Friday, May 09, 2008

Surfing with Joseph Arthur.

So, my hipster friend, you went to South by Southwest and you're a friggin' trapstar, while I have not left the house in months. And did you see Joseph Arthur? Did you see him sing this song? It's called "Rages of Babylon" and it's (drumroll...) a Protest Song About Iraq!

You might expect that there'd be lots of current songs likening Iraq to Babylon, and you'd be absolutely wrong. Not to say there aren't lots of songs about "Babylon," because they emerge, hot and steady, like a flow of burbling oil from beneath the sandy ground of collective unconscious. It's just that, by and large, they have nothing to do with Iraq. Mr. Arthur's song is an anomaly. (Well, OK, there's Lili Haydn. And Sheryl Crow, sort of... but only sort of.)

Where exactly is this "Babylon" that people keep writing songs about? It depends. Sometimes it depends on your genre. For instance, if you're a rock 'n' roll band that someone would conceivably describe as "rock 'n' roll," Babylon is likely a land of 24/7 debauchery, where cocaine and vomit and virgins that YOU DEFLOWERED all mingle together into some unholy mess, maybe on the floor of a temple. Think of this as the Faster Pussycat/Dolls/Turbonegro nexus.

If, on the other hand, you're a rock 'n' roll band that nobody would conceivably describe as "rock 'n' roll", and you blow your per diems on issues of Artforum, you probably see Babylon as a dead civilization or as hell. If you're honest (which you are... unrelentingly), you'll find this dead civilization/hell inside your own heart. Bands in this category include Rainbow, Celtic Frost, and Symphony X.

BUT--if you're a rock 'n' roll band that people describe as "freestyle" and you're Pajama Party, your take on Babylon is visionary and defies interpretation. You're like Herman Hesse or the Yahwist. You titled this blog. Thanks!

If you're a Rasta, you're not reading this, but everyone who is reading it is an integral cog in the Babylon machine. Don't worry, they'll soon be destroyed! If you're a mainline Christian singing a setting of Psalm 137 ("By the Rivers of Babylon"), Babylon is whichever oppressive society oppresses mainline Christians-- because, let's face it, you're just as oppressed as any impoverished descendent of the Middle Passage! Watch out, though. If you're Sinead O'Connor singing Psalm 137, Babylon is mainline Christianity. And if you're Boney M singing Psalm 137, your take on Babylon is visionary and defies interpretation.

As you may have guessed from all those choices, Mr. Arthur's more literal approach is just about the least interesting option available. It's a pretty tune, and disrupted family life is always a good angle for a protest song, but this one just seems to sit there. For one thing, there's no image as immediately affecting as Springsteen singing "Too much room in my bed, and too many phone calls" in "You're Missing" (for example). So the narrator's intimacy never really hits home.

But then, it's hard to tell whether he was going for intimacy. I mean, he did call the song "Rages of Babylon" and not "Rages of Iraq." ("Doooooo you know who has got yer back/ Throuuuuugh the rages of this Iraq?") ("Rages of This Iraq" would be much better, you're right.) He obviously wanted to stick in some metaphorical heft, to make this thing resonate beyond our current skirmish and speak to the ages. So ultimately, I'm disappointed he didn't run with the metaphor and appeal to "Babylon" in the larger sense of any of the above uses. From this song, all we learn about Babylon is that it's sandy and unpleasant for American soldiers--which I'm guessing is also the case with Iraq.

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