The Music of Hopelessness
MUSIC, 30 May 2016
From the comfortable alt-rock of PJ Harvey to the hypnotic antagonism of Anohni, new protest music offers a relief from the official rhythms of war and peace.
18 May 2016 – If foreign policy had a soundtrack, it would be the opposite of easy listening.
Really, could anyone listen to a symphony of war and peace all the way through? In the first movement — devoted to death and destruction and played presto and fortissimo — the electric guitarists step to the front of the orchestra to strum power chords, scream hate-filled lyrics, and deliver cacophony instead of melody. Only headbangers and the hard-of-hearing could bear the onslaught.
In the second, interminable adagio movement, meant to represent diplomatic negotiations, the music is more repetitive than Philip Glass and more soporific than Coldplay at half speed. Those left in the audience would struggle simply to stay awake until the final notes of the negotiated settlement.
Fortunately, foreign policy’s soundtrack is not restricted to these two modes. Another genre of music has periodically provided relief from the official rhythms of war and peace: the protest song.
Edwin Starr’s 1969 classic “War” — “What is it good for? Absolutely nothing!” — captured the spirit of the time and, alas, continues to resonate today. The threat of nuclear annihilation prompted P.F. Sloan to pen “Eve of Destruction” with its warning: “Can’t you feel the fears I’m feelin’ today? If the button is pushed, there’s no runnin’ away.”
More contemporary additions to the genre include: M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes,” Arcade Fire’s “Intervention,” “When the President Talks to God” by Bright Eyes, and System of a Down’s “Boom!” — not to mention classic songs by Patti Smith, Cat Stevens, Black Sabbath, Billy Bragg, Sonic Youth, the Dead Kennedys, Peter Gabriel, The Clash, Bob Marley, Kate Bush, and many others.
And that’s just the English-language tradition.
Over the weekend, the Eurovision contest produced a surprise winner, “1944,” on the unlikely topic of the Soviet expulsion of the Crimean Tatars in 1944. “When strangers are coming,” the lyrics go, “They come to your house/They kill you all/And say/We’re not guilty/Not guilty.”
Virtually all the songs in the Eurovision contest, a showcase for sonic schmaltz, seem to be produced by the same computer program: start with a pounding dance beat, add lyrics about the eternal verities of love, and enlist someone attractive to supply the soaring vocals. With its unusual title, unflinching lyrics, and musical arabesques, “1944” immediately jumps out as something different. ABBA — Eurovision winners in 1974 — this is not.
Sung by Ukrainian chanteuse Jamala, who is of Tatar and Armenian ancestry, “1944” elicited an immediate rebuke from the head of the foreign affairs committee in the Russian Duma: “Geopolitics won on aggregate. Political meddling triumphed over fair competition.”
Talk about insensitive remarks. The Russian government annexed the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine — through geopolitical muscle and political meddling — and recently banned the Crimean Tatars’ legislative body to add insult to injury. And all that Ukraine gets out of it is a Eurovision victory? It’s not even a consolation prize.
The Sound of Drones
Protest songs, like “1944,” are usually one-offs. Music producers don’t want more than one potentially divisive song per album, so as not to risk harshing the listener’s buzz.
Now, along comes something different: the protest album. The latest effort by Anohni, the transgender singer-songwriter formerly known as Antony Hegarty, takes protest music to an entirely different level.
The title of the album is about as anti-commercial as you can get: Hopelessness. Who in their right mind would spend their hard-earned money on something as unpromising as that? Yet, the combination of Anohni’s other-worldly voice, the often-lush electronic arrangements, and the subversive lyrics make the album required listening as we head out of the Obama era and into something potentially worse.
What makes Hopelessness particularly interesting is Anohni’s ironic strategy. Instead of adopting the perspective of the outraged activist, she channels the old Stephen Colbert in adopting the persona of those she so clearly opposes.
“Four Degrees,” for instance, is about climate change. Rather than lament the passing of life from a burning Earth, Anohni sings like someone eager to hasten mass extinction:
I wanna hear the dogs crying for water
I wanna see fish go belly-up in the sea
All those lemurs and all those tiny creatures
I wanna see them burn, it’s only 4 degrees
In “Drone Bomb Me,” she imagines a potential victim wooing the drone high above:
So drone bomb me
(Drone bomb me)
Blow me from the mountains
And into the sea
Blow me from the side of the mountain
Blow my head off
Explode my crystal guts
Lay my purple on the grass
In other selections, Anohni sings of the “loving” eye of surveillance, the “love” a Death Row inmate has for the executioner (If Europe takes it away/inject me with something else), and the feckless apologies of an American who seems only to be concerned about the effects of drones and torture when they produce Islamic State beheadings on TV.
Of course, other songs on the album are more straightforward: an indictment of Obama, a comparison of humanity to a virus, and so on. But the seductiveness of the ironic approach appeals to me. I wonder what happens at Anohni’s concerts. Will the crowd, in singing along on “Four Degrees,” inadvertently shoulder responsibility for global warming when they cry “I wanna see them burn”? Irony is usually distancing. But here, irony establishes a damning proximity.
When she was performing in Antony and the Johnsons, Anohni did not shy away from politics. But it was usually an extension of her own beliefs. For instance, in the cut “Future Feminism” off Cut the World (2012), she includes a mini-lecture that castigates patriarchal monotheisms and calls for “feminine systems of governance,” beginning with the structures of organized religion. It was as if she became frustrated with the indirect nature of song lyrics and decided that she had to unburden herself to her audience in an unmediated manner.
In Hopelessness, she goes off in yet another direction. Anohni told The New York Times:
I was scared singing a lot of these songs. The words aren’t necessarily that savory — they’re obviously unsavory and scary. And that was also weird: to appropriate my own voice, which is something that people typically trust. People trust me to bring them to a safe place. This is the first record where I’ve not really done that. I’m using my voice to express more conflicted, multifaceted kinds of problems and perspectives that are less settled and less comforting.
It’s not just the lyrics. Anohni herself sounds like a drone in the song “Obama,” and the music is unpleasantly dirge-like. That’s an even riskier strategy: to make an unpleasant-sounding song on an unpleasant subject that practically dares people to listen to the end.
The Power of Music
Thanks to The New Yorker review of Hopelessness, I learned of another foreign policy concept album that came out this year: PJ Harvey’s The Hope Six Demolition Project. The title refers to the Hope VI public housing projects, demolished to make room for mixed-income units. A British rocker, Harvey traveled around the economically ravaged parts of Washington, DC — chauffeured by a Washington Post reporter — and added her observations on that trip to what she’d seen in Kosovo and Afghanistan.
Harvey takes the more conventional approach in this album of writing in the third-person voice of the foreign correspondent. Here, for instance, is the opening to “The Ministry of Defence,” drawn from her visit to Afghanistan:
This is the Ministry Of Defence
Stairs and walls are all that’s left
Mortar holes let through the air
Kids do the same thing everywhere
They’ve sprayed graffiti in Arabic
And balanced sticks in human shit
The Hope Six Demolition Project is not PJ Harvey’s first foray into protest music. On her fabulous album Let England Shake, her song “The Words that Maketh Murder” rips into all those responsible for war. She reminds us that wars usually begin not with the force of arms but the force of words: assertions, declarations, threats, and the like.
The songs on The Hope Six Demolition Project contain some intriguing lyrics, and the music fits comfortably into the British alt rock tradition. But it doesn’t quite challenge the listener in the way that Anohni does. PJ Harvey is the traditional musical voyeur. She went to “dangerous” places and filed her stories, and we the listeners are as protected from what she saw as she was sitting in the back seat of cars taking notes. Anohni, on the other hand, invites her audience to take responsibility for making the entire world a dangerous place.
I prefer Harvey’s music and will probably continue to re-listen to her most recent album. But even if I never listen to Hopelessness again, its unsettling songs will stay with me a lot longer.
Divide or Unite?
Music is a powerful weapon against injustice. But in the wrong hands, music can be a murder weapon as well.
Just ask the formerly popular musician Simon Bikindi. He was charged with inciting genocide in Rwanda in 1994. Although his conviction in 2008 stemmed from his speeches rather than his music, the court concluded that his songs had “an amplifying effect on the genocide.”
Short of inciting genocide, other musicians have lent their lyrics to dubious causes. A number of skinhead bands over the years — Skrewdriver, Angry Aryans — have produced racist and xenophobic anthems. Turbofolk groups like the band Serbian Taliban sang in praise of Serbian ultra-nationalism. In the wake of 9/11, Toby Keith released “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue” with lines like:
Justice will be served
And the battle will rage
This big dog will fight
When you rattle his cage
The U.S. of A.
‘Cause we’ll put a boot in your ass
It’s the American way.
But of course, music more frequently brings people together. With his project Heartbeat, Aaron Shneyer has assembled young people from Israel and Palestine to make music. “There’s a few tools that we’ve come to understand inside music which we as musicians use to reach the zone, that magical place of unity as a band,” he told me in a recent video interview about his project. “Those three tools are really the same for building healthy communities and healthy societies. It really comes down to respect, to listening, and to responsibility.”
Heartbeat offers a hopeful story at a time when Israel and Palestine are at diplomatic loggerheads. Anohni’s Hopelessness is also, in a way, hopeful. She wouldn’t devote a whole album to the world’s ills if she didn’t think it possible to reverse them, even though it will probably require radical transformation. Just don’t fall for cheap slogans like “hope and change,” the songwriter reminds us. And don’t be lulled into doing the wrong thing, or doing nothing at all, by pretty melodies and a catchy Eurovision beat.
You can dance, Anohni is telling us. But only if you join the revolution.
John Feffer is the director of Foreign Policy In Focus.
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