Tue, 21 Nov 2006

The nadir of silly anti-war songmanship in the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq came courtesy of Saskatoon’s own Ultimate Power Duo:

We are democracy! We own you!
We are democracy! Tell you what to do!
Who’s got the oil? We want it! We want it!

The problem with writing political songs – the reason I stay away from them – is that lyrics are a lousy medium for expressing nuanced ideas. They’re great for sloganeering and emotional appeals: “The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind”; “All you need is love”; “How long, how long must we sing this song?” But trying to compress the arguments for or against, say, balanced budgets, or free trade, or regime change in Iraq, into rhyming couplets is as futile as trying to express “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” in essay form. It can be done, but in the doing you lose everything that matters.

If you’re playing for an audience of like-minded people – and musicians and artists, being overwhelmingly of a leftist-secularist slant, tend to take it for granted that their audiences will share all their prejudices – then I guess you’re not worried about winning over your opponents with reasoned arguments. But if you’re so sure that your audience agrees with you, why bother bringing up politics at all? Do your fans really need to have their beliefs reduced to their most primitive form and then regurgitated back at them? And more importantly, what happens when your simplistic message leaks out to people who are not already in tune with your thinking? You just look like a simpleton.

To me, a political song signifies the end of thought in songwriter and audience. The reason we sing along with “All You Need Is Love”, rather than raising our hands to quibble that water, food, and oxygen also qualify as necessities, is because the sentiment, though perhaps uplifting and even ennobling, is anodyne; there’s no room for controversy. When a room full of hippies chants along with the “We are democracy” song, they are proclaiming that the Iraq war has ceased, in their minds, to be a question. To them it is as obvious that the Bush administration is motivated solely by wickedness and greed as it is obvious that the “love” John Lennon celebrated is a good thing. Their minds are not open to persuasion on the subject. They are, effectively, automatons.

Which brings me to that frustrating song by the Decemberists, “Sixteen Military Wives”. I should start by saying that I love the Decemberists. I love the fact that they are unashamedly literate and old-fashioned in their aesthetic. I love the fact that their lyrics push at and often beyond the boundaries of pretentiousness, with archaic constructions like “Would I could afford to buy my love a fine robe” (from “Eli the Barrow Boy”) and “I took her hand as she, dying, cried” (from “The Mariner’s Revenge Song”). As far as I know, the Decemberists have never attempted a song about the Second Punic War, but I like to think they could.

And then there’s the anti-war song “Sixteen Military Wives”, from the album Picaresque, released in 2005. To me, this is the perfect example of why songwriters should stay away from politics. Here’s Colin Meloy, perhaps the most intelligent lyricist in pop music today, on the Iraq war:

Cause America can and America can’t say no
And America does if America says it’s so
And the anchorperson on TV goes ‘La-de-da-de-da’

This is, at least, an improvement on “We are democracy”. The “La-de-da-de-da” is witty. (But is Meloy implying that the anchorpeople are prettifying the ugly truth, or is he just calling them airheads?) But let’s break down the lines about America:*

America can and America can’t say no. Presumably Meloy is indicting U.S. hubris here. He’s saying, How dare we presume to meddle in the affairs of a sovereign state, just because we can. Fair enough, but what then should America do about sovereign states that threaten their neighbours and oppress their own citizens? If you see someone abusing their children you can call social services; but there is no agency you can call on a dictator who butchers minorities. All you can do is try and raise a posse. And what about all the times that America has said no to intervention, to its lasting discredit – dithering over Bosnia, abandoning Somalia, ignoring Rwanda and Darfur and Congo? Perhaps Iraq was the wrong intervention at the wrong time, but Meloy seems to believe that intervention is always, in itself, an arrogant and harmful act.

And America does if America says it’s so. In other words, America creates and acts upon its own reality. I guess at the time Meloy wrote his song it was already becoming clear that Iraq’s WMD program was not quite as terrifying as advertised. It’s interesting to note that in the whimsical video for “Sixteen Military Wives”, the “America” stand-in (Colin Meloy, playing a student in a high school model U.N.) is shown planting a slingshot in the locker of his nemesis (Luxembourg). (It must be a source of befuddlement to some folks in the anti-war crowd that the U.S. has failed to find the chemical weapons it searched for so assiduously in Iraq. After all, how hard would it be for the administration to plant a few vats of nerve gas somewhere in the desert to retroactively justify their “WMD lies”? The fact that this hasn’t happened is rather exculpatory, if you think about it, at least of the more fevered of the conspiracy theories.) In another scene, Luxembourg attempts to buy food at the student cafeteria and is turned away by the lunch lady, over a caption reading “Sanctions were imposed”, while America and his friends snicker in the background. It’s hard to read this video as saying anything but that Iraq was the innocent victim of schoolyard bullying; an unlucky poindexter singled out by the cool kids for a swirly. I’m not sure how the Kurds are supposed to fit into this picture – self-hating nerds aspiring to the in-crowd? – or Kuwait, or Israel, or Iran; but then, some analogies aren’t really used to illustrate, but to obscure.

But I’ve been over this all before. My half-assed rebuttals aren’t going to change the mind of anyone who sympathises with Meloy’s views. I won’t say that this one trite lyric disproves Meloy’s seriousness as a thinker. On the basis of his other writing I’d prefer to assume that he’s an intelligent man who has arrived at his politics after a great deal of reflection. The problem with the song is that, like most political songs, “Sixteen Military Wives” contains no politics at all. Not in the sense of politics as a conflict of ideas. Meloy assumes that his foes are sneaks and cheaters, and therefore has no interest in confronting their arguments.

He achieves the height of smugness in this verse:

Fifteen celebrity minds
Leading their fifteen sordid, wretched, checkered lives
Will they find the solution in time?
Using their fifteen pristine moderate liberal minds

This reminds me of Tony Judt’s famous essay of earlier this year, condemning liberals who supported regime change as “Bush’s useful idiots”. He wrote: “Magazines and newspapers of the traditional liberal centre . . . fell over themselves in the hurry to align their editorial stance with that of a Republican president bent on exemplary war. A fearful conformism gripped the mainstream media.” Really? What I recall about the run-up to the invasion is a climate of fierce debate within the liberal media. Pundits from all sides of the political spectrum lined up on all sides of what was easily the most divisive foreign policy issue in my lifetime. Pat Buchanan stood firmly against regime change, Michael Ignatieff was staunchly in favour. I consider myself a liberal, and I was guardedly in support of the gamble. Bad call. But Judt’s suggestion that those who supported the war did so out of fear or cupidity or self-aggrandizement is as insulting as the suggestion by some conservatives that opponents of the war are terrorist sympathisers. Again, this is the end of thought. You reach your conclusion, based on reflex more likely than on reason, and then you slam the doors shut behind you, fearful that any cogent counterargument might slip in through the cracks to undermine your self-confidence.

I guess it’s not surprising that Colin Meloy, musician, resident of Portland, Oregon, holder of a degree in creative writing, would turn out to be a doctrinaire leftist. It’s disappointing that he thought it necessary to commemorate his doctrine in song. But the worst thing is that the song had to be so damnably catchy.

* – Update, June 13 2008. The reader cannot help but notice that, after promising to “break down the lines about America”, I then proceed to say next to nothing about the lines in question, while concentrating most of my criticism on the music video. I should have just come out and admitted that it was really the music video, and not the song, that had gotten on my nerves. While I would hold to my argument about the banality of most polemical songs, I have to admit in retrospect that “Sixteen Military Wives” was not a very illustrative example of the phenomenon. It’s actually a well-written song whose message I just happen to disagree with.

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