Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Music and the War in Iraq - EMP Conference Highlights Part Three

The most intense panel that I saw at last week's EMP Pop Conference was themed "Music and the War in Iraq," and featured three very different perspectives on the role of music/sound in the military.

Military Recruitment Music
Jonathan Pieslak gave his paper "For Duty, Honor, and Country: The Recruiting Music of the U.S. Military and the Islamic State of Iraq," in which he discussed U.S. military advertising that portrays military service as "patriotic and honorable" and utilizes solemn "honorable duty" music that's generally classical. He briefly mentioned that the U.S. military also has advertising that emphasizes "action, adventure and excitement," which uses faster-paced metal music by artists like Godsmack. In contrast, he also showed chilling recruitment videos by the Islamic State of Iraq that included images of suicide bombings and a soundtrack of poetic recitations (Nasheeds), which are religious calls to duty (vs. music, which is outlawed by this fundamentalist group).

Soldiers' Music Listening in Iraq
Lisa Gilman's paper "American Soldiers' iPods: Layers of Identity and Situated Listening in Iraq," highlighted the results of the author's interviews with soldiers who had returned from Iraq. She mentioned that soldiers' listening habits were far more diverse than the media might suggest and said that the men and women she interviewed reported listening to Frank Sinatra, Wu Tang Clan, Creed, old punk, country, Jay Z, Norah Jones, Dave Matthews, and even anti-war songs.

What was most interesting about this paper was hearing the contexts in which people used music. One woman said that she listened to a single country song over and over again in order to drown out noises of the war while she slept at night. Another person listened to old punk while exercising in order to vent frustrations. Others reported that they couldn't handle listening to aggressive music (like AC/DC's "Back in Black") while in Iraq because of the violent associations. Others talked about listening to and talking about music during their downtime as a way to bond with others with similar interests.

Lisa also talked about how gender, class, race, and military ranking related to music choices and control over what music was played in work environments. For example, in work places, the highest ranking person controlled the music selections (for example, the surgeon in the medical unit). At the end of the paper she mentioned that the funeral staple "Taps," was incredibly distressing to one soldier because of its association with death. Audience members at the presentation added that "Taps" these days is even sadder since it is often played on a speaker hidden within a bugle (digital bugle) as there is a shortage of real bugle players.

Sounds of War
The final presentation on this panel was J. Martin Daughtry's "Noise, Narrative, Trauma: The Significance of the Sonic in Conflict-Era Baghdad," a fascinating paper that talked about the uncontrollable sounds of war (guns, engines, tanks, explosions) rather than music. He talked about the way that soldiers learn to listen in order to survive in that environment, such as being able to discern whether bullets are near or far, U.S. or enemy. He outlined three types of sounds: 1) masking sounds (wind, engine noise, traffic, etc.), 2) communication (radio chatter, conversations), and 3) weapons (gunfire, mortars, etc.).

In acknowledging that his paper wasn't so much about music as about sound, he queried, "Where does the meaning of music reside?" He argued that soldiers "listen through fear...," which provided some context for the music discussions mentioned by Lisa in her presentation.

Summary, plus Rebel Music in Iran
While listening to the entire panel I wondered a bit about the role of music in Iraq in general since there are certainly groups that are opposed to music (see below for an example from Iran) in that culture. I also would like to know more about radio in Iraq. Do soldiers listen to local radio? What's on local radio in Iraq? Is there any music? Is there western music? Are there underground military radio broadcasts? Sort of in this context, there was a fascinating article in today's SF Chronicle about outlawed underground rap music in Iran. According to the article:

"In Iran, all music - except that with religious lyrics - was outlawed by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the political and spiritual leader of the Islamic Revolution of 1979, which toppled the Shah of Iran. The cleric said music was 'intoxicating,' and he promised to end the 'invasion' of Western culture under the shah and promote Islamic values. But as years passed, radio and television stations began playing classical Persian music - mostly with religious themes.

[Rap artist] Felakat, who has a considerable following in a nation where 70 percent of the population is under 30, is part of an underground scene where songs are recorded in clandestine studios, burned onto CDs and distributed via a flourishing black market to stores selling religious music and vetted videos. If caught by authorities, stores can be closed, and their owners imprisoned and fined."

If you have insights about music and radio in Iraq, I'd love to hear them.

Up next, a review of the "Festivals" panel and a paper about music and politics at EMP.

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