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.