Post-Punk Christmas

2012 has been a decent year for gay rights.  Well at least for the gay rights issue that dominates the mainstream press.  In the US, same-sex marriage was legalised in three states (Maine, Washington & Maryland) and Obama gave in-principle support to the idea.  It was also legalised in Denmark and parts of Brazil.  A clear majority of Australians support same-sex marriage but a bill allowing it was rejected by the parliament in 2012.  A similar bill did however make good progress through New Zealand’s legislature and should be adopted in 2013.

So it seems fitting to post Pansy Division’s ‘Homo Christmas’ which includes classic lines like  “Don’t be miserable like Morissey, let me do you under the Christmas tree”.  Skip it if you’re sensitive about anatomical references.


A flimsy pretext for a post: drones and The Drones

The Drones are a powerful band on many levels.  One of their powers in my case, is that they helped me get over my case of cultural cringe (the belief that Australian cultural products are inherently inferior to those produced overseas, particularly in Europe and the United States).

The Drones in the bush

The Drones aren’t great and cool despite being Australian, but because they’re Australian.  Their Australian-ness is itself a crucial part of their shtick and of their attraction.  Lead singer Gareth Liddiard’s accent is almost comically ocker (I said almost).  And although their sound, at least on the first couple of albums, harks back to many non-Australian forebears like the swamp-rock psychobilly of The Cramps and the noisy punk-metal sounds of bands like Black Flag, there is still something quintessentially Australian about the music, beyond Liddiard’s vocals.  It sounds like isolation, dirt and big, empty space.  A prime example of this Australian sound is ‘The Island’ from their first album Here Come the Lies.  “By day the flies came, by night the mosquitoes” has to be the best nine-word description of Australia ever thought up.

The United States first conducted experiments with auto-piloted planes, aka drones, during World War I.  But it is only since Obama assumed the Presidency in 2008 that they have been used regularly.  Under the Obama administration, drones have become a significant element of the US military machine.  Most famously used in Pakistan, they are also deployed in Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia.  The US is not the only user of drones: the UK and Israel have some too.  Drones’ most controversial function is their ability to launch missiles, although only five per cent of the US fleet actually has that capability.  Most drones are in fact used for surveillance.

The debate over the relative merits of unmanned and manned aircraft is so hot right now.  There are those who claim that drones are morally preferable to manned aircraft because they do not endanger a pilot’s life.  Proponents also argue that drones are more precise than their manned counterparts meaning that, despite perceptions, they result in less civilian casualties.  On the other side of the debate, there are those that say that the complete removal of risk to one side of the human conflict is unfair, that the rules of war are based on the precept of mutual mortal risk, and that drones are hence morally reprehensible.

One particular worrying aspect of drone warfare is that they may make it easier for governments to give the go ahead to acts of violence or even war.  The removal of direct peril to aggressor governments’ citizens may make those governments feel less answerable to those citizens (although they would still be spending huge amounts from the public purse).  In this way debates about whether to enter a conflict could be short-circuited.  Despite the current debates in foreign policy circles, unmanned warfare certainly gets less public attention than conflicts in which American troops are serving and dying on a daily basis.  That gap has been recognised but not yet addressed.  An effort to increase the public visibility of drone warfare, an app that maps drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, was recently rejected by Apple.

Drones app?

The Drones deal with Australian history a lot, but given the entirely flimsy premise of this post is the fact that their name coincides with a controversial weapon of war favoured by the Obama administration, we’ll turn instead to their songs concerning war on terror politics.  Discussing his 2010 solo album Strange Tourist, Liddiard questioned why no musicians were writing about the politics of terrorism: “No one else seems to write about anything like that. Even though there’s all this bullshit, terrorism, things like David Hicks.  The shit’s everywhere, but why does nobody take it up apart from journalism?  It’s fucking bizarre… I just think that its fucken weird that no one else does it. So this is kind of like ‘hello! What are you fucking doing?’”

The opening track to The Drones’ third album Gala Mill is the eight-minute long ‘Jezebel’.  The song drones on and on, hurling horror and despair about a world that “prefer[s] a civil war” to a tyrant.  The long, repetitive verses are interspersed with a simple, strangely sweet chorus, composed of just one line “I….I would love to see you again”.  The lyrical highlight of the song comes though when the narrator shoots “a woman in a headscarf” who asks, “does my bomb look big in this?”

Drones were first used in Pakistan in 2004.  The South Asia Terrorism Portal database has recorded 251 such attacks, with at least 2,371 killed.  The New America Foundation counts 330 strikes and 3,171 deaths.  The drone attacks in Pakistan target members of the Haqqani network, Al Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban.  They have been highly successful.  Since June this year drones have killed Al Qaeda’s 2nd in command and the Haqqani network’s 3rd in command.

Drones are, unsurprisingly, deeply unpopular in Pakistan.  A survey conducted in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in 2010 found 90 per cent of respondents were against US army activity in their region and over 75 per cent opposed US drone strikes.  As The Atlantic points out, drones are helping the US lose the “war of perception” in Pakistan.

An airstrike doesn’t need to be unmanned to be controversial though.  By far the most controversial attack in recent times was the November 2011 NATO air strike that killed 28 Pakistani soldiers on the Afghan-Pakistan border.  In response to the attack Pakistan closed its Afghanistan supply route to ISAF forces, stating it would not reopen it until receiving an apology.  And a guarantee that the use of drones on its territory would be stopped.  US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton finally gave the apology in June this year and the supply route was promptly opened.   US drone strikes on Pakistani soil have however continued unabated since.

The final song on Liddiard’s debut album is ‘The Radicalisation of D’.  D is for David. David Hicks, convicted Australian terrorist who spent six years in Guantanamo after being picked up by US forces in Afghanistan.  Actually Hicks’ story is just a springboard for the story of D.  The song is not really political at all, instead it’s a compelling portrait of a young, lost, impressionable, empty, lonely boy, and an attempt to explain why ordinary people are pulled into strange pursuits in the search for belonging and meaning.  It is eminently relateable and that, in the end, is its message.

Drones have been so successful in Pakistan that it is running out of high-level targets.  Yemen on the other hand is “target-rich”, with the White House declaring earlier this year that the country’s Al Qaeda affiliate, Al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP) is the biggest terrorist threat to the US.  The Brookings Institute warns not only that the US has no clear strategy for its undeclared drone war in Yemen but that it risks entanglement in brooding civil unrest in that country.  Yemen’s insurgents are closely allied with Yemen’s terrorists – by attacking them the US implicitly supports the current Yemeni regime.  It may be that supporting the Yemeni regime is something the US is comfortable with, but that is a conversation that has not yet taken place.

Some suggest US drone activity also encourages sympathy towards Al Qaeda among Yemen’s population: although drones may have reduced AQAP’s leadership ranks, it has not had the same effect on the rank and file.  AQAP membership in Yemen is said to have more than doubled since drones started to be used in 2009.

As a postscript, there are Australian dimensions to this story: the ABC recently ran a sensational report on the use of a South Australian airbase by US drones, a fact only made public after being spotted by amateur aviation enthusiasts.  It has also been revealed that the Australian Defence Force deploys unarmed Israeli-owned drones in Afghanistan and that it may have intentions of buying its own.

Fortnightly(ish) Review: Campaigning Gangnam Style

Only two things to talk about this fortnight: K-pop and the US Presidential campaign.

Dancing Like a Horse Can Make You Rich and Famous

K-Pop is huge in Asia.  Now one of its practitioners, Psy, has made it in the US too (in case you’ve been living under a rock).  Read about the phenomenon, and the subversive (by Korean standards) message about Korean society it represents, in this article on The Atlantic.

On the Campaign Trail

Expect there to be a slew of musicians ticked off by the use of the fruits of their labour in US presidential campaigns in the months between now and election day.  The usual format is liberal-leaning musician embarrassed/angry to have their song associated with the GOP.  Now we have the Mum of a musician expressing her outrage.  Thin Lizzy’s Phil Lynott died back in the mid-eighties but his Mum is looking out for him and has condemned the Romney campaign’s use of ‘The Boys Are Back in Town’, saying her son would not be impressed by Romney’s policies on gay marriage and tax.

PopMatters has noticed The Republicans’ problems finding sympathetic musicians and suggested five possible Romney campaign songs from the likes of The Beach Boys and Aerosmith.

Last fortnight we heard how hip-hop has abandoned Obama.  Not so newly-rasta rapper Snoop Lion who gave Obama his endorsement this week, reasoning “Bush fucked up for eight years, so, I mean, you gotta at least give [Obama] eight years.”

And in case you haven’t seen it: Mitt Romney Gangnam Style:

Fortnightly review: grungy ambassadors, immigrant songs and various metals

A Chinese band in Mongolia

Last week was Mongolia’s biggest festival – sporting and cultural – Naadam.  In the middle of the festivities a big concert was held in Ulaanbaatar’s central Sukhbaatar square.  Unfortunately I only saw half a song from the infamous Gee before his set finished and a dull boy band took the stage.  I missed Chinese rock band Banana Monkey altogether.  The Wall Street Journal have dubbed them China’s grungy ambassadors to Mongolia (luckily we did catch them at another gig the night after – they were a lot of fun).

Immigrant songs

It was recently the 100th anniversary of Woodie Guthrie’s birth.  Denise Sullivan writes how Woodie was “the first contemporary singer to take on the dignity of the immigrant as the subject of a song”.  She draws parallels between that song, ‘Deportee’, and The Clash’s ‘Straight to Hell’.  The latter was famously sampled by M.I.A. in her breakthrough hit ‘Paper Planes’, another song concerned with immigrant experience.

Sludge metal in Georgia (USA) and Death Metal in Iraq

I’d never heard of sludge metal before reading this great article about Savannah band Baroness.  The author reckons sludge, “where the workaday southerner’s music—the blues, country, jazz, and southern rock—melts together in metal’s crucible”, is a response to the conservatism of the southern bible belt.

In other metal news, The Atlantic has an article on death metal in Iraq, where that genre’s traditionally anti-Christian messaging is being adapted to rail against Islam.

Pashto Popstar Murdered

A 24 year old female pop star was shot dead, along with her father, in Peshawar, the capital of Pakistan’s restive Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (previously North West Frontier) province on June 18.  Ghazala Javed was a member of the Pashtun ethnic group that straddles the Afghani-Pakistani border.  She was popular with Pashtuns in those two countries and the diaspora in the Middle East.  Read about Ghazala and the risks that musicians in Pakistan take in this article from the Pulitzer Centre.

A catchy tune from North Korea

The Atlantic has a translation of North Korea’s newest propaganda song, for its new leader, Kim Jong Un.  The male choir sings lines such as “by exploding the mental strength of the united heart of our million citizens, Joseon resounds the marching drums of the powerful, prosperous nation”.

Peter Garrett

I’ve previously written about Australian musician politician Peter Garrett.  This detailed and interesting profile of the man by BBC correspondent Nick Bryant manages to simultaneously talk up Garrett and dismiss his political efficacy (the publication requires subscription but you can do a 30 day free trial).

From Panama to Guantanamo: Music as Torture

When Panama’s General Manuel Noreiga took refuge in the Vatican Embassy in December 1989, the US military brought out the big guns.  Those guns included Guns N’ Roses, Elvis Presley, Styx, Billy Idol, The Doors, Twisted Sister, Judas Priest, Led Zeppelin, Boston, Funkadelic, Kiss, Black Sabbath, Alice Cooper, Steve Miller, Whitesnake, Van Halen, Joan Jett, Tom Petty, AC/DC and Pink Floyd.

A few days earlier US President George Bush had launched Operation Just Cause, an invasion of Panama aimed at deposing military dictator Noriega.  The US Commander in Chief detailed the justifications for the invasion hours before the operation commenced.  They were 1) to safeguard the lives of Americans living in Panama, 2) to defend Panama’s human rights and democracy, 3) to combat drug trafficking and 4) to protect the Torrijos-Carter treaties.  Those treaties transferred control of the Panama Canal from the United States to Panama on 1 January 2000 and maintained the US’s right to defend the canal from any threat to its neutral use with military force.

The United States government had supported Noriega until a military crackdown on protesters and declaration of emergency rule in July 1987 after which then President Ronald Reagan applied sanctions.  Six months later courts in Tampa and Miami, Florida, charged Noriega with drug trafficking.

The music was broadcast from a military radio station that allowed soldier requests from Boxing Day until 29 December.  President Bush, clearly not a rock fan, described the tactic as “irritating and petty”.  It was ordered by General Thurman to act as a “sound barrier” to prevent journalists eavesdropping on negotiations for Noriega’s handover.  But it was also a useful form of psychological pressure on both Vatican Embassy staff and Noriega himself, and many considered that to be the true motivation.

The tactic has continued to be used by the US, including on those detained in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay, despite a United Nations ban on the use of loud music during interrogations.  Particularly popular songs include AC/DC’s ‘Hell’s Bells’, Metallica’s ‘Enter Sandman’, Eminem’s ‘White America’, Nine Inch Nails’ ‘March of the Pigs’, Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born in the USA’ and the Sesame Street song.  Other artists frequently cited as used in military interrogations (or to prevent inmates from communicating with each other according to some US military sources) include Queen, Britney Spears, Rage Against the Machine, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Pearl Jam, Don McLean, Marilyn Manson, The Bee Gees, Barney the Dinosaur and Tupac.

Some of the songs chosen are perfect, lyrically and aurally, for their (despicable) use.  ‘March of the Pigs’ particularly stands out (though it makes me love it no less).  Whoever thought of using Britney Spears must be a military strategist of the highest order, and severely sadistic.  Others are less appropriate (for want of a better term).  ‘Born in the USA’ is, of course, congenitally misused.  Eminem’s ‘White America’ is a dig at the angry disaffection of white American youth as personified my Mr Mathers himself and really a very odd choice.

A campaign called zero dB, calling for an end of the use of music as torture, was started in 2008.  It is supported by Massive Attack, Bruce Springsteen, The Doves, R.E.M., Pearl Jam, Nine Inch Nails, Steve Earle, Billy Bragg, The Magic Numbers, Rosanne Cash and others.  Its main success seems to have been increasing awareness rather than securing government commitments to halt the practice.

Opera-loving Noriega surrendered on January 3 1990.  He completed his sentence in the United States in September 2007.   He has been in a French jail since February 2010 when he was sentenced to seven years for money laundering.

Obama’s Campaign Mixtape

Soundtrack for this post: ‘I Got You’ by Wilco, ‘The Weight’ by Aretha Franklin and ‘Green Onions’ by Booker T. & the MGs.

*Note: from now on the above link will be to a playlist containing all soundtrack songs.

Obama’s campaign team is stepping things up.  Last week they published a 28-song 2012 campaign playlist on free online music library Spotify, a service which is not currently available outside the US and western Europe.  The complete list is at the bottom of this post.

As with the list of desired endorsements released a month ago (see this post), if nothing else, the playlist demonstrates admirable eclecticism.  There are a few correspondences with the endorsement list – No Doubt/Gwen Stefani, Wilco, James Taylor, Ricky Martin and Al Green – but Obama’s staffers have somewhat freer rein here given the likelihood of an individual declaring support is not a constraint (though an artist’s political persuasions aren’t completely irrelevant:  they can kick up stinks at their music being used without permission, particularly if they aren’t politically sympathetic).

Still, the Spotify list feels very much like a pragmatic collection of music, intended presumably to create rousing atmospheres at campaign events, rather than a collection of songs anyone would be passionate about (a true mixtape).  None of Obama’s favourite artists, as listed on his facebook page, are present.  (Those artists are Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder, Johann Sebastian Bach (cello suites) and The Fugees).

Obama’s home town Chicago is represented by the funk of Earth, Wind & Fire and soul group The Impressions.  The latter’s ‘Keep on Pushing’, an early civil rights movement anthem, is the only overtly political song on the list. The song was also a commercial success on its release in 1964.

Although light on explicitly political songs, there are a number of songs that easily lend themselves to political interpretation.  Two concern increasing elevation – Ledisi’s ‘Raise Up’ and Sugarland’s ‘Stand Up’ – and two more deal with physical movement – Raphael Saadiq’s wonderfully retro ‘Keep Marchin” and ‘Roll With the Changes’ by arena hair rockers REO Speedwagon.

Obama’s 2008 clarion calls hope and change are largely absent.  REO Speedwagon’s song is more about resilience than transformation.  Electric Light Orchestra introduce an upbeat aspirational note with ‘Mr Blue Sky’, but Obama as visionary for positive change is definitely not the story told with this playlist.

Obama’s cool youth credentials are covered (for me, unsatisfactorily) by Portland hand-clappers AgesandAges and Brits Arcade Fire.  Any cred earned is however more than spent by the proliferation of contemporary country on the list.  There’s Sugarland (twice), the Zac Brown Band, Dierks Bentley, Montgomery Gentry and Darius Rucker (also twice).  This selection really doesn’t do country any justice, and must surely have been compiled by someone with zero fondness for the genre.  And yes, Darius Rucker looks familiar because he was the lead singer of Hootie and the Blowfish.

The cringe-worthy patriotism award goes to Dierks Bentley’s ‘Home’.  There’s a nice and non-obvious Aretha Franklin: a cover of The Band’s ‘The Weight’.  A surprising number of non-American artists found their way into the list: Florence + the Machine, E.L.O. and Noah and the Whale (the UK), Arcade Fire (Canada) and progressive totems U2 (Ireland).

The Ricky Martin song is interesting.  For a start it’s from 2011 – who knew he was still releasing music?  It features Joss Stone and is pointedly mature.  The Latino dance anthem stylings he made his career on are wholly absent.  In fact Latino music, along with other major genres like hip-hop and hard rock, is conspicuous by its absence from this list.

It was only a matter of time before a politician misused Bruce Springsteen’s new single, ‘We Take Care of Our Own’, a cynical take on post-Katrina America’s priorities.  It is a bit surprising it happened this quickly.  Obama and Springsteen have a history, with the latter appearing at the former’s campaign events in 2008.  Interestingly, The Boss is not on Obama’s dream endorsement list for 2012.

We could give Obama’s aides the benefit of the doubt and surmise that the inclusion of ‘We Take Care of Our Own’ was due not to a misreading, but was instead a conscious ploy to give the list some edge, or even to appropriate the song’s anger and signal the incumbent’s sympathy for the Occupy movement.  Still, such a bitter song sticks out sorely on a list dominated by light, upbeat pop and safe Americana.


The list:

‘Different People’ by No Doubt
‘Got to Get You into My Life’ by Earth,Wind & Fire Experience feat. Al McKay Allstars (live)
‘Green Onions’ by Booker T. & the MG’s
‘I Got You’ by Wilco
‘Keep On Pushing’ by The Impressions
‘Love You I Do’ by Jennifer Hudson
‘No Nostalgia’ by AgesandAges
‘Raise Up’ by Ledisi
‘Stand Up’ by Sugarland
‘This’ by Darius Rucker
‘We Used to Wait’ by Arcade Fire
‘You’ve Got the Love’ by Florence + the Machine
‘Your Smiling Face’ by James Taylor
‘Roll With the Changes’ by REO Speedwagon
‘Keep Marchin” by Raphael Saadiq
‘Tonight’s the Kind of Night’ by Noah And The Whale
‘Keep Me in Mind’ by the Zac Brown Band
‘The Weight’ by Aretha Franklin
‘Even Better Than the Real Thing’ by U2
‘Home’ by Dierks Bentley
‘Everyday America’ by Sugarland
‘Learn to Live’ by Darius Rucker
‘Let’s Stay Together by Al Green
‘Mr Blue Sky’ by Electric Light Orchestra
‘My Town’ by Montgomery Gentry
‘The Best Thing About Me is You’ by Ricky Martin feat. Joss Stone
‘You Are The Best Thing’ by Ray LaMontagne
‘We Take Care of Our Own’ by Bruce Springsteen

Campaign music: 2012 Republican presidential hopefuls

Soundtrack for this post: ‘True Colors‘ by Cyndi Lauper and ‘American Girl‘ by Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers.

A couple of weeks ago an ad attacking Republican presidential nominee candidate Mitt Romney appeared.  Then, pretty quickly, all trace of it disappeared.  The ad was pulled because it used Cyndi Lauper’s ‘True Colors‘ without her permission.  She accordingly had “her people” remove it.

Republicans can’t seem to keep their mitts off the works of unsympathetic musicians: last year Tom Petty had to get confrontational to avoid now pulled-out candidate Michele Bachmann using his ‘American Girl‘ during her campaign launch.  Do these people even vaguely listen to the lyrics?  (By people I mean the candidates’ aides).  ‘American Girl’ is…well, it’s not very patriotic.  It opens thus:

Well she was an American Girl
Raised on promises
She couldn’t help thinking that there was
A little more to life, somewhere else
After all it was a great big world
With lots of places to run to

Other artists are of course happy to have their work used by Republicans (or anyone else).  Would you vote for a man whose campaign theme song is from Kid Rock’s oeuvre?  If so, Romney’s your man.

More on the use of music in electoral campaigns in future posts.  I’ll even try to find some positive instances.  Other than perhaps Bill Clinton’s use of ‘Don’t Stop’ nothing’s springing to mind, so please do make suggestions.

Obama’s Dream Endorsements

Soundtrack for this post: ‘How Can You Mend a Broken Heart‘ by Al Green, ‘The Seed (2.0)‘ by The Roots ft. Cody ChesnuTT, ‘Pretty Noose‘ by Soundgarden

According to a story broken by The Tennessean a couple of days ago, Obama (or his staff) aims to count around 40 musicians or bands among his declared supporters for re-election later this year.

My first thought on seeing the list was that it had to be bogus.  For one, I haven’t even heard of a good portion of the artists (Sara Bareilles, Bruce Hornsby, Jewel Kilcher, to name just a few).  Secondly, the majority of those I have heard of seem like odd choices, not just because of questionable musical merit (Train?  The guy from Maroon 5?  Really?) but also questionable relevance.  Surely Gwen Stefani, the Counting Crows and Ricky Martin are well past their heydays?  And people who still care about Jack Johnson were never going to vote Republican were they?

These sources for skepticism can however be relatively easily accounted for.  Coming as I do from a country with compulsory voting, it is easy to forget the utility of tools (sorry Jack) for mobilising naturally sympathetic but not necessarily motivated vote sources.  The fact I’m not American could also help explain the apparent abstruseness of the list.  Genres like country and contemporary soul don’t have nearly as much extra-US penetration as hip hop, pop and rock.

There’s some ambiguity about the status of the list which could also explain some of the more esoteric inclusions.  Although described as a wish list, it is clearly a practical document rather than an intellectual exercise.  As such it is constrained by reality: it appears most inclusions have agreed to be on board for Obama 2012, or can be reasonably expected to be so.  So while we could all probably agree we’d prefer Lupe Fiasco over B.O.B. or Cat Power over Regina Spektor, that’s not really the point.

One way in which the list certainly does conform with what you would expect to come from a campaign team is that it attempts to cover all bases.  There’s hip-hop with cred (Jay-Z), hip-hop without cred (B.O.B.), hip hop turned pop (Fergie and from the Black Eyed Peas), R&B (Chrisette Michele and Alicia Keys), contemporary soul (India Arie and John Legend), blues (Robert Cray), country (Lady Antebellum and The Band Perry), alt-country (Wilco), hard rock (Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell), indie (Vampire Weekend), stuff for the oldies with and without a real interest in music (James Taylor and Josh Groban respectively), music for particularly idiotic tweens (Jonas Brothers), Latin pop (Marc Anthony), show music (Bette Midler and Audra McDonald) and, of course, a Hindi language a cappella group from Pennsylvannia (Penn Masala).

So a broad range of tastes is covered, major ethnicities ticked off, and Ricky introduces some balance, sexual orientation-wise.

The full list is available here.

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