Challenges to Criminal Labeling: Three Voices in American Popular Music


Criminal labeling is an important process in the typical modern hegemony, serving not only to name and marginalize selected criminals but also to underscore and rationalize the hegemony’s norms. In the contemporary United States, such labeling is especially harsh and reductive. It predictably involves the established criminal justice institutions—police departments, criminal courts, and prisons—and also a wide range of community spokesmen, political figures, and the mass media. Yet despite the hegemony’s apparent determination to criminally label individual men and women and also entire social groups and classes, many popular songs identify and sympathize with the people who have been labeled. Indeed, the criminals themselves are often the most winning voices in those songs’ lyrics. A consideration of three singer/songwriters and three popular songs from different genres reveals how these voices humanize the criminal, thereby problematizing the hegemony’s tendency to label criminals and to reify and then condemn crime. Overall, the selected voices from American popular music illustrate the role the popular arts might play in challenging the hegemony.

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Comments received from two anonymous readers and from participants at the 19th International Roundtable for the Semiotics of Law at Örebro University in May, 2018 were of great assistance in completing this article. Elise Papke, Special Senior Lecturer and Director of Community Engagement at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee Zilber School of Public Health, kindly read and critiqued an earlier version.

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Papke, D.R. Challenges to Criminal Labeling: Three Voices in American Popular Music. Int J Semiot Law 34, 191–210 (2021).

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  • Crime
  • Criminal labeling
  • Law enforcement
  • Courts
  • Prisons
  • Popular music
  • Voice