Protest Song

What Are Words For?

Abu Ghraib. Um, what happened there? I mean, I know what happened, but what happened next? So Charles Graner Jr., the "ringleader" of the abuses, was recently sentenced to 10 years in a military prison, his former girlfriend Lynndie England is in and out of court as we speak, and both are essentially low-ranking foot soldiers. In spite of the tens of thousands of words spoken by all those photographs (not to mention the literal words written on the subject), zero responsibility has been taken by the higher-ups in the Defense Department who, it has now been thoroughly documented, formulated specific strategies for humiliating Muslim captives for the sake of making them more vulnerable to interrogations. Oops.

Why am I mentioning these events in a music column? Blame "Abu Ghraib" -- not the prison or the scandal, but the protest song by Montreal musician Deadbeat, aka Scott Monteith. When I say "protest song," you probably think of acoustic guitars and Joan Baez, but this is different. Deadbeat makes tense, shadowy techno. "Abu Ghraib" is a protest song for the new millennium.

It's also a protest song with no lyrics. How do you make a protest song with no lyrics? Ah, let us see.

The track sets out with thumping bass beats, these fat, bulbous thrums that pick up speed, grinding and rolling and sending out sparks of synth chirps. Filled out with a pendulous bass line and a jittery bunch of electronic warbles and wisps, the song has a certain shuffle to it, but a mechanical one, like a bent wheel that spins with a lopsided limp. Insistently it careens forward, a piece of factory machinery that's been cranked up beyond its limits, bursts of steam shooting out, bits of metal pinging off the walls, the whole thing about to blow.

Where you locate the political content is up to you. Maybe it's in the image of a system on the brink of collapse. I like to think it's in the juxtaposition of the addicting groove against the title, how that unsettling combination parallels the horrific images we saw of Iraqi prisoners being tortured and humiliated even as our political leaders told us that everything was going just fine -- the party line they still toe today.

I contacted Monteith to ask him how his wordless protest song functions as a political statement, and he responded via e-mail: "I've had many discussions since the album's release [in April], and questioned myself while making it, concerning the effectiveness of using wordless music in the context of social criticism/political protest. My hope is that these types of songs have the ability to create a sort of virtual space within which dialogue can happen about these topics between listeners, or as in this case, myself and a journalist."

And what's a better embodiment of "virtual space" than an MP3 blog? That's where I found "Abu Ghraib," on Moebius Rex (www.livejournal.com/users/moebius_rex), a blog run by San Franciscan Matt Ness, whom I met recently at 826 Valencia.

Lemme back up a second. Last week I participated in an adult education seminar at 826 Valencia about music writing. I was on a panel of five "local luminaries" (one of those words describes me, and it's not the second one). The others were Greil Marcus (prolific author and music scholar), Ben Fong-Torres (author, columnist, former editor at Rolling Stone), Kylee Swenson (editor at Remixmagazine), and Arwen Curry (editor at MaximumRocknRoll); Ness was in the audience, along with a few dozen others. We panelists spent the evening in conversation with the Chronicle's Oscar Villalon, the moderator, talking about the craft of music criticism. As a relative newcomer to the world that guys like Marcus and Fong-Torres began mapping in the late '60s, I considered myself more of a student in this situation than anything else, and I sat in rapt attention whenever one of the elders felt compelled to drop what a friend referred to as a "wisdom bomb" on all of us. An idea I especially liked was Marcus' notion of the "imaginary conversation," which I was thinking about all last week, and which is the same thing Monteith is talking about with his "virtual space."

To Marcus, an imaginary conversation takes place between a music writer and his reader. You and I are having one now, about Monteith's wordless protest song. What I really like about this tune is that unlike something by, say, Country Joe & the Fish, something didactic and humorless, "Abu Ghraib" does nothing more than put the music in a particular context, namely the war. It reminds me of Norman Mailer's Why Are We in Vietnam?, a novel that answers that question not directly, but abstractly, through a story about kids hunting in Alaska with their father. Likewise, "Abu Ghraib" doesn't hit us over the head, but merely asks us to ponder its thumps and beeps within the framework of these atrocities; it's not trying to fix our attention on politics, but it's not allowing us to dismiss them either.

Monteith's song is off his latest full-length, New World Observer, another apt title. He's been quoted as saying, "I don't know how any artist in any discipline who has been reading the paper or watching the news over the last year could not have countless atrocities penetrate their work." Me neither, and "Abu Ghraib" does a commendable job of letting the sadder parts of the world seep in, without letting them weigh the song down entirely.

 
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