Everyone carries a room about inside them. —Franz Kafka
With the passing this week of former US Secretary of State Colin Powell, I started thinking about the ways we look back on the war in Iraq. In 2005, when asked about his memories of his ill-fated UN speech justifying an invasion, Powell described them as “painful”. Indeed, everyone carries a room about inside them. For something different this week, I’d like to suggest exploring Iraq and war through the memories not just of military men but of musicians.
My first pick is British composer Max Richter whose music you might have heard featured on movie soundtracks such as Waltz with Bashir, Prometheus and Arrival. Richter wrote The Blue Notebooks (2004) in the lead-up to the 2003 Iraq War as a “protest album”, inspired by the idea of music “as a place to think.” Of note, the album’s “On the Nature of Daylight” (featured above and linked here) is a 7-minute sea of melancholy harmony and stately beauty. Richter has said he thinks of the piece as “a meditation on violence and its repercussions.”
In 2016, when the British public enquiry into the war was finally published (we know it as the Chilcot Review), Richter penned a Guardian op-ed. In it, he reflects on the demonstrations against the invasion, the war’s aftermath and what he sees as Tony Blair’s continuing evasion of responsibility. For Richter, Blair’s actions continue to “insult the memory of those hundreds of thousands whose lives were taken.” Looking back on the 13 years between the article and his composition of The Blue Notebooks, he says:
When I perform The Blue Notebooks now, it seems at once familiar and strange. Time has passed; I am a different person but the events of 2003 and their aftermath still resonate daily. All of us were changed during that political moment, but I remain convinced that human creativity can influence the world, or at the very least our perception of it, in some small way.
The second suggestion is the Iraqi singer Kadim Al Sahir, one of the country’s biggest acts and famed throughout the Arab world, whose 2006 song “Baghdad Tata la elami” (“Baghdad Don’t Hurt”, above and linked here) became an “anthem of Iraqi suffering.” Even if you don’t understand Arabic, the yearning and heartbreak in Al Sahir’s voice project the anguish around him with more conviction than his lyrics ever could. A must-listen for his raw emotion, accompanied by the lush, sombre waves of Middle Eastern and Western stringed instruments.
The Iraqi singer’s devotion to his country has been long woven into his music, including in his most popular songs. In “Beauty and His Love” Al Sahir confesses to his girlfriend of someone he loves more than her, someone who fills his dreams: Baghdad. In February 2003, he toured the US to ”show another face of my country” and inspire Americans to ”think good thoughts—not all bad thoughts—of my people.” While he no longer lives in his motherland, in a 2020 interview with Vogue Man, Al Sahir’s devotion to his mission remains clear:
I carried Iraq with me to the most remote corners of the world through my voice, drawing the best picture of it so people can understand that Iraq doesn’t deserve war.
Ending on a high-energy note—and crank the volume for this—my last pick is US rock band Green Day and their 2004 hit “American Idiot” (above and linked here), inspired by their disgust with cable news coverage of the Iraq War. While some of the lyrics aren’t—unlike Wu-Tang—for the children, the song is a punchy, punk-influenced, hard-hitting protest against blindly going along with media-generated paranoia. Behold, the opening lines:
Don’t wanna be an American idiot! / Don’t want a nation under the new media / And can you hear the sound of hysteria? / The subliminal mind fuck America!
Performing in an abandoned warehouse in front of an American flag in faded black, white and green whose colours start to run halfway through the clip, the trio get drenched in fluoro green liquid spraying from their amplifiers. As lead singer Billie Joe Armstrong holds two fingers to his chin to simulate shooting himself, his message is clear: I’d rather be dead than believe this toxic shit.
“American Idiot” is the title track from an entire protest album of the same name which captures the angst and culture wars Green Day’s members observed in George W. Bush’s America. That said, in a 2017 Rolling Stone interview that touched on the legacies of the American Idiot album, bassist Mike Dirnt clarified:
I mean, American Idiot wasn’t fuck George Bush. That was a personal question that Billie was writing. “I don’t want to be an American Idiot.” We’re watching the fucking war take place on television for the first time in our lives and we were like, “This is bullshit.” But it was not a Bush record.
From contemplation to anguish to angst, here’s just a handful of music that the Iraq War generated. If you’ve got some music that makes you think back to, reminisce or remember that era, feel free to leave it in the comments section. Image courtesy of Flickr user The US Army. Catch you next week! —NS
Great way to start a Friday! The music on Waltz with Bashir was hauntingly beautiful, as is this piece. Music and politics are so interlinked. I use music in my teaching, most recently Kanye West’s sampling of Billie Holliday’s Strange Fruit on the Yeezus album, and linked it to the Capitol Riots. If you want to go back further, heres’s a stirring ditty from the 19th Century French Anarchists: https://youtu.be/nZ8TH_I27gg