I love TV on the Radio
September 9, 2008

by pegleghippie.

Today was a long day.  I got up at 8:30, and I’m just now sitting down at my computer, 15 hours later.  In the spirit of blogging something, I’m going to partly reproduce here an essay I wrote for my Peace and Conflict class.  This is an analysis of the TV on the Radio song Dry Drunk Emperor.  They’re one of my favorites, the song kicks ass, and my analysis ain’t half bad.  enjoy!

(I couldn’t find the video on youtube, but the band released the song free over the internet. You can find it here.  Personally i put it on repeat while I was writing this thing so the repetition would motivate me to finish.  I don’t recommend that, but hey, the song is free, might as well listen once while you read.)

I’ve chosen the 2005 song Dry, Drunk Emperor by TV on the Radio (TVotR) as a song that expresses the desire for peace. The song does this by showing a disdain for the American political system; portraying it, and president Bush specifically, as a roadblock to a utopian peace. In addition to a direct challenge to the government, the song is highly critical of how that government exploits people with both religion and war.

            With regards to how the song portrays peace, TV on the Radio takes a relatively complex set of three outlooks towards peace and aggression within the range of the song, and the tone of the lyrics shifts according to which outlook is being expressed at a given point. 

First view:  Compassionate outlook, ill-defined peace

baby boy/dieing under hot desert sun/watch your colours run.

 did you believe the lie they told you/that Christ would lead the way/and in a matter of days/hand us victory?

 did you buy the bull they sold you/that the bullets and the bombs/and all the strong arms/would bring home security?

 The song opens with “baby boy/dieing under hot desert sun/watch your colours run.  Here the lyrics are compassionate and empathetic towards the soldier.  The soldier is characterized as childlike, almost as a family member (“baby boy”), and as a victim of war, abandoned by his nation. 

The next two lines accuse a “they,” the unnamed United States government that used religion and the promise of an easy victory to lead the nation into war.  More importantly however, the lines are addressed at “you,” in this case the soldier who was tricked into war.  Since the war was a matter of deceit, the song implies that peace would be possible if only people were as informed as the lyricist; although what kind of peace isn’t specified.  Certainly it involves peace as the absence of war, but the family-like tone taken here could possibly suggest some form of mutual support.

 Second view: Sarcastic/angry outlook, call for legitimate aggression

all eyes upon/dry drunk emperor/gold cross jock skull and bones/mocking smile/he’s been/standing naked for a while!/get him gone, get him gone, get him gone!!/and bring all the thieves to trial.

 end their false promise/end their dream/watch it turn to steam/rising to the nose of some cross legged god/gog of magog/end times sort of thing./oh unmentionable disgrace/shield the children’s faces/as all the moneyed apes/display unimaginably poor taste/in a scramble for mastery.

 atta’ boy get em with your gun/till Mr. mega ton/tells us when we’ve won/or/what we’re gonna leave undone.

 This is the first appearance of the chorus, and the song’s title (“all eyes upon/dry drunk emperor”). As to the title, Dry Drunk Emperor sarcastically refers to president Bush, and the disconnect between his insular reaction to hurricane Katrina, and the horror and devastation of that storm.  Bush was “dry” while people drowned in New Orleans.  The word “Drunk” is used in two ways: first to negatively associate the president with his ‘frat-boy’ past, and secondly to imply that he is drunk on power to the point that he is indifferent to American citizens.  Calling him an “emperor” is to further this idea of indifference, as the song’s chorus alludes to the story “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” (“he’s been/standing naked for a while!”). The government response to hurricane Katrina is not explicitly mentioned.  Rather, the phrase serves to tie Bush to an uncaring government, and to make him the face of a system (“all the thieves”) that thrives off of such an attitude.

            The line “gold cross jock skull and bones” deserves special mention, because it attempts to define bush with one verb-free phrase.  “Gold,” meaning rich, “cross” referring to religion, “skull and bones,” referring to the secretive fraternity that Bush belonged to when he was at Yale.

            The next segment is more angry than sarcastic.  Someone (presumably the rich elite, based on what follows) is accused of furthering the “dream” of Satan (“gog of magog”) for an “end times sort of thing,” in other words, ruination of the world.  This dream is what must be “ended” in the song.  Then things get a little more specific, as “children’s faces” must be protected from the “unimaginably poor taste” of the “moneyed apes.”  The rich are thus accused as the someone trying to deliver on Satan’s “false promise.” 

            The final segment of this middle section of the song returns to sarcasm with phrases like  “atta’ boy get em with your gun.”  If it is not clear that the lyricist is not actually enthusiastic about warfare, he adds, “tell us…what we’re gonna leave undone.”            In other words, the question is what will be left after we’ve exhausted our war-lust?

            This is the most complex section of the song, and where aggression is first explored.  Both the repeated line, “get him gone!” and the lines “end their false promise/end their dream/watch it turn to steam,” express a desire for action on the parts of society at large, presumably.  I think this is calling for legitimate, democratic action for two reasons: first “get [bush] gone!” could be accomplished either with impeachment or with the election of democrats, as could “end [the Bush-supporting wealthy’s] dream.”  The second reason is the line “bring all the thieves to trial,” as opposed to killing or mobbing the thieves.

Third view: revolutionary outlook, call for direct aggression and utopian peace

what if all the fathers and the sons/went marching with their guns/drawn on Washington./that would seal the deal/show if it was real/this supposed freedom.

 what if all the bleeding hearts/took it on themselves/to make a brand new start./organs pumpin on their sleeves,/paint murals on the white house/feed the leaders L.S.D/grab your fife and drum/grab your gold baton/and let’s meet on the lawn/shut down this hypocrisy.

           This final section is where aggression and peace are placed in a relationship, the call for aggression turns from legitimate to violent, and peace is defined in a utopian, counterculture fashion. 

            The first “what if” deals with aggression—it supposes that the men of the nation (“fathers and the sons”) could embody American freedom by violently (“marching with their guns”) overthrowing the American government.  The second “what if” deals with the peace following a revolution—placing responsibility on society’s compassionate (“all the bleeding hearts,”) to use art (“paint murals on the white house”) and psychedelic drugs (“feed the leaders L.S.D”) to radically transform the destructive mindset of Washington into one focused on creativity. 

            The two concepts meet with the final lines; “grab your fife and drum/grab your gold baton/and let’s meet on the lawn/shut down this hypocrisy.”  A fife and drum leads people to war, a gold baton leads a marching band.  When the two meet, they’re capable of changing America into something more sincere, and less hypocritical.

 I’m leaving off the part that discusses my personal views on the song, peace, war, and the peace movement at large.  I figure this post can be about the song exclusively.

April 24, 2008

by pegleghippie (I show up as barometric pressure in the comments)

dirty fucky (left handed) hippie

I mentioned in my introduction post that I was “attracted to leftist politics.”  Those that know me well know that this was a bit of an understatement.  I write with, and vote with, my left hand.  This isn’t strictly about me though, I want to make a for reals political post, and stake my claim on the political spectrum.

First the elephant in the room: marxism.  It’s ok, you can say it.  It’s part of our tradition, and while none of us should be too keen on any traditions, Marxism is too powerful an idea to deny or ignore.  It’s a damn shame to not understand it.

I never called myself a marxist, although in the past few days I’ve felt sympathetic.  I read a lot of Marx’s early work in high school on my own time, I’ve recently been reading his more famous works now that I’m in college.  A few things jump out at me.  This is not the feel-good emotive-based leftism that characterizes the American left (I’m looking at you West coast).  Rather, Marx is pleading for humanity itself, and doing his damnedest to be realistic about it.  By practical, I mean that Marx takes a rather Lockean view of private property that is created by a skilled worker, who puts his/her heart and soul into something.  Today, it seems positively right-wing  Randian to be this obsessed with personal triumph over nature.  The last thing that jumps out, and the thing that I want to spend the most time on, is that “deep philosophical shit:” the meaning of doing (as opposed to simply being), what that means for control over manufacturing, and the really weird part, “dialectical materialism.” Also known as the idea that you can predict where arguments are going before they’ve even happened.


On to the doing thing: you probably know that Marx wrote a lot about the worker.  What you may not realize is that when marx was talking about labor, he didn’t mean it in the strict sense that ‘you have a job.’  He meant doing.  Nearly anything that goes on in life is labor of some kind, in other words, you’re usually doing something.  Much of the time, this labor is focused around creating and maintaining your own life.  Doing things is natural and good, and doing defines us as humans.  Isn’t that nice?  doesn’t that make sense?  If we evolved to enjoy surviving, we’d be more likely to survive.  If we evolved to enjoy the tasks that help us survive, we’d be even more likely to survive.  

We’re destined, in that way, to enjoy doing stuff, because doing stuff is what living things do to guarantee that they keep doing stuff.  It’s tautological, sure, but you can only fight biological-imperatives so far.  The point is, there’s a natural drive to be busy, and we should enjoy that drive.  This drive to do is opposed to the eastern idea that it is best to simply ‘be.’ To meditate on the simple so that one’s mind breaks free of its conditioning, and shows us the world of ‘enlightenment.’  As far as I’m concerned, eastern philosophy is a great way to hack one’s own brain-software.  It’ll teach you a little about how you work, and you might get some enjoyment out of it, but mostly, you can only do natural tweaks to your own perception in limited amounts.  Otherwise, you know, you starve to death. 


Back to Marx:  If all this doing is so great, then why does going to work suck?  Isn’t work supposed to be how I keep myself alive, and how I make my life better?  What’s up with that?  

Those are (basically) the questions that old Karl asked. Now I’m not going to bore you with the specifics or Marxist communism, as the economic world has changed in ways unimaginable in the mid-19th century.  Centralized economies fail to deal with the complexities of a changing world, end of discussion.  Does that mean that capitalism is the answer?  Hardly.

 The idea that’s important here is that work, in our modern artificial environments, has stopped rewarding the individual, and only serves the goal of the factory as a whole.  No one has any reason to be proud of their work, no one has any life aspiration to master a factory job.  So the thing that should be naturally rewarding, labor, is now a drag, and we turn to stupid things like eastern philosophy to take our minds off of it.

Marx’s solution wasn’t to return to nature, however.  He recognized that there was a lot of potential in this manufacturing thing.  So his solution was to simply take the benefits owner got, and to give those benefits to the workers.  Well, not exactly.  He wanted to give all of manufacturing’s benefits to all workers everywhere.  Only then could we be ourselves again.  But ignore the extreme element for a moment, and consider:  is there anything just in some getting richer simply because of what they own?  Whatever labor they did to make use of the earth, they didn’t do anything to deserve the wealth that they have.  And the hard work of those who don’t own what they make should be fairly rewarded, right?  Are we humans, or are we cogs?  

Even without arguing for economic equality, it’s plain to see that ownership on it’s own shouldn’t guarantee your lifestyle.  Not when there’s useful work to be done.  Isn’t the central idea of capitalism that what you own you make use of for some good?  Owning production starts to fail at this goal.  Fundamentally, I find myself agreeing with Marx that private ownership of production is a problem.  I don’t know what that means, as on the other hand, competition meets needs with increasingly better goods.  However, competition, and rewarding competition for winning, does not conflict with the goal of meeting people’s survival needs.  Sure it means competition must be limited, but it’s limited in a capitalist model anyway; even corporations have to obey the law (most of the time anyway).  

So lets review:  private ownership of production is unjust and crushes people.  BUT, competition is an effective way to find superior solutions.  So, demanding that people work, rather than receive a free-ride from ownership, but still allowing enough reward to make people compete, will keep people from crushing each other.  That’s my take on Marxist politics.

Marxism not Communism

Increasingly, people refer to themselves as Marxists, but not communists.  I think it’s a fair distinction, since Marx’s premises do not necessarily lead to communist conclusions, but I’m going to have to say that I’m neither a marxist nor a communist.  I’ve already objected to a centrally planned economy (communism), so here’s my problem with Marxism:

     Dialectical materialism.  I can get behind Marx’s view of labor as both natural and good, but I can’t get behind his view of history.  Dialectical materialism, As I understand it, is the idea that as we argue over how we shall administer power and manage resources, we will come to a single conclusion about “the best” way to do these things.  Furthermore, this best way is inevitable, mankind is destined to discover it, and all of history is the story of that discovery. 

For Marx, that “best way” was communism.  For non-communist Marxists, they may admit that we aren’t real clear on that best way, but it exists out there somewhere.  And this is how they approach political arguments, as merely a piece in the puzzle of figuring that answer out.  This is absolutely insane.  First off, what standard are we going by to determine “the best?”  How will we know when history is over, and that we’ve discovered “the best?”  What made us destined for anything at all in the first place?  Why are arguments suddenly filled with so much metaphysical baggage?  

An argument about a theory of arguments can get confusing fast, I admit.  But look at it this way.  Arguments, and the logic we use to declare a winner, are essentially linguistic in nature.  Language changes, and becomes increasingly complex.  There are no signs that this will someday stop.  As our language (and our problems), become more complex, our solutions will have to be more and more adaptable, and increasingly open to change.  This would suggest that, so far as we know it, history cannot end, and neither can our political discussions.  We also shouldn’t have to assume things like a preset design, or an objective definition of ‘perfection,’ when we talk about these things.  All these little problems lead me away from dialectical materialism.  

The end, for now

This turned out long, and I only covered one area of the left.  As I said, I am not a marxist, but I find myself sympathetic to many of Karl Marx’s ideas.  Philosophically, he hits it out of the park when it comes to doing (labor), not so much when it comes to arguing.  Politically, I understand the need for justice and the survival onus of all of us to the larger humanity, but of course his economics are out-dated, and a little simplistic.  All in all though, he was a smart guy who made a huge contribution to the world, as well as my own thinking.