Friday, September 11, 2009

I've got a fever, and the only prescription is more pharmakon

The following clip is simultaneously moving and deeply, deeply troubling. What you’ll see is a montage of clips, the first third of which depict stock images of Americana—football and such. Then, at roughly the 1:35 mark, you’ll see 9/11 footage of United Airlines Flight 175 crashing into the World Trade Center. All of this is set to the track “A Song for Our Fathers” by the post-rock group Explosions in the Sky.

What’s moving about the clip is that it does a fair job of making a fairly sophisticated political statement about American foreign policy. It also, according to the gloss on youtube, was apparently a class project (grade unknown—to me, at least). In that context, I’d happily give the students credit.

What’s troubling about the clip is that it frames its politics in terms of 9/11—that event is literally and grotesquely the catalyst here—and in doing so soundtracks those politics with EITS’s music. Explosions have been notoriously linked to 9/11 in ways that are flat out wrong. Absolutely wrong. Click here for the poison. And here for the antidote. Sure, the band’s name absolutely demands this type of historicizing, but it’s still unsettling to see how even in an era where nearly open access to media—and the ability to manipulate it—doesn’t always seem to result in increased awareness of what information is actually being manipulated—in short what is true and what isn’t. Certainly there are larger theoretical questions circulating here about the nature of truth and representation, and I’d be happy to see people put pressure on those questions in the comments section. But in this case, the tendency to mythologize EITS as a 9/11 band does them and 9/11 a disservice, I would argue.

What brought all of this up was an attempt to look for a clip of Explosions performing “Catastrophe and the Cure,” a song that presents a dialectical clash between opposite musical dynamics. The title obviously does the same. I intended to place that clip up here as a way of inciting discussion about social and class conflict, and the ways that these issues are at the heart of virtually any discussion of 9/11/01, whether its anniversary remains a day of mourning or a day of service. My general academic interests lie in the ways in which cultural concerns like class conflict weave their way into the sonic fabric of popular music. However, once I typed Explosions’ name into youtube’s search bar, I got a hit for this video, the image of the burning Trade Center ominously gleaming outward from my computer screen.

Despite my initial frustration, I persevered, and I ultimately found the clip for which I was searching. I’ll be curious to hear what people think about it in light of this broader context. Does the song—musically and performatively—provide a corrective to the tensions of the class project clip? Does the band seem particularly political? Does the song seem political? What conflicts—cultural or otherwise—are presented here (if any are)?


  1. Based on this blog post alone, they seem like a political band. The song titles are vaguely political, anyway. But except for some strange coincidences in their discography, I wouldn't think to group their songs with other songs and art which deal explicitly with 9/11 and the war on terror-- like Kaki King's "Can the GWOT Save Us?" which is another rock song without lyrics. When bands like Explosions and Kaki King pick titles for their lyricless songs, they have the power to choose how specific they want to be, and Explosions chooses broader themes.

    In her DeLillo class, Professor Soltan attributed the eerie cover of Underworld to the author having his finger on the pulse of American culture, and it seems to me the same applies to Explosions in the Sky.

  2. Also, like the poetry of Leonard Nimoy (link below), the video montage is both cliche and incoherent. Its choice of music is the least of its problems.

  3. Carolyn,

    DeLillo is a good point of reference here. The cover to Underworld, not to mention the plot (all filled with references to nuclear bombs), is unnerving. What I wonder about here is appropriation: EITS have explicitly denied any links to 9/11, but yet they still get pegged as a 9/11 band. Whereas Underworld was deliberate in its depictions of death in late capitalist, consumer America, the link between EITS and 9/11 is more coicidental--perhaps uncanny--than anything else. Therefore, I still wonder how we "properly" historicize them, or as you rightfully point out, other instrumental bands that refuse to speak, particularly when, as the gloss on Nimoy suggests, "the only option is to quote." How do we quote properly (or at all) in the absence of language?

  4. Haha! And yeah, I don't have a clue about how to do a close reading of musical texts that don't have English lyrics, or at least explanatory titles. I started interning at Smithsonian Folkways this week, and one of the first conversations I had with my supervisor was about how the Bardic Divas of Central Asia compilation was great, but I just can't contextualize it. Her response? Get used to it. At least it has informative liner notes.
    Also, we can quote music, just not in language. And we can quote Alex Ross.