One possible answer to the question I posed in my post on Reckoning with REM – How come their early portraits of Southern life never said anything about the history of racist violence and forced labor in their native Georgia, even on their album Fables of the Reconstruction / Reconstruction of the Fables? – is that rock songs aren’t really up to the challenge of addressing issues like that on a thematic level. They’re too short, too anthemic, too heavy handed. I once read Leonard Cohen say something along those lines in a recent interview. Others might say that the lyrics would end up oversimplifying complex issues, or coming off as pretentious for pretending to have the power to change them in a way that ends up feeding the ego of a narcissist who claims the power to influence other people’s views on politics and history. The REM song Welcome to the Occupation, which addresses the machinations of US empire in Latin America, could be cited as an example of these hazards.
Maybe it’s more effective to have the structure of the way the music is produced show ways of living together that differ from the power structures of mainstream society, rather than tell people what to think in a way that leaves no room for dialogue between audience in performer. That’s what I thought when I was making records in the 1990’s. Listeners can draw their own implicit conclusions from the following questions about the music they listen to: How much did it cost to make? What are the values of the kind of audience that forms around it? What kinds of organization release and promote it? What are their values? How do the musicians share power and voice in the way they relate to other? In We Jam Econo, the documentary on the Minutemen, one of the commentators said that D. Boon chose to play a very trebly kind of Telecaster sound for political reasons, because of the way it separated the guitar from the bass. Nothing was said about what the meaning of this would be, but I liked that. I could think about it for myself – music can come together by combining sounds and perspectives that sharply contrast with one another, rather than flatten everyone’s voice into a lock step unitary sound. The documentary emphasized how much Mike Watt and D. Boon liked arguing with each other, a way of relating that apparently was intended to be a point of sardonic reference for the cover of their album Buzz or Howl Under the Influence of Heat.
Of course, the Minutemen wrote some of the greatest songs I know of that address politics on a lyrically thematic level as well. Their songs were famously short, too short to create the feeling of a narrative resolution of a drawn out problem. In order to have a Hollywood ending, you need a Hollywood beginning and middle that fills the listener up with an emotional tension that expects to be released as easily as pulling the top off a can of Coca-Cola. The Minutemen were a tougher nut to crack.
The way they used their music to support political lyrics reminds me of what I admire about how the album Holding It Down by Mike Ladd and Vijay Iyer continues to address political issues in a way that escapes the pitfalls of sloganeering and pretension, just like their earlier albums In What Language? and Still Life With Commentator. Ladd and Iyer’s songs are longer than the Minutemen, but they too nestle in and out of each other like tangled vines that captured how power relations that have a political source infiltrate and latch onto the multiple bizarre nooks and crannies of the worlds we navigate. In What Language? concerns itself with the airport as a microcosm of international power relations, and Still Life With Commentator works on the infotainment industry that disseminates subtle or not so subtle propaganda about those relations.
What I admire about Mike Ladd’s lyrics and way Vijay Iyer supports them with such inventive and intricate genre-crossing music is the way they include multiple perspectives that co-exist in the post-9/11 social landscape, rather than just express the point of view of the performers themselves. Their performances of this material have been staged more like plays than straight music concerts, with multiple vocalists used as actors would be by a playwright and stage director. The same performance method is used on the recordings themselves. Ladd populates his songs with a constellation of characters from different backgrounds and geographical locations that make the records unfold like a great historical novel, such as Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh.
Much as Ghosh’s novel portrays the British control of the Opium trade between India and China during the height of their empire by providing the reader with a range of characters that look out on that period from different vantage points, Ladd’s lyrics take locations like TV sets, airports, and military theaters of operation as places where characters mix and mingle from points across the globe. The formal decision not to have a single singer – or musical genre – portray this collision renders it much more effectively.
Their new project does this more directly than their earlier 2 records by taking the time to interview and work with multiple veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, two of whom sing directly on this remarkable record. The songs are based on dreams of veterans of color who reflect on the psychic conflict caused by fighting other people of color on behalf of a majority white power structure, the United States government. Former Marine Maurice Decaul’s vocals on On Patrol unfold over shuffling rhythm that evokes a violence that erupts not all at once but intermittently, punctuating a landscape of eerie quiet that includes boredom as well as dramatic tension. The feeling of an everyday life on patrol is one that audiences might not gravitate to. People might be more likely to imagine something along the lines of the near-constant firefights of the video games set in the theaters of the war on terror that are sometimes used by the army in recruiting stations.
But the violence is less easily absorbed as entertainment when it’s mixed in with accounts of a real daily life of a human being. This recontextualization is a consistent hallmark of the album. In the following video on the project, Iyer stresses that they did not want to make the project about veterans, but rather with them, by them and for them.
The songs are also the first I know of that chronicle what it is like to operate the machines of drone warfare from a military base inside the United States, thanks to the amazing performances of singer and former Predator Drone pilot Lynn Hill, who used to operate drones from a military base near Las Vegas. If drones were largely designed to desensitize the American public from the violence of our wars by making them look like video games, the tracks she contribute to help resensitize us to the limits of this misapprehension. Her dreams, and the dreams of the veterans that resonate throughout the project, provide powerful testimony that the psychic repercussions of acts of mass violence will return to haunt the society that perpetrated them. Her songs Capacity and Dreams in Color are two of the most powerful tracks on the album.
Another one of my favorite songs on the album, Rem Killer, is about medications like Vicodin used by the Army to “hold down” the psychic wreckage of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. I saw a still photograph of a performance of this materials that featured a projected photograph of a pile of pills. They’re symptoms of a mental health practice that seeks to prop soldiers up to continue to fight without questioning the wars they are engaged in, and whose interests they serve as they are cycled through multiple tours of duty. If you fulfill those tours and suffer the consequences, you are held up for a bipartisan standing ovation at the State of the Union address. If a solider or computer operator blows the whistle on the corruption involved in the wars or the surveillance apparatus that supports them, they might end up in prison like Chelsea Manning, or in exile like Edward Snowden.