Sunday, July 31, 2011

On the Origin of Heavy Metal

A few days ago I got an email from Brian Hickam, a librarian/archivist who is a very active figure in the heavy metal studies wing of academia. Brian asked me for some clarification of a passage from my book, This Ain't the Summer of Love, and upon responding I thought that our exchange would make a good blog post. So, with Brian's permission...

Brian wrote to me asking the following:

"On page 10 of your book you say: 'While many have traced the origins of metal back to the 1960s ... to the hyperdistorted sound of bands such as Blue Cheer, I contend that one cannot talk about metal as a genre before 1970, before it was aligned with the concert form that provided a suitable setting for such an oversized sound.'

"I don't necessarily disagree with you, but please comment on what bands in 1970 were doing different from what bands had done on stage in the late 1960s. That is, please expand upon what you mean by 'concert form.' For example, how do the stacks of Marshall amps used by Hendrix and then Blue Cheer factor in as a suitable setting for the 'oversized' sound. How do other factors, such as costumes, stage props, and stage maneuvers factor in?"

Here's what I wrote in return:

"First, I should say that the point I'm making there is in many ways a critical one, meaning that it's directed at other historians of metal who have tried to pinpoint the origins of the genre. I've never been convinced that metal originated with a set of isolated gestures (such as the two I name, the Kinks 'You Really Got Me' or the sound of Blue Cheer). That's not to say I don't think those earlier things contributed to the formation of metal, but in my understanding, a genre doesn't exist until there's enough of a critical mass of things that all seem related to each other that people start to perceive something to be there that wasn't there before. That critical mass didn't exist in 1965 or 1967 or even arguably in 1969, but to my mind it does start to come more to fruition right at the turn of the 1970s. The fact that the term 'heavy metal' doesn't appear in print in anything like its recognized form until 1970/71 only further proves the point for me. While I don't think one can ever definitively draw a line in the sand and say, this is the date after which metal clearly exists as a genre, I'm of the conviction that most of what precedes 1970 belongs to the prehistory of metal, not to the history of metal proper (but I'd be willing to make some exceptions for things like Led Zeppelin's first couple albums, both released in '69).

"Second, as to my specific claim about the importance of the 'concert form,' again, I'm talking about a critical mass of activity, not things that may have happened in isolation. The concert form in question is arena rock, and while it started to emerge in the last couple years of the 1960s, it didn't fully take hold until the new decade. Arena rock is to my mind, first and foremost a matter of venue (arenas and, on occasion, stadiums; there's no meaningful distinction between the two where rock concerts are concerned except for size). Secondly, it's a matter of economics - arena rock is a way of generating more profit through the concert economy, creating a new economy of scale for live music. Thirdly, it's a matter of adapting the aesthetics of concert performance to suit the new scale of the concert arena. Again, this process began in the later 1960s but it's after 1970 that it becomes standardized. Fourthly, and lastly, it's about crowds. Stacks of Marshall amps are one thing, but stacks of Marshall amps combined with 10,000 or more young enthusiastic fans are another, and part of my argument - the part that makes the case for Grand Funk Railroad as a key overlooked early 1970s metal band - is that a big part of what metal as a genre meant at the moment of its emergence was inseparable from what it meant to have 10,000 fans gathering in different arenas night after night from one end of the U.S. to the other. Rock festivals may have been bigger but they didn't happen so routinely. It's the routine character of arena rock, the fact that it's so big all the time, that makes it into something that seemed different from what came before; and the number of metal bands that took to the arena from early on and that seemed to have a sound so perfectly suited to the new concert form, gave metal a degree of coherence as a genre that it didn't have prior to that point."

Those wanting more elaboration can check out my book - follow this link to read the full text of the introduction, which includes the quote that sparked Brian's curiosity. Or leave a comment below, of course.

Friday, July 15, 2011

A New Anthology on Punk and Race

There's a really fascinating looking new anthology just published by Verso, titled White Riot: Punk and the Politics of Race.

I'm really happy to have an essay included in the collection, which is an anthology of previously published writing. The editors, Stephen Duncombe and Maxwell Tremblay, chose to include an excerpt from my essay on the MC5, "Kick out the Jams! The MC5 and the Politics of Noise." It's pretty cool to have old work being recognized like this, especially since it was actually the first thing I ever published - it originally appeared in the collection, Mapping the Beat: Popular Music and Contemporary Theory, then appeared in slightly edited form in my first book, Instruments of Desire. This piece of mine has had a more interesting life than most.

I haven't yet gotten my hands on a copy of the new book - am awaiting the arrival of my comp copy - but it looks great from the table of contents, which you can see on the book's Amazon page (link is above). Its release makes me reflect on my own recent book on metal and punk, This Ain't the Summer of Love. I went back and forth as to whether discussion of race should be a significant part of the book, and ultimately decided to downplay it in favor of other issues. I'm still pretty comfortable with my decision in this regard, but there's definitely a part of me that feels like I missed an opportunity to take on some oft-ignored questions concerning how race informs genres like metal and punk, so I'm glad that someone else took the lead.

Both metal and punk tend to get pegged pretty straightforwardly as "white" genres, and so most commentators just don't bother to say much about how race matters for the players or fans who gravitate toward them. The "whiteness" of these genres is true to a large extent, albeit less overarching than many folks assume. Yet as a certain strain of cultural studies has been arguing since the late 1980s/early 1990s, "whiteness" has as much to do with race as "blackness" or any other similar construction. Answering a question such as, is whiteness only incidental to punk and metal or is it integral to them, is a challenging task but an important one. When the Clash sing that they want a "White Riot," are they issuing a call for racial solidarity, given that their song was so strongly influenced by the efforts of immigrant black Londoners to resist police harassment? If so, why does it have to be a "white riot" - a "riot of our own," as the band asserts? The phrase is so suggestive but it's also slippery, and as with so much popular culture, lends itself to different ways of being heard and understood, some of which might lead in a more racially exclusionary direction than the band ever would have intended.

I could go on (and on and on) about these matters, but I won't. I'm just glad that the anthology White Riot is out, and hope it leads to more open and more complex dialogue around these issues.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Bye Bye Pleasant Street Video

Much ink has been spilled (figuratively) in recent years about how the doldrums of the music industry have meant the veritable death knell of the local record store. Thing is, in the peculiar place where I reside, you'd hardly know it. Sure, we lost one longstanding member of the record store fraternity in recent years - Dynamite Records, RIP - but we have three remaining in a town of 30,000. This is a fluke, but it's a good fluke and hopefully one that will last for a good while.

Meanwhile, another trend that seems to be generating less fanfare - at least in the media circles I inhabit - is the death of the local video store. Sure, everyone who cares knows that Blockbuster just went under and that is certainly a sign of the times. But how often do you hear about the smaller, independent video stores of the sort that have been absolutely crucial curators of film culture over the past three decades. I've been lucky enough to live near a few good ones in my time and they always enhance my quality of life, especially when you're living in a town that has no good movie theaters to speak of (i.e. Bowling Green, OH, which sucked for movie theaters but had a great local video store the name of which I cannot remember, but I sure hope it's still alive and kicking).

As of this weekend, we're losing one of these treasured resources locally, as Pleasant Street Video will be effectively closing its doors (you'll still be able to go to the place for a couple weeks but no more new rentals after July 3, from what I understand). Pleasant Street epitomized what makes a locally owned independent store such an important form of living breathing commerce, the sort of thing that no online retailer can approximate, however good its services otherwise. It's a great source for all manner of independent and foreign cinema, as any independent video store worth its salt should be. But, it's also been a veritable community center in a way that very few local retailers truly become. I don't have time now to do it justice, but I can say that even at times when I've gone two months without setting foot in the place, just knowing it was there made me a little bit happier to live where I live. And now that's it's closing, some small part of Northampton won't be the same anymore.

If you're local and not yet clued in, the store's collection is being donated to Forbes Library, which is awesome. But, it also means that the owners are not going to yield any great dividends from the sale of their extensive holdings. To offset the losses, they are accepting sponsors who are willing to pay $8 so that a selected video will be sure to be included in the turnover. If you want to know more, visit their website.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

What's in a Name?

Angel, a so-called "pomp metal" band from the '70s, may be one of the least "punk" bands of precisely the moment in time when "punk" became a movement of consequence. Their music is full of synthesizer swells, high-pitched male vocals, power chords and extended guitar solos. All of which makes them a hoot - and also makes it very puzzling that their lead guitarist goes by the name "Punky Meadows." Seriously, Punky? Was this a nod to punk's controversial credibility in what's otherwise a musical context that seems decidedly unpunk? Or just a random turn of phrase with no meaningful connection to the larger punk phenomenon?

(Wikipedia tells us that the man's given name is Edwin Lionel Meadows, but doesn't explain the origins of his stage name.)

I'll leave you to ponder these mysteries of life watching this fine example of Angel in action performing (well, lip-synching) "The Tower," the lead track from their self-titled debut album.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Metal vs. Punk II (?!?)

File this under: my book is but the crest of a wave...

The Middle East Nightclub in Cambridge, MA is readying for an event of clearly epic proportions: an evening called, Metal vs. Punk II, apparently the second (annual?) evening devoted to pitting punk and metal bands against one another to see which genre reigns supreme. My only question is: why the fuck didn't I think of this first? Apart from the fact that I'm not a concert promoter, of course.

Here's a link to a listing and lineup; check the photos, quite hilarious. And the guy on the right (the metal guy) almost kinda looks a little like me, except for the spikes.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

How Teaching Made Me a Copyright Criminal

The semester is coming to a close, and none too soon. It's been a bear, for reasons that I won't belabor. But one running theme this semester has been technical difficulties in the classroom. For my class at UMASS, I was placed in a room where the only a/v I had at my disposal was my laptop. No cd player, no dvd player, let alone anything as old fashioned as a turntable - and this in a graduate seminar on popular music! At Smith things were only moderately better. My rock history course met in a room that ostensibly has all that one would need: cd, dvd, turntable, installed computer as well as plugs to accommodate laptops, hell even a vhs player. Problem is, hardly any of it works the way it's supposed to. The turntable is hooked up to sound like crap, same with the laptop jacks, the dvd player loses audio out of one channel, the in-class computer makes a horrible buzz whenever you turn the volume up past barely audible. So that basically leaves you with a CD player. Awesome - not! So much for being at a school with a $1 billion + endowment...

The upshot of all this is that, not being able to play vinyl in class, and refusing to pay for music I already own - and having to work with a music library that's done a good job purchasing stuff I need for class but still has its gaps - I've had to resort to so-called "illegal" downloading on a regular basis. Not that I think anything I've done should actually be considered illegal, but that's a topic for another post. And not that having downloaded a bunch of music for free is anything that deserves congratulations - in this day and age it's a given. What I find ironic is that I was pretty much forced into the situation of doing so by the horrendously inadequate technical facilities provided in the classrooms where I taught.

This is doubly ironic in that, old school music consumer that I am, I've generally been disinclined to make digital music into something I use on a regular basis. I've posted along these lines but it's worth reiterating: I like vinyl. I still buy vinyl, as well as CD's. I buy a lot of music in physical form, and I prefer to buy my music in that form and to listen to it in that form. I don't like headphones and portability is all but irrelevant to my listening habits. I am the kind of consumer that is allowing the record industry to have some sort of continued solvency, and yet...when all is said and done, I find that there are many situations in which I basically need to go online to troll around for free music because otherwise my options for acquiring the things I need are too limited and expensive.

Besides taking the opportunity to vent about a situation that I find very frustrating, this story seems to me worth telling because it provides something of a parable of the contradictions involved in being a professor of popular music. It's my job to try to cultivate a more sophisticated understanding of popular music and the larger media system through which it's produced. But to do so, I need resources of a sort that are pretty common outside the academic setting but far less so inside. Adding to that, it's important for me not to take the supposedly inevitable tide of technological "progress" as a given. Just because the corporations that earn enormous profits from the production of new technologies have deemed some particular item or format to be obsolete doesn't mean that we should all follow suit. Vinyl may be, in the end, just another commodity item, no more no less, but it was also a dominant form in which people experienced music for the better part of a century, and the notion that we should all dispense with our vinyl archives because of changing media is folly.

I find it a matter to despair that academic institutions, ostensibly a site in which we can resist some of the gravitational pull of market capitalism in at least a limited degree, are so shortsighted on these matters that it would be possible to have a classroom in a music building that doesn't even have a cd player, let alone a turntable (yes I'm talking to you, UMASS).

This rant is now officially done. For now.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Poly, Goodbye

I just checked my blogroll for the first time all day and saw the bad news, posted by Brian at This Ain't the Summer of Love, that Poly Styrene just passed away due to complications from cancer. Poly (born Marianne Elliott-Said) was one of the great women of punk with a wonderful air raid siren of a voice. She was the lead singer for one of the most creative bands to emerge from the British punk scene of the late '70s, X-Ray Spex, and she wrote some of the most trenchant lyrics of any punk songwriter, questioning the daily rituals of consumerism that give us all a sense that our identities have been manufactured for us by some large impersonal system. Anyone reading this who has not heard the X-Ray Spex album Germfree Adolescents, stop reading and go find a copy to listen to now. You won't regret it.

Meanwhile, in memory, here's a rockin' video performance of the band playing their pivotal first single, "Oh Bondage Up Yours!" An anthem for female rockers everywhere...

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Metal Idol, continued

This wasn't as cool as Durbin singing Judas Priest's "You Got Another Thing Coming" a few weeks ago, but gotta give the man props - he is unapologetic in his metal-ness, even if he does choose a pretty suck-ass song (Sammy Hagar's title track from the film Heavy Metal) to prove it. If nothing else, this was easily the most time given to a guitar solo in the history of American Idol and for that alone it was sorta neat.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Jason, Iggy and John

Last night Holly and I went to see Sebadoh, and it was a great show, better than I'd anticipated. Holly went to high school with Jason Loewenstein, who mainly played bass but switched instruments with Lou Barlow at various points and played some damn fine high-wire indie punk guitar along with singing most of the evening's more punk-fueled tunes. A fine and funny moment happened while Jason was at the mic. He recounted all the time he spent at Pearl Street - the club where they played - and all the hearing he'd lost going to shows there, and looked out at the club to the spot he usually remembered standing, which just happened to be right where Holly and I were positioned. Looking out, he looked right at Holly and said "Hey!" For some reason she found this embarrassing but I thought it was sort of cute.

In a much weirder vein, Iggy Pop appeared on American Idol this past Thursday night (!). The sheer novelty of the thing was fun in and of itself, but I have to say, it was sort of underwhelming all in all. It would have been one thing if he'd appeared with the Stooges but he was there with a bunch of younger musicians who were sort of just okay in the manner of much of Iggy's non-Stooges solo work, and he sang a song - "Wild One" - that was cute in its self-referentiality but really, it mostly proved that Iggy on network TV is largely innocuous, because he can't do the things that really make him Iggy. Still, though, gotta wonder just which producer of the show thought that of all the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame-related folks (that was the week's theme) to bring on, Iggy was the one. And it definitely seems to consolidate the show's progressively growing play for a more straight-up rock audience (also indicated by this season's big rocker contestant James Durbin, who sang a Judas Priest song earlier this season - which to my mind, was a way more radical breach of American Idol decorum than having Iggy perform).

A final note: next Saturday (Apr. 16) in Northampton, underground legend John Sinclair will be performing at the First Church chapel downtown. Tickets are $15 and apparently aren't selling like hot cakes so anyone with an interest in seeing one of the most intriguing characters in the past several decades of alternative culture still has a chance to check it out.

For those who don't know, Sinclair was a poet, writer and activist based in Detroit who became the manager of one of the great rock bands to ever hail from that city, the MC5, back in the 1960s. Sinclair wasn't just a manager, he was an ideologue, master publicist, mischief maker and tireless advocate who mentored the Five in the ways of avant-jazz improv and sent shivers down the spine of local and national authorities. In 1969, having caused so much trouble, he was sentenced to ten years in jail for possession of marijuana in a trumped up charge that was obviously motivated by politics. While in jail, Sinclair collected many of his writings in a great document of countercultural idealism, Guitar Army; upon his release in 1972, Sinclair went on to found the Ann Arbor Jazz and Blues Festival, and has continued to write poetry and make music with a distinctive vision. He'll be accompanied for his Northampton gig by some cool and creative musicians who play in a manner conducive to Sinclair's adventurous character.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

On the Road Again...

I'm outward bound tomorrow for my second conference in the last few weeks. This time, it's the Business of Live Music conference, hosted by Simon Frith at University of Edinburgh. Frith and a research team including Martin Cloonan have just finished a three year study of the British live music industry and this conference marks the culmination of their project. Given that I'm in the early stages of my own book-length study on the history of live music in the U.S., this is pretty much the perfect conference for me. I also love that it's small, with only about 40 presenters over three days, so it will be a cozy group which should make for some lively exchanges.

Here's a link to the conference website, where the curious can see the program. I'll be presenting some of my work on Jenny Lind, the Swedish concert singer whose early 1850s tour of the U.S. was a sort of milestone in the history of American live music. The image below is from a concert program from one of her early performances, which I found at the American Antiquarian Society.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Good News and More Good News!

My book, This Ain't the Summer of Love, was just announced as the winner of the 2010 Woody Guthrie Award for the best scholarly book on popular music, given by IASPM-US. That the award was announced at the IASPM-US conference, for which I'd worked as program chair, made it especially sweet. There aren't many awards that honor work on popular music, even fewer that honor scholarly work of the more academic variety, so this is an honor, and I am very happy.

As to the conference itself, it was a success, if I may say so myself. Things went more or less smoothly, there were far more good papers than not-so-good from what I could see, and everyone I talked to seemed to have a pretty cool time. And, Bootsy Collins was there, and I got to shake his hand and say hey, which is also cool. And I took this picture with my crappy cell phone camera.

I took some video of Bootsy and former King Records session drummer Philip Paul talking about their experiences with the label for my friends at the Rock Hall, who helped to organize the panel that featured them (one of them, Lauren Onkey, is in the photo, sitting next to Bootsy). If and when they post it to the web I'll include the link in a future post.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

IASPM, Here I Come...

As I've mentioned in what now seems like a long-ago post, I've been the program chair for this year's IASPM-US conference (the acronym stands for International Association for the Study of Popular Music, US chapter, for the uninitiated). And now, after months of planning, I'll be on my way to Cincinnati tomorrow when things start to get underway.

For those who want to know what they'll be missing, you can check out the program here.

It's going to be a real cool time, but I'll tell ya, I will be filled with such relief when it's all over. Now I'm in a state of suspended high anxiety, hoping no tragedies strike.

(In case you think I'm being melodramatic, the last time I chaired a conference program committee, for the same organization, it was scheduled to start in mid-September 2001. And then, 9/11 happened, and the whole fucking thing was canceled. And that's why it's taken me ten years to do it again.)

Meantime, anyone who plans to be there, don't be surprised if you hear me quoting, from time to time, the immortal words of Darby Crash: "Will someone buy me a beeeahr?"

Monday, February 28, 2011


I'm working my way through the 1960s in my rock history class. Sometimes it feels like a "greatest hits" anthology - Beatles! Stones! Dylan! Hendrix! Joplin! But it's also great to have occasion to revisit these artists and put their work in some sort of context so they're not just admired for their presumed greatness. That's why it's rock history after all, and not rock appreciation...

Janis is up next, and there's a particular source I've always found wonderfully revealing about her: a 1970 appearance on the Dick Cavett show, where Cavett interviews her at some length about her music and her life (not super-long but long in TV talk show terms, maybe seven minutes). It's a great distillation of all the qualities that make Joplin such a supremely complicated and interesting figure from that supremely complicated and interesting decade: she's brash and full of confidence and at the same time, vulnerable and downtrodden; she issues a great challenge to Cavett that undermines both his lame efforts at being hip and his lamer (though self-consciously so) efforts at standing up for "all men," and yet she flaunts her own emotional victimhood. The contradictions she exhibits in this interview are the same things that make her such a powerful performer and also, a figure who sometimes seemed overwrought, like she was trying too hard to please an audience that she assumed was not all on her side.

Here it is:

Monday, February 7, 2011

Gary Moore, R.I.P.

I was watching a few minutes of Good Morning America this morning and saw what seemed an incongruous piece of news moving across the ticker at the bottom of the screen: Gary Moore, former guitarist for "Thin Lizzie" (that's how they misspelled the band's name), died at age 58. I was surprised Moore had enough notoriety to make the GMA ticker, and also sad to hear he'd died so young.

I don't always go out of my way to note musicians who've passed away on this blog, but my sense is that Moore will get less general notice than most, in the U.S. at least, despite his GMA acknowledgment. And as a guitarist with distinct metal leanings, I guess this one hits a stronger chord than most (pun intended, sorry).

Weirdly I first got into Moore's playing with his solo album, Victims of the Future, which seems to be held in high regard by some (like but less so by others (like metal discographer Martin Popoff). I think his playing on the album is great. It's super fast and high energy like the best "shred" guitar, but with more straight ahead blues and rock stylistic traits, and not many of the quasi-classical flourishes that were so prevalent in 1980s metal guitar playing. Check out "Murder in the Skies" for some especially choice playing from that album.

I only got into his playing with Thin Lizzy later, and like many, especially dig his playing on the title track from their album, Black Rose, which has some of the best Celtic-inspired guitar lines adapted to heavy metal that you'll ever hear.

The UK paper The Guardian has a really good, detailed obituary about the guitarist.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Metal, Punk, and an Ambulance that Burns

A few months after my newer book came out - This Ain't the Summer of Love, for the uninitiated - in summer 2009, I got an email from a writer named Phil Freeman asking if he could interview me about the book for the Cleveland Scene, that city's alternative weekly. I was psyched, as it's not so often an academic author gets asked for an interview of this sort, and Freeman is an interesting writer, more about which below. But he said that he had to pitch the article to his editor before he could go ahead with it, and then I never heard from him, which I guess means his editor said no. Oh well, easy come, easy go, or so I thought.

A week or so ago, I was doing the periodic scan for new references to my work on Google that I do, and found something that looked unfamiliar. The source was largely inaccessible but it was a link to some pages from a fairly new music magazine called Burning Ambulance. And somewhere in the magazine, in some pages that I couldn't see in the preview, was a review of some recent books on metal and punk by none other than Phil Freeman, and my book was one of the five under review.

Of course, I had to buy it so I could read the review. And it's a cool piece. Freeman puts my book in conversation with four others: Joe Carducci's now-classic Rock and the Pop Narcotic and more recent tome, Enter Naomi - the latter of which I reviewed myself on this very blog - Daniel Ekeroth's Swedish Death Metal, and Precious Metal, a collection of pieces on great metal albums by the editors of Decibel magazine. Freeman compares my book favorably to all of the above, and makes an especially flattering comparison between my book and Carducci's classic. I don't want to post the whole review here because the magazine isn't accessible online and I think the authors and editors need the money, but I'll quote the relevant lines from the last paragraph of the review:

"In a way, Waksman’s book is an academic equivalent to Carducci’s. Fifteen years later, it’s possible to make a serious, scholarly inquiry into cultural conditions that were once the province of sputtering, rage-fueled outsiders. And perhaps the cogency of his argument that punk and metal had much more in common than many were willing to grant will overturn some received wisdom, and allow people to hear old records in new ways. That’s all you can really hope for when you’re toiling in the subcultural trenches—that someday, someone somewhere will get it."

Amen, brother. Apart from this being some of the coolest words anyone has written about my new book, I also just think it's nice that Freeman followed up on his earlier impulse to put his appreciation of my book into words even though his original pitch clearly didn't pan out. And, like I said above, he's definitely among the more intriguing music writers out there. Like me, his tastes seem to be split pretty evenly between heavy fucking metal and jazz of the avant-garde/experimental variety. He has a blog where he posts lots of reviews and other content and I encourage you to check it out.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Fire Water Burn

As I noted in a recent post, I'm currently hard at work on an essay discussing the recurrent use of heavy metal in films about the Iraq War. Since all my writing energy is currently being channeled into that essay, I thought I'd post a few paragraphs to offer a glimpse of the work in progress. So, here's the opening to the essay, in which I compare a scene from Michael Moore's polemical documentary, Fahrenheit 9/11, with a longer version of the same scene from a lesser-know film called Soundtrack to War (I posted a link to this latter film in that earlier post; check the archives to see it).

Note: The title of this post is taken from a song by the band Bloodhound Gang, which is at the center of these two clips under discussion. I have to admit that I'm not all that familiar with the band, but they do seem to have had quite a fan base among Iraq war soldiers circa 2003-2004. Here's a link to the song (the video's actually pretty funny).


“Immoral behavior breeds immoral behavior. When a president commits the immoral act of sending otherwise good kids to war based on a lie, this is what you get.”
- Michael Moore, Fahrenheit 9/11

Michael Moore’s documentary on the Bush administration’s response to the events of September 11, 2001, Fahrenheit 9/11, has been alternately celebrated and critiqued along multiple lines. Impassioned and driven by Moore’s characteristic sympathy for those he considers political underdogs, the film uses footage drawn from myriad sources to construct a dense montage in which political analysis rubs up against emotional pathos, on one hand, and humorous punch lines on the other. Moore’s comments about the “immorality” of Bush’s decision to send U.S. troops to war are meant to absolve soldiers of much of the responsibility for the big-picture consequences of their actions; for the moral and political crux of the film concerns the failure of leadership stemming from the highest echelons of U.S. government. Yet portions of the film show those same soldiers to be acting in full accordance with U.S. policy mandates and to be treating the Iraqi population as something less than fully human. Thus, “this is what you get:” soldiers laughing at a dead Iraqi laying on the ground with a rigor mortis-induced erection; soldiers treating a Christmas Eve raid on a civilian as a mock visit from Santa; and in one of the more stirring bits of footage, a white male soldier singing directly to the camera lines from the nu metal band Bloodhound Gang’s song, “Fire Water Burn.” “We don’t need no water let the motherfucker burn/Burn, motherfucker, burn,” chants the soldier, eyes open wide and mouth crooked in a half-smile in apparent glee at the imagined damage evoked by the lyrics he sings.

This last clip is one of several that Moore lifted from an earlier Iraq war documentary, Soundtrack to War, by the Australian artist and filmmaker George Gittoes. In Gittoes’ film, the main subject of which is the musical practices of Iraq War soldiers and Iraqi citizens, the scene in question occupies a particular pride of place at the film’s conclusion. It is also a more extended scene, taking some two-plus minutes to play out. Gittoes, whose voice is audible but whose physical presence is off screen, interviews one final U.S. soldier who introduces himself as John Frisbee from Lebanon, Tennessee. Gittoes instructs the young man as to what he wants: some indication of the music he most prefers and thinks is most suited to the circumstance of being stationed in Iraq, and some recitation of sample lyrics from that music. Such seemingly basic instructions lead to an unusually halting sequence, however, for the exchange between filmmaker and soldier is interrupted twice, first by a passing car that draws attention and then by Gittoes dropping his camera. Gittoes edits so that the pattern of stopping and starting the interview is on display in all its awkwardness, his mishandling of the camera stopping Frisbee mid-stream as the soldier is half-speaking, half-singing the words to the Bloodhound Gang song. By the final iteration of the scene, Gittoes is veritably feeding lines to his soldier subject, telling him to simply say, “My favorite number one is the Bloodhound Gang and this is how it goes.” Frisbee complies and then sings the notorious lines, after which he laughs at his own performance and asks to the camera, “Was that good?” An abrupt edit cuts to the end credit sequence, over which plays the commercial recording of the same Bloodhound Gang song.

Of the whole sequence recounted above, Moore includes only the penultimate moment in which the soldier – unidentified in Fahrenheit 9/11 – sings the lyric in a direct, unencumbered fashion. Whether or not Moore’s use of the clip is misleading is less of interest, though, than the way in which these two different uses of the same footage present two distinct versions of the connection between music, and specifically heavy metal music, and the sensibilities of Iraq War soldiers. The first, foreshortened clip creates what appears to be a direct association between heavy metal and white male military aggression. Although Moore’s overall portrait of American soldiers in Iraq is far from one-dimensional, this particular audio-visual soundbite clearly tips toward the less savory side of U.S. military attitudes, showing a young man for whom the charge of destruction is akin to a satisfying burst of visceral sonic pleasure. In the second, longer sequence, by contrast, the soldier’s aggression appears far more complicated. Indeed, Frisbee does not even choose the song he sings himself, but presents it only after another soldier whose voice is heard off screen begins to sing it. Frisbee declares his own preference for classic rock, but explains that the Bloodhound Gang song suited the mind frame of him and his fellow soldiers at a time when they were trying to get “Saddam and his regime out.” As such, “Fire Water Burn” comes across here as much an expression of military male camaraderie as untrammeled lust to crush the enemy. Moreover, Frisbee’s rendition is more overtly performative in Gittoes’ original sequence, rather than merely expressive: he is clearly playing to the camera, and his version of the lyrics only achieves resolution after much coaxing from the filmmaker. Heavy metal music and military mayhem, then, are not so neatly sutured together, but the music is shown to be an integral part of the soundscape of U.S. military engagement.