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Columns > John Zinkand - Improvise

Published: 2003/03/25
by John Zinkand

Bold Waters

The 21st Century is here and one thing that’s clear is that we are mired in uncertainty. Terrorism and acts of war have defined this young century. Many feel our march to war is very necessary, while others feel that peace can only be established and maintained through non-violence and diplomacy. There are massive peace rallies which are then countered by Support Our Troops rallies. The social upheaval which we are seeing on our streets, in newspapers, and on TV broadcasts can most similarly be compared to the Vietnam War era. However, the circumstances surrounding that war are much different than those of today’s war. There is no draft today, so the war will be waged by the willing. Also, during the late 60’s, politics were on the minds of pop and rock musicians.
Pop and rock music then had more teeth and was much more relevant. One can easily recall images of Country Joe railing against the Vietnam War at the Woodstock Festival. Can anyone envision Britney Spears or Justin Timberlake speaking out on politics? (Some might suggest a better question to ask would be do Justin or Britney even realize there is currently a war being waged in Iraq?) The new anti-war Beastie Boys song is about the closest thing to pop music that has any political content. One might think that since the jamband scene’s founding forefathers were coming of age during the politically charged Vietnam War era, the scene might be the one place to find current, relevant political commentary in song lyrics.
As many of us know, for the most part, this is vastly untrue. The jam act that primarily comes to mind when speaking of political bands is Michael Franti and Spearhead. Some would argue that their style falls more into the category of hip-hop and world music, however. The jamband scene is instead centered first and foremost around instrumental improvisation. Without extended jams in their music, it is hard for a band to become known as a jamband. This focus on instrumental prowess has left meager pickings in the substantial lyrics department. Take genre leader Phish’s lyrics, for example. They were one of the first bands to either completely disregard lyrics and write lines of nonsense or sing language merely as sounds. Many of the more recent jambands see Phish as a major influence, and a lack of politically or socially relevant lyrics in the jamband scene seems to be the result.
This was not always the case. Many of the jam scene’s founding forefathers used more relevant and politically charged lyrics when writing their songs. CSN&Y sang about "getting back to the garden," Barry McGuire sang about a nation "On the Eve of Destruction," and Bob Dylan sang about "How The Times They are a Changin’." Even Jimi Hendrix played a fierce psychedelic version of The Star-Spangled Banner to make a political statement. Many bands, like The Grateful Dead, made a conscious decision to stay away from making any comments that could be construed as political (although this philosophy changed over the years for the Dead). And still other bands that are founding members of the jam scene have steadily grown more and more political over the years. Roger Waters of Pink Floyd is the best example of this.
Pink Floyd began as a small band riding the wave of the underground British psychedelic movement. Their early songs dealt mainly with psychedelia and general craziness, but became more and more political as time went on. By the early 70’s, Floyd was more interested in commenting on the shady dealings of the record industry with the Wish You Were Here album than delving into another acidic Saucerful of Secrets type album. Political opinions and social commentary only grew steadily more apparent in the band’s lyrics over the years. By the time Pink Floyd officially disbanded in the early 80’s, it was apparent that Roger Waters was the main force behind the lyrics of most Pink Floyd songs.
Waters’ solo albums, in fact, were made up almost entirely of socially and politically charged lyrics. From the social commentary of The Pros and Cons of Hitch Hiking to the harsh condemnation of corporate controlled radio with the album Radio K.A.O.S., Waters’ solo work proves he has much to say as an astute social and political observer. His most recent studio album, Amused to Death, was released in the early 90’s and is by far his most political work to date. Waters is strongly anti-war and anti-globalization, which is readily apparent when taking a closer look at the lyrics in this album.
Originally written for the Gulf War, the timely lyrics seem to be tailored specifically for our current world situation. One of the first audible lines of dialog is a sound snippet of an English boy speaking about war and TV. He says, "I don’t mind watching the war on TV. That’s one of the things I like to watch. I can see if my side’s winning or if my side’s losing." This fearful idea of "war as entertainment" is a central theme to Amused to Death. Not only is the western world slowly becoming amused to death, humanity is now also amused by death. One can immediately draw parallels to our current situation of the war being on TV twenty four hours a day. The words of that English boy, which show a horrific desensitization to the concept of war and all the suffering and death it entails, are the very same words that are racing through millions of American children’s minds right now.
The second major theme of the album is tied around several parts of the reoccurring song What God Wants. Here Waters touches on the controversial topic of religion. Many have suggested that organized religions have been used historically as a system of controlling the populace. It is evident that Waters agrees with this stance. He suggests there are inherent flaws in the logic of organized religion with the lines, "God wants Peace, God wants war, God wants famine, God Wants chain stores." At different times in current Western Civilization, it seems that a Christian God does in fact want all of these things depending purely on the situation. This enforces the idea of those in power using the symbol of God as a mechanism for controlling the masses. TV evangelists preach portions of the song alluding to religion being seen as entertainment by the people, a great revenue generator for businesses, and a useful tool to exert control over the people.
Next, Waters combines entertainment and religion with the all powerful dollar. In his song Perfect Sense, we find a global society who sings a global anthem. "It all makes perfect sense expressed in dollars and cents, pounds, shillings and pence. Can’t you see, it all makes perfect sense?" A war is parodied as a now relatively mundane sports attraction complete with Marv Albert as commentator. Oil rigs "go into a prevent defense" and the masses cheer on the death and destruction of war as entertainment because, after all, it does make perfect sense when expressed in dollars and cents. If it makes money and is entertaining, then do it. Our current trend of reality programming and the war on TV immediately come to mind.
What Waters has said so far is that religion, politics, and war as entertainment are closely tied together and used in conjuncture with wealth as a means of control. In the next song, The Bravery of Being Out of Range, Waters lashes out at the old men who control what happens on the national stage without ever having to get their hands dirtied by the stark reality of war. "And through the range finder over the hill I saw the frontline boys popping their pills. Sick of the mess they find on their desert stage and the bravery of being out of range, Yeah the question is vexed. Old man what the hell you gonna kill next?" The theme of war as entertainment and the inherent disconnection from the violence created is addressed: "Sir, turn up the TV sound, the war has started on the ground. Just love those laser guided bombs, they’re really great for fighting wrongs. You hit the target and win the game from bars 3,000 miles away." How brave is it to be lobbing bombs at enemies from 3000 miles away? Not very brave in the opinion of Waters.
The next few songs comment on military life and the results of military conflict. Waters comments on the mentality of blindly following orders and enduring the routine of military life: "The kid from Cleveland in the comfort of routine scans his dials and smiles, secure in the beauty of his military life. There is no right no wrong only tin cans and cordite and white cliffs and blue skies and flight. The beauty of military life no questions only order and flight." Waters depicts this air force pilot as someone who doesn’t understand or even care about the big picture, but instead revels in the simplicity of a life where all decisions are made for him.
In the song Too Much Rope, Waters describes a Vietnam veteran returning to Asia: "And last night on TV a Vietnam vet takes his beard and his pain and his alienation twenty years back to Asia again. Sees the monsters they made in formaldehyde floating round. Meets a gook on a bike, a good little tyke. A nice enough guy with the same soldier’s eyes." Waters asserts that war is a useless act in which no good can be gained because of the perpetual cycle of violence that is sure to follow. To begin with, this veteran was alienated by the people of his own country after fighting the war. Now, after twenty years of being made to feel like a criminal, he returns to where he fought for positive change to find that the violence of war only helped to create more animosity. Sure does make for entertaining programming, though.
Waters continues his attack on war, power, and media with the song "Watching TV" which is about the protesters in Tiananmen Square. This highly publicized media event is problematic for Waters. He repeats the line, "We were watching TV" over and over again in the song to try and convey the sheer volume of TV programming that is viewed in Western culture. He describes the young woman who laid down in front of a tank in protest of the government, but he does so in purely American terms. Not intrigued by her powerful message, courage, or noble cause, the viewer notices: "She had perfect breasts, She had high hopes, She had almond eyes, She had yellow thighs, She was a student of philosophy." Even when witnessing something so significant that should be a call to action for freedom loving people everywhere, the Western world is merely entertained: "She’s everybody’s sister, she’s symbolic of our failure, she’s the one in fifty million that could help us to be free. Because she died on TV."
The final song on the album is the title track, Amused to Death, a scathingly harsh indictment of our superficial, television glutted society. It begins by making fun of the notion of the TV version of a "western woman." The life of a female media star in America is usually brief because it is based largely on appearance. Waters asks, "What is the shelf life of a teenage queen?" Next he describes the kids in the heart of a place influenced by TV images, Southern California: "The children on Melrose strut their stuff, is absolute zero cold enough? And out in the valley warm and clean the little ones sit by the TV screen. No thoughts to think, no tears to cry. All sucked dry down to the very last breath." Waters sees this media brainwashing as the start of a violent cycle involving religion, politics, and greed. He emphasizes the importance of freeing ourselves from our TV dependence. In fact, in the vision at the end of the song it becomes the reason for the human race’s ultimate demise: "And somewhere out there in the stars a keen-eyed look-out spied a flickering light, our last hurrah. And when they found our shadows grouped around the TV sets. They ran down every lead, they repeated every test. They checked out all the data on their lists and then the alien anthropologists admitted they were still perplexed. But on eliminating every other reason for our sad demise they logged the only explanation left. This species has amused itself to death."
In his album Amused to Death, Roger Waters is an outspoken critic of the status quo. Whether one agrees or disagrees with his opinions is irrelevant. Waters is part of a rare and dying breed of musicians who openly voice their political beliefs and concerns. Considering the current state of the world, however, that may soon change as art begins to imitate life more and more. We are already seeing such mainstream artists as the Dixie Chicks speaking out to voice their political opinions. But if our little jamband scene does stay primarily focused on instrumental improvisation, that’s just fine. With so much serious stuff going on in the world, sometimes it’s nice to enjoy music purely for music’s sake.

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