The Justice and Mercy Beat: Michelle Shocked, “Quality Of Mercy” (1996)

PrisonerHow would you put justice into music? Justice involves balancing, tit for tat. A strict regularity is demanded, as in

Rat………tat tat tat tat………………………

like when a fellow is being marched to his execution.

Or perhaps a better way to feel the requirements of justice would be a dynamic balance, the second move snapping back toward the first to make a point of their belonging together, as in

Boom – cha-boom
Boom – cha-boom

“Quality Of Mercy” 1

That’s the beat of Michelle Shocked’s “Quality Of Mercy.” What better way to represent the violators of justice than to state their offenses with the rhythmic bear trap of justice springing shut on them in every line ?

“Quality Of Mercy” 2

All you hypocrites and liars
In the temple seeking gain
All you senators and lawyers
With your motives to explain

But then, but then: what better way to bring in mercy than to use the springing-shut rhythm of justice in the very course of overriding it, jamming together the just and unjust? That’s what starts to happen:

“Quality Of Mercy” 3

On the just and unjust, alike it doth rain
And the quality of mercy is not strained
Vengeance and revenge are just two words for pain
And the quality of mercy is not strained

This is a song against the death penalty. It’s not that the singer is too good for society’s lethal justice. She herself is thoroughly condemned. Boom – cha-boom.

“Quality Of Mercy” 4

Did not I crucify my Lord
Did not I bind Him in chain
Did not I three times betray Him
Three times deny His name

Did not I cast the first stone
And then justify the blame
Did not He die for my sins
But never would I do the same

I’ve been three times a sinner and two times a saint
And the quality of mercy is not strained

The boom – cha-booms want to chant justice, not knowing they have a choice, but free mercy in the lyrics takes over their insistence and in the end it’s mercy you can’t escape.

There’s a nice video here.


About Steve Smith

Professor of Philosophy & Religious Studies and Director of Film Studies at Millsaps College
This entry was posted in Rock Aesthetics, Time and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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