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MONDAY, JULY 04, 2011
To quote Vladimir Nabokov's nymphet-loving narrator from Lolita, Humbert Humbert, "I was treated last night to one of those dazzling coincidences that logicians loathe and poets love."

I was watching a friend's funk show last night and thinking of the nerdy YouTube video I'd seen earlier that day about Theodor Adorno, the philosopher and aesthete of the so-called Frankfurt School who fled Nazi Germany in 1938, discussing the futility and irony of anti-war music. I thought of the famous "War! What is it good for?" song by Edwin Starr, and wondered what Adorno might have said about it.

The coincidence is that just after I started thinking of that song, the band, to my surprise, started playing it. Coincidence: something the logician loathes and the poet loves.

Here's what Adorno, in the video interview, said about anti-war songs (as it appeared in the digital translation captions):

"I believe, in fact, that attempts to bring political protest together with 'popular music' - that is, with entertainment music - are for the following reason doomed from the start. The entire sphere of popular music, even where it dresses itself up in modernist guise is to such a degree inseparable from...consumption, from the crossed-eyed transfixion with amusement, that...attempts to outfit it with a new function remain entirely superficial. And I have to say that when somebody sets himself up, and for whatever reason (accompanies) maudlin music by singing something or other about Vietnam being unbearable...I find, in fact, this song unbearable, in that by taking the horrendous and making it somehow consumable, it ends up wringing something like consumer qualities out of it."

I agree with Adorno, up to a point. He was right, I think, to emphasize the irony in taking something ugly and vile - like war - and turning it into something aesthetically pleasing - like a song meant for entertainment. But I think there can be such a thing as a worthwhile anti-war song.

Edwin Starr's "War! What is it good for?" is one such worthwhile song, in my opinion. Why? Because it's not a particularly beautiful song. Starr's voice is rough, harsh, full of anger and frustration, all of which perfectly suits anti-war sentiment. The chorus is stuttered and fragmented, and the verses truck along in a bland, almost melodyless rumble, while Starr shouts over top. The whole thing sounds more like an angry speech. So, I think it makes a good anti-war song, precisely because it's not a very aesthetically pleasing piece. You can't just bop your head along to it mindlessly; you have pay attention because it's so disjointed and unsoothing.

Smooth and soothing anti-war songs, like a Bob Dylan or John Lennon tune, have never appealed to me. An anti-war song - that is, a song about war - has to match its form and style to its content. It should have "war-like" qualities - harshness, discomfort, chaos - not, as Adorno says, "consumer qualitites". An anti-war song shouldn't be a soothing and "nice" sounding song, otherwise it is, in Adorno's words, "taking the horrendous and making it somehow consumable."

The irony, for example, of taking an anti-establishment message and turning it into a consumer product, is explored in a grander way by Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter in their must-read-for-every-young-person, The Rebel Sell, in which they argue that the anti-establishment "critique of mass society" - which Adorno and others in the Frankfurt School invented - has been falsely associated with the critique of "consumer society", and that the mass society critique has actually helped fuel consumer-capitalism because in its demand to reject the "mainstream" the critique of mass society, far from slowing capitalism down, acutally drives the need for ever new, hip, and original products.

It's a subtle argument, but an important one. Confusing mass- and consumer-society fuels capitalism because, unlike "mass society", capitalism does not require conformity and uniformity of style. Just the opposite, actually. Capitalism thrives on diversity, up to and including niche markets like anti-society punk music and "underground" hip hop, selling anti-popularity to a popular audience. Ironic, yes.

So, I think Heath and Potter would agree with Adorno: they all see the inherent and self-defeating irony in taking something horrible, like war, and making into something palatable like a consumer product, a song for entertainment.

Another theorist of the neo-Marxist Frankfurt School, Walter Benjamin, who, unlike Adorno, remained in Europe throughout the late 1930s and who died, likely by suicide, while trying to escape the war-torn continent in 1940, wrote about the connection between aesthetics and politics. In the epilogue to one of his most famous essays, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction", Benjamin claimed that fascism renders politics (and by extension, war) aesthetic. Communism, by contrast, he said, responds by politicizing art.

It's a thin line, though. How can we tell the difference between art that aestheticizes politics, in the Fascist sense, and the politicized art of Communism? Can an anti-war song be considered "fascist" just because it makes "war" aesthetically pleasing? Or is it the opposite: is the anti-war song communistic and anti-authoritarian because it is a piece of art that is politicized?

I think the answer is in what I said earlier, that a song that deals with war should have some of the ugliness and anti-aesthetics of war, like Edwin Starr's anti-war anthem. If an anti-war song sounds beautiful, it negates its own message. (Making an anti-war movie is a little easier, because you can show the gruesomeness of war and not make it into a smooth and beautiful melody, although I suppose pro-war movies are just as often, if not more often, as gory as their anti-war counterparts.)

In his "Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" essay, Benjamin quotes at length from a manifesto by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, the founder of Futurism, an Italian school of art (with a strong fascist bent) that emphasized the beauty of war and the aesthetically pleasing destruction by war machinery for the purpose of "progress".

Marinetti, who was an early supporter of Mussolini, wrote a manifesto on the colonial war in Ethiopia, from which Benjamin quoted the following:

“For twenty-seven years we Futurists have rebelled against the branding of war as anti-aesthetic ... Accordingly we state:... War is beautiful because it establishes man’s dominion over the subjugated machinery by means of gas masks, terrifying megaphones, flame throwers, and small tanks. War is beautiful because it initiates the dreamt-of metalization of the human body. War is beautiful because it enriches a flowering meadow with the fiery orchids of machine guns. War is beautiful because it combines the gunfire, the cannonades, the cease-fire, the scents, and the stench of putrefaction into a symphony. War is beautiful because it creates new architecture, like that of the big tanks, the geometrical formation flights, the smoke spirals from burning villages, and many others ... Poets and artists of Futurism! ... remember these principles of an aesthetics of war so that your struggle for a new literature and a new graphic art ... may be illumined by them!”

And tenet number 9 of the original Futurist Manifesto from 1909 states: "We want to glorify war - the only cure for the world - militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of the anarchists, the beautiful ideas which kill, and contempt for woman."

Example of a Futurist painting. 'Funeral of the Anarchist Galli' by Carlo Carrà

So, as I sat in the back of the room, listening to an even-more-funked-up version of Edwin Starr's "War. What is it good for?", I thought, Adorno was right. I didn't like my friend's band's cover of the song. Not because it didn't sound good, but because it sounded too good. The best parts were the breakdowns, when they deviated completely from the original song and jammed on the instruments without singing the words. But when they came back to the lyrics, "War. What is it good for? Absolutely nothing", the sporadic and musicless gaps of the original were lost, replaced by a more soft, filled-in sound. When the gritty harshness and unaestheticness of the original, which made it a genuinely interesting anti-war song, was removed, Adorno's point was hammered home for me.

So that's my "dazzling coincidence". What do you poets and logicians think? Loathe it or love it?

I’m a rather stubborn minded individual, however if you give me the right song my will becomes more malleable than yellow PlayDough (the weakest...




It's almost become habit to compliment the quality of your articles, which is a good thing.
It's important to distinguish the anti-war song from the protest song though. I distinguish them as such: The anti-war song, is about war in general so it can range from John Lennon's "Imagine" to Starr's "War, what is it good for?" They basically make trite slogans into chants, and deal with the topic like one would deal with a love song. Now the protest song, is one that is designed to motivate made me while I'm in the middle of protest. And in this case, I think you raised a question that I've never really posed because like Theodor Adorno all protest songs, to me, have always seemed out of place and I never had to ponder on your question of what made a good protest song, when I hate all of them.
Remember when you and I were protesting high tuition costs? The song was "Drop tuition, not bombs!" The message was supposed to be that government should spend money on education rather than weaponry. But the problem was that we were to protest tuition and yet trying to tie in the ideas of war. As noble as it was to try to multi-task our protest, I think it hindered it. Because sometimes when you try to hit two birds with one stone you lose focus. Too many questions are raised by that slogan...Which war? The Afghan war? What about the fact that the Taliban inhibits education? ...The questions isn't really if you should be opposed to both high tuition and the war but whether you're diluting your message if your points aren't really related. And that's my problem with protest songs. You're not exactly protesting against something if you can't quantify what it is you object. So why distant your listener from the concrete with metaphors, similes and abstract poetic language when you really just want to say : "No more tuition hikes because students can't afford it."
Another example, is the WTO protest where students started singing "Sabotage" by the Beastie Boys. This song has all the rough-edges that you seem to require of a proper protest song but it still conflates the message of the protest because of the very fact that it's written poetically. Lines from Sabotage include:
"But Make No Mistakes And Switch Up My Channel
I'm Buddy Rich When I Fly Off The Handle"

.....what does that have to do with the WTO? If you can't see it clearly then it's not the best message to protest. Great song to listen to, but not one I want to protest along to.

As far as coincidences go, while writing you a comment I heard a great song come on TV just now and I looked it up and it turned out to be another war/protest song about the oppression of the Quebecois! It meets my standard in that it's a great song about the subject of war.. but not something you can really sing while protesting. Here it is if you're interested:



Just when you thought you had enough WordArc...Claudia and I wanted to experiment with our podcast so we chose this article as a good subject for our experimental project. Since this is not a regular podcast I didn't upload it to the site but put it on YouTube instead:



Replying to Alamir:
A few things.

Claudia says I "go against" Adorno's argument. Not really. I was actually trying to complement Adorno's claim that war songs are self-defeating - which I agree with - if they are meant as entertainment: "ringing something like consumer qualities out of it", as he said.

Now, Edwin Starr's song was obviously meant to entertain. Like Alamir pointed out, it was recorded in a studio, and it is musical. And, according to the law of subjectivity, anyone can enjoy anything. But the whole beauty-is-in-the-eye-of-the-beholder argument can be used to justify all sorts of nonsense, so I'll steer clear of that.

I thought Starr's song complimented Adorno's idea because, like I said, the song isn't pretty: it's in your face, didactic, and non-melodious. It isn't completely unmusical, otherwise it wouldn't be listenable. If you take my argument too seriously you'd have to conclude that I could only call a war song "good" if it, like war, was totally horrendous and unbearable, just as was is pretty much unbearable.

I didn't mention this in the article but I should have: during the show, when the singers sung the chorus, and the choppiness of the original was made smoother, the dancing crowd was noticeably slowed down. When the familiarity of the song went away during the musical breaks, which sounded nothing like the original, the crowd got a little more hype, forgetting the political content of the piece. Every time the didactic chorus returned the crowd slowed.

Something must switch off in people's brains - consciously or not - when a chorus like that kicks in. When you're dancing you don't want to be given a political message: you want to forget about everything serious and real and just get down. I think Edwin Starr intuited that, which is why his version is so undancible. His stuttered version jolts you out of your hypnotic dancing state and forces you pay attention to the content, and so unless you're a good mental multi-tasker - able to go mix dancing with attention paying - the contrast between unconscious dancing and sudden political message will show up as awkwardness on the dance floor. That's why I called it a "genuinely interesting" anti-war song: because it seem to me to be anti-dance as well.

Claudia used the word "dissonance", which is a word I should have used to describe the kind of anti-war music that I was talking about. I'm a big form over content guy, so when I listen to a song or read a book or watch a movie I'm never very impressed unless the artist can convey the content of what they're saying using just the form of their medium. So that's why I'm impressed by Starr's song.

I was only making a general point about protest songs, and not one that was supposed to be "agreed with" or "argued against". There was nothing absolute about anything I was saying. There are, plainly, exceptions to everything I said, and there are no clear answers to any of the questions I raised, only more and less interesting discussions about them.

Certainly most of the anti-establishment music over the years is not soothing and catchy and mindless, like radio pop songs. Think of punk and hardcore hip hop, or anything by Frank Zappa, who was one of the most politically astute musicians of the last century. Zappa was anything but soothing to the listener, because his content was also anything but soothing. It's mostly cultural and political satire.

Of course anti-war songs come in all shapes and sizes: some are soft, some rough, some intelligent, some mindless. My main concern, like Adorno and Benjamin's, was the aestheticization and commercialization of war by means, ironically enough, of anti-war, protest songs.

I have another artist that I can cite to add to this, but I think I'll make a short article about it.

Thanks again for podcasting on one of my pieces.



You write interesting pieces that we can't help but want to touch on. Thanks for the response.



What if (1) Someone who is disgusted by war is moved to write a song - and the song comes from a genuine anti-war sentiment? What ought they do? Never publish it? What if war outrages them and they have no other way to express themselves? Also, what if (2) a band were to create a song which, though popular, were to embody the chaos of war, rather than trying to make it beautiful (System of a down, B.Y.O.B.; The jarring time-signature changes do not make the song melodic or soothing)

Are these anti-war songs, or what Alamir calls protest songs



Replying to Jackson:
Either I don't explain myself very well, or I'm being held to standards which I don't think apply to my point.

Of course you can find little exceptions to everything I say about war songs, but that misses my larger and more interesting point, which was a political and aesthetic one, not a strictly logical one.

I'm never interested in a "But what about this, eh? How about that? Ever think of that?" kind of reply. It leads nowhere. Nowhere except the next article I'm going to have to write dealing with all this...



Then it lead somewhere wonderful...

My extension was going to be that almost all anti-war songs are likely generated in this way; I do think this first question applies to many anti-war songs (not just a few random exceptions)

I also think that your article suggests that no anti-war-songs are fruitful; is it the case that no anti-war song has value once it becomes part of pop-culture? Is it a song's fault that it is well liked?



Replying to Jackson:
I didn't suggest that no anti-war song had value; what about my generous treatment of Edwin Starr's song? I said it was a "genuinely interesting" song because it wasn't soothing and beautiful, just as war isn't soothing and beautiful, at least not to a Futurist.

Now to write that article...

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