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Having recently seen the 1984 BBC TV film Threads (which set out to expose the fallacy of “winning” a nuclear war in the most numbingly brutal terms possible) and being left feeling haunted and slightly traumatized for days afterwards, I was wondering - what piece of message-art really rams its point home for you? —Simon
I think I brought this up in “songs that make us cry” or some other mixlist of days gone by, but Elvis Presley’s “In The Ghetto” has always stood out for me as an incredibly unsubtle, overly obvious message piece that still has a strong emotional impact, and makes a real and cogent point about the cycle of deprivation and desperation leading to violence. In fact, maybe it wouldn’t work if it was subtler, or if Elvis held back vocally instead of singing like he’s about to burst into uncontrolled weeping at any second.
During the ’80s, pop culture was packed with horrifying reminders that the end of the world was only a button’s push away at any given moment, causing so much residual anxiety that it’s no wonder so many of us who came of age during that era are on Xanax today. Yes, I was one of those kids who had nightmares the day after watching The Day After. Even more affecting, however, was the animated motion picture When The Wind Blows. I didn’t actually see the film until sometime in the 2000s, by which point it no longer felt like nuclear armageddon was right around the corner, but it nonetheless managed to bring back a lot of those dormant fears with the way it showed an elderly British couple, voiced by Sir John Mills and Dame Peggy Ashcroft, surviving a nuclear attack, keeping a stiff upper lip, and ultimately succumbing to radiation poisoning anyway. The moral of the story, which originated from a graphic novel by Raymond Briggs, is ultimately the same as all such stories of the era—there are no winners in a nuclear war—but few offered such a bleak, depressing, and painfully realistic ending as this one.
I suspect 1983’s made-for-TV movie The Day After has the same message as Threads, Simon, with a similarly brutal message. The film stars Jason Robards, JoBeth Williams, Steve Guttenberg, and John Lithgow as people whose lives intersect after nuclear war breaks out between the Soviet Union and the United States. Sure, there are images of mushroom clouds and all that, but The Day After is most chilling when it depicts the banalities of everyday life after the nuclear apocalypse. It’s also relentlessly bleak, as we watch these people graphically atrophy, physically and mentally—and, in some cases, die painfully and/or violently. The film’s message couldn’t be more obvious, but just in case viewers missed the subtleties of the mushroom clouds, the filmmakers added scrolling text before the credits, saying “It is hoped that the images of this film will inspire the nations of this earth, their peoples and leaders, to find the means to avert this fateful day.” It worked; President Reagan described the film as “very effective” in his diary, and said it left him “greatly depressed.” (When his advisors later briefed him on U.S. nuclear-war planning—and insisted such a war would be winnable—Reagan wrote “I thought they were crazy.”) “Greatly depressed” is almost the best you can hope for after watching The Day After, because as unsubtle as its message is, it remains tremendously effective, even when the Cold War seems like a lifetime ago. It’s still goddamn brutal to watch—even though my collegiate loyalties as a Mizzou grad had me sniggering about Lawrence, Kansas, getting blown to smithereens. (Serves you right, Jayhawks.)
I find a lot about Pulp’s “Common People” annoying—especially Jarvis Cocker’s smug tone as he presumes to speak up for the underclass in the face of a slumming Greek tourist—but I can’t deny that the song leaves me trembling with righteous rage every time I hear it. Partly that’s a function of the slowly building music, and Cocker’s vocal performance, which starts below a whisper and builds to a furious yelp. But though I quibble with Cocker’s insistence that the poor live their lives with “no meaning or control,” I feel his frustration with those who lionize poverty, but could never handle real want. In fact, I think about “Common People” every time I hear rich politicians hail the “good people” of “the real America” while they’re busy slashing the funding for the health care, education, and infrastructure that keep the rural U.S. from sliding into complete backwaterdom.
I felt slightly ashamed that I identified so much with Catherine Keener’s character (and to a lesser extent, Sarah Steele’s) in Please Give. Granted, I don’t have the kind of disposable income Keener’s character had in the movie, nor does my pursuit of happiness hinge upon waiting for someone else’s loved one to die, but I am familiar with the concept of liberal guilt, that impotent feeling of “I don’t deserve this” that sometimes clashes with “But why shouldn’t I enjoy it?”, especially when it comes to the profits made from a career that you’re passionate about, but that other people see as frivolous. Five dollars to a homeless man might be generous, but what would really be generous would be donating the money for your vacation, or in her case, the apartment expansion. Meanwhile, as a kid, I’ve also felt the double-edged sword of receiving a gift from generous parents who also want to give you a little pinch to make sure you’re not taking it for granted. Identifying with the movie in and of itself makes me feel guilty, which is part of the reason I found it so effective. (Yet somehow still enjoyable, which should probably make me feel worse.)
You could spend a weekend arguing about the best so-called “protest songs” of Bob Dylan (a phrase he himself has disowned and disavowed). Some reference people and places so specifically that wide application isn’t possible, while others are so vague that their true meaning can be muddled. In the sweet spot between those extremes sits “Masters Of War,” a song marked by its unambiguous lyrics and fearsome anger. With a melody adapted from the traditional English folk song “Nottamun Town,” Dylan builds his case against government officials and war profiteers verse upon verse, upping the ante with each stanza. While written about the buildup of nuclear arms during the Cold War, Dylan’s message resonates just as strongly today as it did when written nearly 50 years ago. The final verse, in which he professes the desire to stand over their grave in order to verify their deaths, is among the angriest in his entire lyrical canon. It’s a howl of rage that plays in my mind each time I see politicians putting soldiers at risk for the sake not of the country, but for the stability of some company’s bottom line.
When it comes to message songs, it’s hard to get less subtle than “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash And The Furious Five. Subtlety, though, isn’t the point. Snapped into one of the most chilling and indelible synth/beat locksteps in pop history, MC Melle Mel spits out verse after grim verse of social ills, urban decay, and the psychological trauma they inflict. And that’s where “The Message” perversely soars. Place it within all the Reagan-this, Reagan-that context you want; by making it brutally personal, “The Message” transcends the glib sloganeering and detached analysis of many message songs. “Don’t push me, ’cause I’m close to the edge / I’m trying not to lose my head,” raps Mel in the chorus, in the one line even your grandmother remembers. But in the song’s video, he isn’t directing that rage outward—he’s pretending to put a gun to his head, laughing coldly.
If I could put one documentary in a time capsule, it would be Shoah, Claude Lanzmann’s towering, shattering nine-plus-hours of Holocaust testimony. But there was one recent film whose message caught me by surprise, remains incredibly timely, and is constantly in my thoughts: The Tillman Story. Pat Tillman was an NFL safety for the Arizona Cardinals who left football for the Army and was killed by friendly fire. But initially, the military falsely reported his death as having resulted from enemy combat, ostensibly so they could glorify it as propaganda. The movie painstakingly delineates top-ranking officials’ unsavory intentions, but also introduces us to the Tillmans, a remarkable family of rugged intellectuals and true patriots who never went off-message in their successful pursuit of truth, justice, and honor for their son. Even if that meant Pat’s father, Pat Sr., closing out a letter to high-level Army investigators with the signature, “Fuck you and yours.” Inspiring, must-see stuff.
Since seemingly everyone else was horribly scarred by a nuclear-war film released in the ’80s, I won’t talk about how haunting I found 1982’s Testament (with a great, rarely discussed Jane Alexander performance that was nominated for an Oscar, then promptly forgotten about). Instead, I’ll go back to early 2001, when I first watched Do The Right Thing. Spike Lee’s terrific film, the movie that really broke him through to the mainstream, punctured my Midwestern white-kid bubble. Having grown up in South Dakota, I didn’t know any black people. Hell, I barely knew any non-white people. But Do The Right Thing deposited me in a neighborhood that had many of the same rhythms of the small town I grew up in, the kind of place that was warm, friendly, and filled with colorful characters. And yet at all times, the threat of discrimination, of unchecked prejudice, hung over the proceedings, even over the lighter portions of the film. The film’s shocking climax was something I couldn’t wrap my head around. Why couldn’t the characters just talk it out? But by thinking about it and discussing it with friends, I started to think about the fact that there were people born without the advantages I had, which contributed to a long journey toward changing my own politics.
Is it possible to be more direct than writing a song with the line “Save the babies”? Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On lays it all on the line, first track to last, offering an impassioned plea for the world to wake up to the problems of racism, poverty, ecological disaster, war, drugs, and other threats. As commentary, it’s as on-the-nose as on-the-nose gets, but Gaye’s impassioned delivery and newfound artistic ambition put it across: It comes from the early-’70s moment when Motown’s biggest stars were able to take the reins of their own careers. The album is as stirring (and, sadly, as timely) today as it was in 1971. There’s a lot of nuance to its bluntness, too. It’s the relaxed delivery of “Flyin’ High (In The Friendly Sky)” that makes its depiction of an addict’s plight so haunting.