“Those who imitate, imitate agents who must be either admirable or inferior. (Character almost always corresponds to just these two categories, since everyone is differentiated in character by defect or excellence.) Alternatively they must be better people than we are, or worse, or of the same sort…Homer imitates better people; Cleophon, people similar to us; Nicochares, the author of the Deiliad, worse people. The very same difference distinguishes tragedy and comedy from each other; the latter aims to imitate people worse than our contemporaries, the former better.” – Aristotle, Poetics.

In Ryan Culwell’s song “The Ballad of Charlie Waters”, he depicts two lovers on the lam for a murder. Or murders. The unrepentant Charlie Waters narrates the flight, finally landing in prison expecting to die there. (This, of course, has all the markings of a comedy. :))

The song’s plot isn’t new. It’s been explored in song by the likes of Bruce Springsteen, and in film by Terrence Malick, Oliver Stone, and more recently by David Lowery. At the heart of each of these versions is an actual true story with real teen-aged serial killers, which probably means that every generation produces similar crimes. It’s tempting to say that all these versions portray people worse than our contemporaries, but I’m not sure. Springsteen is known as an Everyman songwriter, generally placing him in the company of Cleophon who portrayed people similar to us.

Mr. Culwell maintains that the song is in fact a love song. But it’s not a tragic Romeo and Juliet teenage love. They may have been foolish, but they were certainly better people than their contemporaries. The scariest part of a song like “The Ballad of Charlie Waters” is that the characters are of the same fabric as most of us. Not that most of us are murderers, but that most of us love things that eventually harm us or people around us.

In the end, I’m not sure I buy Aristotle’s distinctions in morality (or defects and excellence). I think we’re all on the same level, and I think Culwell’s song finds that note.

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