Departmental Theme: The Music of [In]security

Marconi "Velvet Tone" Phonograph Record Sleeve - 1907

As part of our department’s 2013-2014 theme, we’ve compiled a collaborative Spotify playlist containing songs that relate to notions of security and insecurity. Today, we feature a few of those selections introduced by members of our departmental community, who opine on the relationships between sound and security. So kick your Wednesday off with some tunes and a little fancy scholarly footwork that sheds a little more light on some well-known (or not-so-well-known) favorites. The depth of some of these songs may surprise you. Enjoy.

And, if you’re a Spotify user, be sure to subscribe to the playlist at the link above.

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Martha Reeves & The Vandellas, “Nowhere To Run” (1965)

Ostensibly about the difficulty of walking away from a bad relationship, the jarringly upbeat “Nowhere to Run” is more of a ghost story.  The phantom lover haunts dreams, the bathroom mirror, and other people’s faces.  Reeves knows its time to go, but she can’t find a way out.  GIs took over the song as a metaphor for the quagmire of Vietnam.  Today, considering the quagmire of bankrupt Detroit, the Vandellas’ joyous romp through an auto plant in their promotional video offers an almost spectral image of a distant, happier past. - Dr. Karl Hagstrom Miller

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Steve Earle, “Rich Man’s War” (2004)

Steve Earle makes an appearance on the list. His “Rich Man’s War” is part of the most recent incarnation of Earle—a songwriter with politics on the sleeve and class consciousness in the heart. But it makes me think of an earlier, Appalachian-inspired Steve Earle—that of the “Copperhead Road,” bootlegging, fast cars, and law-breaking days. That Steve Earle had it the other way around, class on the sleeve and politics in the noisy heartbeat underneath. To my ears, both bring more layers to the question of security/insecurity. To “Are we secure or are we insecure?” Earle adds, “Did we build this prison ourselves?” and “How do we get out of this cycle?” As his “Satellite Radio” puts it: “Is there anybody listening to earth tonight?” Because it might just be us who are here to figure it all out. - Dr. Elizabeth Engelhardt

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Bruce Cockburn, “If I Had a Rocket Launcher” (1984)

Don’t bring a knife to a gunfight.   Everything about Cockburn’s piece screams the eighties—from its cheesy keyboard patches to its scathing critique of the US pursuit of the strategy of supposedly “low intensity conflict” in Central America.  The pacifist folkie’s mounting frustration leads to dreams of high-powered vigilantism two years after the first Rambo movie and two years before the Iran-Contra affair made Ollie North a household name. - Dr. Karl Hagstrom Miller

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Jeff Buckley, “Grace” (1994)

Jeff Buckley’s “Grace,” the title track from the artist’s only self-released album, embodies the emotional volatility of nineties alternative rock. At once a driving hard rock anthem and a surprisingly tender expression of a man’s resignation to his own demise, “Grace” is a nexus among uncertainty, alienation, and shrill-but-powerful panic stoked when death knocks at the door. Such themes are well at home in the disaffected Gen-X musical world also inhabited by the pre-emo likes of Nirvana and Pearl Jam. But fear not. That messy snarl of ostensibly inevitable misery is ameliorated, at least in part, by the power of love (no Back to the Future allusion intended, although Marty McFly certainly had reason to feel insecure). Much as love provides some semblance of stability, the raw finality of death is, sez Buckley, perhaps the greatest source of security we can hope for. - Carrie Andersen

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Loretta Lynn, “Who Says God is Dead?” (1968)

The coal-miner’s daughter takes on Friedrich Nietzsche.  “Who says God is dead?  I’m talking with him now.” In 1966, Time magazine published an infamous “God is Dead” cover story that cited the 19th-century philosopher while reporting on the increasing secularism and atheism in the United States.  Loretta Lynn wasn’t having it. Lynn reasserts her unwavering faith, her personal relationship with God, and her refusal to believe the mainstream media—complete with chicken picking guitar and a countripolitan Nashville choir. - Dr. Karl Hagstrom Miller

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Hayden, “Lonely Security Guard” (2002)

I was a security guard for about a year (the art museum preferred to call us “gallery attendants”) and it was the easiest, most mind-numbing job I’ve ever had. There didn’t seem to be many requirements beyond passing a drug test and the ability to remain standing for hours at a time. I’d like to think that we were capable workers who stood guard over priceless Rembrandts and Van Goghs, but probably people thought of us as little more than the art museum equivalent of Paul Blart: Mall Cop.

Hayden (Paul Desser) takes a jocular, almost sympathetic view of one security guard in particular. This lonely guard passes time by creating origami: “with his hands and an old receipt he makes a swan so real it breathes.” He fixates on his paper creations at the expense of actually performing his duties which the narrator sees as ineptness and an opportunity to attempt shoplifting. He is emboldened by the inattention of the security guard (“So I grabbed the first thing I saw and walked right out the front door”) but the would-be thief soon finds he has made a mistake: “But he had just made a paper sword and threw me right down on the floor / And everyone standing near that store witnessed a one-sided war.”

The song is bookended by two very different observations about the security guard. Both agree that he “looks so mean from afar,” but the narrator’s original assertion of the security guard’s harmlessness (“he could not hurt a flea”) has turned into a genuine fear: “When you get up close you’ll see / that he’s no cup of tea.” The security guard, butt of jokes and unfavorable stereotypes, has won this round. - Brendan Gaughen

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The sounds of surveillance

What does surveillance sound like? I wish it sounded like The Clash’s “London Calling”—a distortion-pedal retort to the dehumanization of the control society. Politically and musically, that would be lovely. But I fear the cryptic tonality of the surveillance assemblage is best captured by something less heroically hopeful, something that is not on our department’s wonderful list of surveillance songs. What I’m imagining is the generically dulcet tones of Muzak. Consider the weird echoes between these seemingly distant forms. Like surveillance, Muzak is often present but unnoticed as we move through public space. Like surveillance, Muzak is an institutional presence at the edge of consciousness, a bit of electronic infrastructure designed to promote certain behaviors and affective states (for example, one encourages a pleasant orgy of consumption in a shopping center, while the other ramps up tension to flush out criminality). Both are aesthetically uninspired, whether it’s the dulling pleasantness of “The Girl from Ipanema” lurking in the sonic underbrush of the mall or the gawking ugliness of plastic CCTV cameras (not to mention depressed security guards wobbling past the Orange Julius on their Segways). I’m starting to wonder: maybe surveillance is the Muzak of the 21st century—the banal, quietly soul-crushing soundtrack of our lives? If only Joe Strummer were here to sing about that. - Dr. Randy Lewis

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The Mountain Goats, “In the Craters on the Moon” (2008)

Since their early days making low-fi home recordings on a boombox, The Mountain Goats have had a penchant for making music about regret, domestic unease (or outright distress), and places both glorious and inglorious. “In the Craters on the Moon,” off their Heretic Pride album of 2008, features further forays into the geography of fear and resignation with the first verse and chorus intoning, “If the light hurts your eyes / Stay in your room all day / When the room fills with smoke / Lie down on the floor / In the declining years / Of the long war.” As it turns out, Mountain Goats songwriter John Darnielle and comic book artist Jeffery Lewis made a comic explaining each song on Heretic Pride (check it out here). Darnielle had the following to say about In the Craters on the Moon: “It is the natural condition of my characters, when a few of them have gathered together, to find themselves secluded in a near-lightless room waiting for some unspecified disaster. Frankly I suspect that this is the natural condition of a pretty hefty percentage of the general populace. The people in this song have reached a point of comfort with their dread; ready for panic to set in, relishing the moment.” I can’t think of a better description of life in a surveillance state amidst the smoke of NSA mass data collection than living in a near-lightless room waiting for an unspecified disaster. - Emily Roehl

This is a song that raises more questions than it answers. It begins with a sparse guitar and drum, gradually accompanied by a haunting violin, before building to a crescendo around the two-minute mark and then quieting again. Each short four line stanza seems to be about giving up and being powerless against stronger forces, though it’s unclear from whose perspective the story is told.

One can interpret the song as a commentary on America’s recent involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, describing “blind desert rats in the moonlight / too far from shore.” This interpretation gives certain lines additional meaning. “When the room fills with smoke / lie down on the floor” reads like something out of a military manual and “Empty room with a light bulb where the phone starts to ring / everybody gets nervous, nobody says anything” may hint at torture. Regardless, the song remains pessimistic throughout, nearly closing with the line “Ugly things in the darkness, worse things in store.”

These suggestions all come “in the declining years of the long war,” but whose war? Are these suggestions are directed at those who are in the midst of a political conflict or an internal emotional crisis? The rhetorical vagueness allows the listener to imagine a multitude of situations, each of them foreboding. Whether the song is about a dirty war or emotional paralysis, “In the Craters of the Moon” draws the listener into some dark and very insecure places. - Brendan Gaughen

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Laurie Anderson, “O Superman (For Massenet)” (1981)

A meditation on the threat, alienation, and warmth of technology, “O Superman” became a surprise charting single in 1981.  The looped backing track can sound like an intimate whisper or anxious hyperventilation, depending on your mood.  There are planes and answering machines, mistaken identities and the military industrial complex.  But don’t worry.  Even when love, justice, and force have been exhausted, there is still Mom. Hi, Mom! - Dr. Karl Hagstrom Miller

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MC5, “Let Me Try” (1970)

The voice of “Let Me Try” sees the other, the vulnerable subject, and wants to protect her. The slow, creepy crawl-along of the jangly rock rhythm guitar, the crooning of the Mc5’s Rob Tyner, and the frenetic begging chorus construct a lullaby whose music enacts the movement of a cradle to convince her that he can soothe her pain. But the care promised, which begins as a mutually beneficial symbiosis, gives way to a lurking appropriation in this pleading offer: transubstantiation. The protection he begs to provide comes at a steep price, and the leveling fire marks the subject’s loss of autonomy and agency. The song ends with an easy “la da da da,” calming her as she disappears into him; the consequence of accepting his security. - Julie Kantor

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Deltron 3030, “Virus” (2000)

In high school, I knew I was a huge nerd who liked rap. I also knew there were concept albums that were largely reserved for rock-and-roll, 1970s baby-boomer types. Bumping Deltron 3030 in my first car was a kind of liberation. On ‘Virus,’ Deltron, AKA Del the Funky Homo Sapien, AKA Teren Delvon Jones, proposes a plot to do away with all manner of global capitalism. It was heaven sent, especially since there were lots of references to computer science concepts. He considers the consequences of his actions, but ultimately, he surmises it is much more reasonable to shut society down compared to our miserable (soon to be?) corporate existence.

“The last punks walk around like masked monks
Ready to manipulate the data base and break through em
Human rights come in a hundredth place
Mass production has always been number one
New Earth has become a repugnant place
So its time to spread the fear and the thunder some”

The Deltron 3030 hypermodern, space-rap form of dissent is much more optimistic: ex-mech operator takes matters into his own hands after space stations and trans-galactic corps. create global apartheid. It seemed pretty plausible to me. Plus this sort of dystopian future is a lot more slamming thanks to Dan the Automator’s production:

“I want to make a super virus
Strong enough to cause blackouts in every single metropolis
Cuz they don’t wanna unify us
So fuck it total anarchy
Can’t nobody stop us”

Now that’s autonomy! - Robert Oxford

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Sheena Easton, “Morning Train (9 to 5)” (1980)

A breathless ode to the security of full-time employment in the age in deindustrialization.  Her baby goes to work.  Every day.  This enables him to afford to take the singer to restaurants.  They go to the movies.  It is unclear if Easton’s character has a job of her own or if she waits at home each day, but is clear that it took the economic malaise of the era to make a steady commuter job sound as sexy as it does in this song. - Dr. Karl Hagstrom Miller

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Descendents, “Suburban Home” (1982)

“I want to be stereotyped. I want to be classified.” Spoken in a deadpan voice, these are the first two lines to the Descendents’ “Suburban Home.” The song uses an ironic narrator who claims to want everything he actually detests – to be classified, to be a clone, to be masochistic, to be a statistic. Rejecting (or pretending to reject) the punk ethos of austerity, the narrator claims, “I don’t want no hippie pad, I want a house just like mom and dad!” Growing up in the suburban expanse of Los Angeles’ South Bay, Descendents’ bass player Tony Lombardo (who wrote the song) recognized the upward aspiration of his parents’ generation and a certain level of comfort and security attained through possessions – the job, the house, and the predictable lifestyle that goes along with it. Written and recorded while still in his teens, Suburban Home is partly a playful jab at what he saw as misguided ambition and partly an excuse to underachieve.

The song starts side B of their first full-length album, whose title itself, Milo Goes to College, suggests the possibility of financial security in Reagan’s America achieved through higher education. The group went on hiatus from 1983-85 while lead singer Milo Aukerman left for college (he would later earn a doctorate in biology from UC San Diego), which seems to suggest they actually did believe in the importance of education. In barely a minute and a half, “Suburban Home” jokingly critiques the notion of security through consumption and conformity. Ironic though it may be, it ultimately fails to undermine what Lombardo saw as the self-absorbed ambitions of suburban homeowners. - Brendan Gaughen

One comment on “Departmental Theme: The Music of [In]security

  1. That Martha and The Vandellas video is so funny! delightful…despite the sentiment, nothing produced by early Motown records could be anything other than joyful…Laurie Anderson though..as a kid I found that record TERRIFYING…and still do! ..:/

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