The New Jersey Supreme Court’s Monday ruling that rap lyrics written by a murder trial defendant couldn’t be used as evidence against him included quite the nugget of reasoning.
“One would not presume that Bob Marley, who wrote the well-known song ‘I Shot the Sheriff,’ actually shot a sheriff,” read Justice Jaynee LaVecchia’s opinion on behalf of the court, “or that Edgar Allan Poe buried a man beneath his floorboards, as depicted in his short story ‘The Tell-Tale Heart,’ simply because of their respective artistic endeavors on those subjects.”
Those are some great examples. Indeed, there would be many, many artists out there guilty of heinous crimes — and some more innocuous misdemeanors — if their lyrics were to be taken too literally. Here are six crimes committed via song:
ARSON: Talking Heads, “Burning Down the House”
Burning down houses is illegal. Don’t burn down houses.
The federal arson statute actually doesn’t apply to torching private residences, the Supreme Court ruled in 2002. So if burning down a private home is what Talking Heads are talking about (pun intended!), the crime is probably covered under state law.
Talking Heads wrote the catchy line after attending a Parliament-Funkadelic show.
“I heard these kids in the audience screaming, ‘Burn down the house,’ and I thought, ‘Wow, that sounds like a song,’ ” drummer Chris Frantz once told Rolling Stone.
KIDNAPPING: M.O.P., “Ante Up”
In addition to the (assumed armed) robbery that is taking place, Billy Danze and Lil’ Fame rap in the chorus: “Kidnap that fool.”
The penalty for kidnapping would vary depending on where “that fool” was taken by M.O.P. — and in pursuit of what. Kidnapping falls under federal jurisdiction when the victim is transported across state lines or in the name of “interstate or foreign commerce.”
PUBLIC NUDITY, ADDITIONAL INFRACTIONS: Katy Perry, “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)”
The woman straight up admits it when she sings: “I think we broke the law.” She also says, “Warrant’s out for my arrest.”
Perry sings she went “streaking in the park,” and public nudity is illegal in most states. She doesn’t further disclose the extent of her illegal activities. But you know what should be totally illegal? That sax solo in the middle of the song.
TRANSPORTING ILLICIT DRUGS: Jay-Z, “99 Problems”
In the second verse, Jay-Z details an incident in which a cop pulls him over. “The year is ’94, and in my trunk is raw,” Jay-Z raps. He’s transporting drugs. Illegal! The cop wants to search his car, and Jay responds: “Well, my glove compartment is locked, so is the trunk and the back. And I know my rights so you gonna need a warrant for that.”
It turns out that Jay-Z isn’t the legal expert he purports to be. Caleb Mason, an associate professor of law at Southwestern Law School, wrote a line-by-line analysis of the Fourth Amendment issues raised by the song in a Saint Louis University Law Journal article. “It’s time we added it to the canon of criminal procedure pedagogy,” he wrote.
“If this essay serves no other purpose, I hope it serves to debunk, for any readers who persist in believing it, the myth that locking your trunk will keep the cops from searching it,” Mason continued. “What the line should say is: ‘You’ll need some p.c. [probable cause] for that.'”
Not as catchy, though.
ROOF REMOVAL: Parliament-Funkadelic, “Give Up the Funk (Tear the Roof off the Sucker)”
Hey P-Funk, you got a permit for that?
We’re going to go ahead and include this one, with some caveats: Removing a roof requires only a permit in some cities under certain circumstances. Since we do not know the details of what, exactly, the sucker refers to, we’ll go ahead and say that, at best, this is a violation of most city codes.
For instance, in Washington, you need a permit to remove a roof that is more than 100 square feet, or if more than two layers of “membrane or asphalt shingles are involved,” the code reads. P-Funk mostly plays the song in large arenas and stadiums, with roofs much larger than 100 square feet.
MURDER: Johnny Cash, “Folsom Prison Blues”
Johnny Cash sings that he “shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die.” Not only is that super illegal, but also very messed up. Were you a sociopath, Johnny?
Bethonie Butler contributed to this post.