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Monday, November 27, 2017

November 27, 2017: 80s AlbumStudying: Brothers in Arms and War

[November 30th marks the 35th anniversary of the release of Michael Jackson’s Thriller, one of the most popular and influential 1980s albums. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of such albums, including Jackson’s and other greats from the decade. I’d love your AlbumStudying thoughts, on these or any others, in comments!]
A (slightly revised) repeat post that sadly rings just as true today as it did six and a half years ago when I originally published it.
On my drive in to Fitchburg State this morning I was listening to Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms (1984), one of the greatest rock albums of the 1980s (or any other time) but also a very interestingly divided one. The songs (and in the first case also the music video) that made the album a huge hit and have continued to have a significant ongoing presence in our musical consciousness, a list that would definitely include “Money for Nothing” and “Walk of Life” and probably “So Far Away” as well, are drawn pretty much entirely from the album’s first half (well, the first 5 of its 9 total songs). The album’s final four songs, in contrast, form more of an extended vignette, set in what feels like a warring African nation (although the exact setting could be Central America, Southeast Asia, or a number of other regions), featuring strong and complex first-person voices narrating their stories of war and community and poverty and much else.

All four of those songs are really rich and interesting, but certainly the fourth and final one, the album’s title track “Brothers in Arms,” is the most beautiful and powerful. The beauty, particularly of the lead guitar work but also of the epic music in general, both contrasts and yet ultimately complements the song’s story and themes: the speaker is another soldier and one who, by the song’s end, is dying, never to return to the home which he has left for his wartime service with his comrades; yet his perspective and emphasis in the final verse shift the meaning of the title community in hugely significant ways: “Now the sun’s gone to hell / And the moon’s riding high / Let me bid you farewell / Every man has to die / But it’s written in the starlight / And every line on your palm / We’re fools to make war / On our brothers in arms.” This culminating image of the warring factions as a house divided, as fraternally bonded despite these foolish yet very fatal conflicts, might seem clichéd, but in context—both within what the song has built to and within this four-song vignette as a whole—the moment feels anything but; it feels, instead, like an idealized but deeply moving and in fact fundamentally true vision of a human community and family that is far more unified than our actions and beliefs tend to reflect.

So where does this all fit into an analysis or understanding of our current [ED: as of March 2011, but feel free to extrapolate to Syria or wherever else you choose] military actions in Libya, the contemporary and historical context against which I was listening to these songs this morning? Far from simply, that’s for sure. On the one hand, as I wrote in this post on the Dresden firebombing and Slaughterhouse-Five, any and all wars become much more difficult to support and even wage if we view the civilians (and soldiers) of the opposing nation(s) as even fully and comparably human, much less our brothers and sisters. But on the other hand, a foreign policy driven by humanitarian concerns becomes, it seems to me, vitally necessary with precisely that same shift in perspective—it was, after all, the Libyan government that had begun making very brutal war on members of its own national and human family, and for one of the world’s most powerful militaries to stand by and allow such human crises and brutalities to unfold (whether in Libya, in the Ivory Coast, in Darfur, or wherever else) does not sit well with any vision of an international human family.
I don’t have any answers to such questions, and indeed I don’t know that there are any good answers (a recognition of which would go a long way toward silencing the vocal and to my mind oversimplifying critiques of the Obama administration from a variety of political perspectives). But certainly any AmericanStudier’s perspective has to admit that far too often we Americans have failed to view even our fellow citizens—much less others around the world—as our brothers and sisters; and that the times when we have been at our best have often been precisely those moments when we have been able to see and respond to such connections, at home and abroad. Next AlbumStudying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other ‘80s albums you’d highlight and analyze?

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