Violence against women – with lyrics by Nick Cave, Johnny Cash and Robert Browning

Do you remember a song that was top of the charts in 2008?

It went:


They call me The Wild Rose 
But my name was Elisa Day 
Why they call me it I do not know 
For my name was Elisa Day


The song is “Wild Rose”, performed by Nick Cave and Kylie Minogue. And it used to be on the radio all the time when I was sixteen. At first, I had listened to the music and not to the words. And only when I had hummed along to the chorus quite a few times, did I realize that this was actually a song about a murder.

He showed me the roses and we kissed 
And the last thing I heard was a muttered word 
As he stood smiling above me with a rock in his fist

On the last day, I took her where the wild roses grow 
And she lay on the bank, the wind light as a thief 
As I kissed her goodbye, I said, ‘All beauty must die’ 
And lent down and planted a rose between her teeth


I was appalled and terrified. How could such a song be broadcast on radio?  I reported my shock to my friends who shrugged and told me “Yeah, sure, there’s plenty of songs like that. It’s a whole genre. Anyhow it’s based on a legend about a woman who got murdered and haunted the riverbank”.

So I shrugged and I listened to more songs and I learned not to be terrified and appalled. I even happily hummed along.

But for some reason, I had to stop and think about it this year, given current events.

What is it about our culture that eroticizes violence against women? Even in pop songs?

I mean  Freud suggested that Eros (sexual love) and Thanatos (death) are linked, but you sure don’t find erotic descriptions of killed men in songs?


If a woman-singer sings about killing a man (and I really have to sit and ponder to find examples) – it’s usually straightforward revenge for betrayal (take “He had it coming” from Chicago). It’s not “All Beauty Must Die”. Killing a man is hardly ever excused by a woman’s overly devotion to aesthetics. We don’t usually get an eroticised vision of the dead man’s corpse. If the man’s body is subjected to the erotically charged female gaze it’s before he’s dead. Not after. (see the video to Toxic by Britney Spears)


But Nick Cave’s song is not an exception to the rule. Nor does it depict a new attitude towards women. Take the 19th-century poem Porphyria’s Lover by Robert Browning.

That moment she was mine, mine, fair,
Perfectly pure and good: I found
A thing to do, and all her hair
In one long yellow string, I wound
Three times her little throat around,
And strangled her.


But at least, the poem ends with the words “And all night long we have not stirred,/
And yet God has not said a word!” which implies a man waiting for some sort of judgment of his actions, an acknowledgment that those actions were evil. Nick Cave doesn’t really have that. In the true spirit of the 20th and the 21st century – there is no judgment. The narrator does not even expect it or long for it. All possible condemnation is left to the audience.

Now, you might think – sure, the condemnation is left to the audience, but our attitudes towards women are surely advanced enough that we have no problem with identifying the problematic nature of eroticised violence against women. Well, here’s the thing. I’m not convinced that we do. Let me explain.

I’ve had a slight obsession with Johnny Cash recently. And I started by listening to an album entitled Johnny Cash: The Greatest Hits. In it, there’s a song called “Delia’s Gone”– and yes, you’ve guessed it, she’s not gone on holiday.

First time I shot her I shot her in the side 
Hard to watch her suffer 
But with the second shot, she died 
Delia’s gone, one more round Delia’s gone


The song is based on the story of the murder of 14-year-old Delia Green, an African American girl in Savannah, Georgia. Her murder became a popular folk song subject – and there’s a lovely list of various versions of the song here

Now, this is not uncommon for an origin for this sort of song. They were based on ballads about bloody murders and murderers and usually feature some sort of justice or retribution. This was the case in the version of the song that I heard first – the 1962 version:

But jailer, oh, jailer
Jailer, I can’t sleep
Cause all around my bedside
I hear the patter of Delia’s feet
Delia’s gone
One more round
Delia’s gone

Now you give me my hammer
I’ll drag the ball and chain
And every rock I bust
I seem to ring out Delia’s name
Delia’s gone
One more round
Delia’s gone

This fits with the idea of justice. Our narrator feels haunted by the crime he has committed. He’s in prison. It makes sense. Compare that to the 1994 version of the song (also by Johnny Cash) which ends


But jailer, oh, jailer Jailer,
I can’t sleep ‘Cause all around my bedside 
I hear the patter of Delia’s feet 
Delia’s gone, one more round Delia’s gone

So if you woman’s devilish 
You can let her run 
Or you can bring her down and do her 
Like Delia got done 
Delia’s gone, one more round Delia’s gone


Now, I’m not accusing the elderly Johnny Cash of murderous tendencies. Instead, I’d like to point out that it’s the change in his audience that made the change in the lyrics. And indeed, if you’re seeking sexist comments, googling the song will provide you with plenty. (the least offensive of which would probably be –  a devilish woman needs a strong hand). Violence against women has not become less acceptable in 1994 than in 1962- only moralizing about it has.

You might not agree with me on this – but hear me out.

The music video to “Delia’s Gone” from 1994 features a young Kate Moss, being dressed up as a stereotypical Southern Belle and murdered by Johnny Cash. We have long lingering shots focusing on the dead body (just as we do in the Kylie Minogue footage in the Nick Cave video)

Not only has the skin colour of the woman switched for some reason…  She is played by the beauty idol Kate Moss so that we can longingly gaze at her for a bit longer.

Well, 1994 is the date of Johnny Cash’s video.

It was 1992 when the first Alexander McQueen collection appeared which was called “Jack the Ripper Stalks His Victims”. It featured women’s clothing with knife cuts on it to represent the wounds of Jack the Ripper’s victims. Yes. Seriously. Models dressed up as violated corpses. This is a collection by a designer who is hailed again and again for empowering women. And the British Vogue loved this collection and bought every item in it.  I’m not even joking.

After appearing in Johnny Cash’s video, Kate Moss also appeared in 2006 in Alexander McQueen’s collection entitled Widows of Culloden, which was a sequel to Alexander McQueen’s famous 1995 collection – Highland Rape. 

After reading Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth, (in which women’s longing for thinness is a longing for self-destruction), one is tempted to say that the very choice of Kate Moss, thin and frail as she is, shows you exactly what is expected of women in our times. Not to mention the fact that Alexander McQueen actually portrayed her as a ghost. Clearly, living, even though skeletally thin, she was not attractive enough for our popular culture.

My point is – the change of lyrics in the1994  Johnny Cash song is not an isolated incident. It is indicative of a culture which is infused with an amoral and highly sexualized longing for aggression against women.

The Nick Cave song from 2008 was simply continuing the tradition of an amoralized erotic gaze focused on the violated female corpse. And yes, that’s a 20th-century tradition, because clearly earlier on at least people thought they should feel guilty about it.

Am I saying that the popular culture attitude towards violence against women is less advanced when they were in the 1960s?

I’m not sure. But it certainly hasn’t improved as much as we’d like to think.


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3 thoughts on “Violence against women – with lyrics by Nick Cave, Johnny Cash and Robert Browning

  1. I might point out that the Nick Cave song comes from a concept album called “Murder Ballads” which also features a song called “Henry Lee” where it is the man who is murdered. Another song, “Crow Jane” is about a woman who takes murders takes revenge on her rapists.


      1. Henry Lee certainly got airplay, probably because it was a duet with PJ Harvey who was quite popular back in ’96 (here in the states Nick has really never been more than a cult figure).

        Liked by 1 person

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