SONG SPOTLIGHT: Valley High
I’ve spent a lot of time in this series talking about the Golden Age Musical’s influence on our NMT writers. I’ve also touched upon stand-alone songs before, but that particular song was still very much in the classical musical theatre mold. Drew Gasparini’s “Valley High,” on the other hand, is influenced by a different musical storytelling tradition, and would have no problem getting radio play right next to The Civil Wars.
“Valley High” is a folk and country rock ballad about three tormented young men who are behind what appears to be a school shooting. Songs like the Boomtown Rats’ “I Don’t Like Mondays” and Pearl Jam’s “Jeremy” touch on similar themes, but country and folk music has a tendency to dig deep into a dark story and the mindsets of those who dwell there.
Three songs are about death, two about murder specifically, and all four are told fully or partially in first person (something “Mondays” and “Jeremy” lack). “I happen to be drawn to really dark-minded people,” Gasparini says. “I’m so curious as to what gets them to that boiling point.” So it’s not surprising that this strong folk tradition would suit his interests, and support the story he wants to tell.
And that’s the story of the “boys at Valley High”. Our narrators, known only as Boy 1, 2 and 3, each more or less get a verse to explain how we got here. Gasparini says he envisioned it as the boys being interrogated by police, and the lyrics serving as their confession. There are shades of “Folsom Prison Blues” here, particularly in the narrator’s resentment. Cash’s lonely and not particularly repentant prisoner is upset that others get to live their lives while he does his time. “Well I know I had it coming, I know I can’t be free/But those people keep a-movin’, and that’s what tortures me.”
Our boys are also upset about the world and their inability to join it, but it’s not a literal prison that holds them back; they were outcast long before they committed any crime. All three have been bullied or neglected in some fashion—by parents, teammates, and lovers—and there’s seemingly nowhere to turn (except dangerously towards each other).
Naturally, this renders the trio very sympathetic before we get to the reveal in the chorus. Even after the reveal, it’s hard to argue to with Boy 3’s backstory. Gasparini says he wrote “Valley High” when bullying “started to make headlines again.” The most prevalent narrative that emerged from the resurgence in bullying awareness was that of the LGBT-identified teen. Boy 3 is one such queer kid, and his origin story plays out as black-and-white as you’d expect. “I go to hold his hand while he is sitting with his friends,” he says of his pseudo-boyfriend, who reveals himself to be a self-loathing closet case. “He pushed me down and called me fag. Their laughter doesn’t end.” But lest you find yourself too much in Boy 3’s corner, he ends his stanza with the song’s wham line: “I guess I won’t be seeing Parker anymore.”
What Gasparini has done here is skillfully combined two separate narratives in a distinctly unsettling way, The bullied gay youth as tragedy narrative often ends in suicide, and is objectively sympathetic. The school shooter narrative, if and when it presents a motive, is never justifiable and is objectively unsympathetic. How do you react when your perfect pitiable victim decides to turn the gun on someone else?
“Valley High” tricks us into identifying with the shooters in other ways too. At one point the boys commiserate about a familiar torture: “Nine am, I’m late again, but who the fuck needs—“ “WHO THE FUCK needs math!?” The fact that this, more than any other line, merits such passionate backup is obviously a joke (accentuated by the almost punch-line effect in the music taking a rest beat after it), and you find yourself laughing, even though moments before you learned that they killed people.
The chorus’ chillingly remorseless confession (“So I watch them fall, one, two, three. I’m on a page of history.”) is underscored by a jangly upbeat melody and tight harmonies; one could easily mistake it for an early Avett Brothers tune. This style was chosen deliberately, since “it keeps a foot tapping, getting the audience to question themselves as well.”
Because as much sympathy as Gasparini lends these characters, they still had a choice, just like Cash’s narrator had a choice not to shoot that man in Reno. While it is true that teenagers don’t have, in Gasparini’s words, “the emotional capabilities to just brush off insults or feeling different all the time” and science has proven the brain’s circuitry that responds to rewards is at its most reactive in adolescents and makes them engage in more risky behavior, there are hints throughout “Valley High” that the boys always had a dark streak.
In “Folsom Prison Blues”, Cash hates that other people have what he can’t have, but he doesn’t seem himself as a better or more deserving person than them. The “Valley High” boys, even after their crime, clearly maintain a superior air “Who the fuck do they think they are anyway?” Boy 1 asks. Boy 2 resents being “stuck in the background of this unfulfilling scene,” and insists, “All I did was make a little room for me.” And all three gloat about the fact that their victims “never saw it coming”. Their response to perfectly rational needs, like wanting to be accepted and loved, is “it’s fun to just play god”—and that was ultimately more important to them.
“Valley High” succeeds both as a Devil’s Advocate insight into a killer’s mind and as a more straightforward morality tale. To find a morality tale truly shocking, you have to think you could have done the same thing, and that doesn’t actually make it okay. No matter how infectious the song’s closing Beatles-esque “Ahh”-ing is.