
Seen your video