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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

"(Don't Fear) The Reaper" is more than a meme

...but the meme's wide reach means that's how most think of the Blue Öyster Cult's classic tune.

The meme is a fascinating form of cultural symbol. It captures so much information and collective understanding in a small package, as small as a singular image or a couple words. Heck, even a single word in certain contexts.

Within the world of memes, music occupies a key space. It is hardly ever a standalone form of meme transmission, but many pieces of music either spawn memes through associated visuals — often a music video, such as Drake's 'dad dancing' in his video for "Hotline Bling," but sometimes an unrelated, fan-made visual spawns the meme. As another Drake song, "In My Feelings," demonstrates, a viral dance is a common fan-made form, but that's far from the only method. An amateur production spawned the cultural fascination with Bag Raiders' "Shooting Stars," a nu-disco production that is honestly underrated because of its meme status, and has a cool official animated video as well. These music-adjacent (or arguably music-dependent) memes often have the effect of making or keeping the music from which the audio originates relevant, as can be tracked through chart and streaming success.

In more recent times, TikTok has spawned an era of quick-hitting sonic trends, with an emphasis on replicability that further fosters the associated music's staying power. These trends don't have to be memes — such as the more emotional uses of Coldplay's "Sparks," a song I never expected to gain traction that way... or ever — but the same principle of how the music spreads through its accompanying visuals. I'm interested in going further down this contemporary path in a future post. Today, however, I'm turning back the clock to a time before YouTube, and a time before I was born.

It's April 8–9, 2000, and through Saturday Night Live, "one of the first super-memes of the new century" is being born: "More Cowbell." Christopher Walken, as producer "The Bruce Dickinson," is guiding Blue Öyster Cult through the recording of their enduring, poetic track "(Don't Fear) The Reaper." Thanks to the fictional producer's repeated desire for that one percussive instrument, the sketch transforms "(Don't Fear) The Reaper" from a deep story on death and enduring love into... well, one big joke. Today, I'm going to look at the song through both those lenses in an attempt to find some sort of middle ground that takes each side into account.

Musically, "(Don't Fear) The Reaper" doesn't ever fully dive into its lyrical darkness, and I think that's a key factor of then-SNL player and "More Cowbell" co-writer Will Ferrell's fascination toward the track. Buck Dharma's opening guitar riff, introducing the verses' pendulum-like chord progression, is catchy without imparting any particular mood. Then, the now-infamous cowbell enters to help accent the beat. It isn't particularly resonant, and it's toward the back of the mix, but it's noticeable because of its relatively high pitch. The fact that Albert Bouchard is playing drums whenever the cowbell is there makes it more of a sonic curiosity than anything, and that understanding of the cowbell's role makes Ferrell's curiosity about the person behind its sound all the more understandable.

The song's foreboding opening lyrics then enter, with Dharma (real name Donald Roeser) leading Blue Öyster Cult's vocal harmonies. "All our times have come, Dharma et al. sing as the organ swells behind them, "Here but now they're gone." Yet despite this lyrical unease, the minor-key rock instrumental soldiers ahead. While I might have expected musical darkness from the lyrics, "(Don't Fear) The Reaper" instead has a bit of a psychedelic sheen to it. This side to the song makes more sense when one listens to the chorus lyrics. Not fearing the Reaper means not being afraid of death, accepting it for what it is — something that casts a different light over the song when considering the dedication in memory of fictional cowbell player Gene Frenkle at the end of the "More Cowbell" sketch. In addition, love endures through death, indicated through lyrics like "Romeo and Juliet / Are together in eternity" in the second verse, as well as Dharma's responses to the title in the chorus: "Baby, take my hand"; "We'll be able to fly."

With the "More Cowbell" sketch focusing on the song's opening, it never gets to what I consider the most musically interesting part of the track: the bridge. This section is "fear" and "the Reaper" manifest within the track, and "(Don't Fear) the Reaper"'s darkest moment. The key switches, and a new, quiet, mysterious riff begins the section before Dharma's solo explodes onto the scene. In this moment, death is present in all its might and finality. Because of what it takes away, death is the most powerful force of all... and yet, it's soon fended off as the end of the bridge transitions back to the opening riff, with Dharma's last note of G transforming into a colorful seventh of the tonic chord of A minor. As the title and chorus — especially the last chorus — indicate, death's inevitability means there is nothing more to do than embrace it at the end of a life well-lived. (The song is thus set against suicide; rather than bringing about your own death, be courageous in facing it when it naturally arrives.)

The way I hear it, there's a comfort in both ways "(Don't Fear) The Reaper" is understood today. As a standalone song, it has a surprisingly deep lyrical approach to death and what death cannot kill — love — while also having a lighter sonic makeup than one may expect when it comes to that topic. As a meme that's now nearly 22 years old, it's a send-up of one small aspect of that greater sound, which may lead to a broader interest in or understanding of the song. From both sides of the coin, there's a common ground of embracing the moment: living life to the fullest before the Reaper guides one on, and enjoying that cowbell, as odd as it may sound, for the track's duration. As for whether you want more... well, that's a personal choice.


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