Thursday, August 26, 2010

Guided Tour of Binaural: Grievance

Sorry for abandoning the series last week.  Life interrupted, and I only realized my faux pas last night.  Perhaps we'll get you all caught up this weekend. 
- Brandon

by stip


If Grievance ends Binaural suddenly we have a very different record on our hands. The fact that it does not (and is followed by 4 of the darkest songs on the record) is significant. On a record that sometimes feels like drowning Grievance is a last gasp, the sound of one last deep breath before going under, possibly for good.

This is one of the best political songs in their catalog—probably their best. Despite knowing that it’s about the WTO protests, it works in part because it is not specifically tied to that moment in time . There are details in the lyrics--Progress laced with ramifications/progress, taste it, invest it all/for every tool they lend us, a loss of independence--that ground it in the politics of that moment, but they’re also describing a process and a power relationship that transcends the WTO and the World Bank. Instead it’s a call for frustrated underdogs to rally around something larger than themselves and to demand more.

Politics is about power, no matter how much we try to obscure that (just like any talk about states rights during the civil war turns back to slavery), and in modern democratic politics there are two sources of power—money and mass. Money dominates, and we accept it because it manages to clothe itself in democratic symbols (we have elections, so the people rule, right?) and because we’ve had a tendency going back 100 years or more to equate markets with freedom, which means that everything that happens reflects people’s choices. The world is a consequence of our individual actions, the results are fair, and we own them. Our world is governed by a theodicy no different in practice than the belief that God has already written everyone’s fates or the divine right of kings. The point of this theodicy is to systematically disarm and in some cases delegitimate the power of mass against money.

Grievance is a war cry, an attempt to awaken within people a reassertion of the power of mass, and with it democracy. Like Insignificance, Grievance requires us to first recognize just how powerless we currently are. It demands that we call our current system, our illusions of freedom, into question. Unlike Insignificance, the characters in this song are agents capable of acting. Insignificance asks us to bear witness. Grievance urges us to act—to see the world for how it really is, and confront it. There is no immediate space for action when bombs are dropping down, when your life is being destroyed by forces far away for whom you and your life is an abstraction. But that's not the case here. The great promise of democratic regime is the possibility that people will use it, the great fear of those with power is what will happen when mass decides to awaken, when they realize that they deserve something more. The sticks come down, but they can only do this as long as we divide ourselves. They can only come down as long as we let them.

As is the case on pretty much every song on Binaural, the music helps tell this story. It starts off somewhat playful and sarcastic, dismissive of illusions. It gets frustrated more than it gets angry. Grievance doesn’t punch its enemy in the face. It grabs its allies by the shoulders and tries to get them to focus. It shakes them awake. We see this in Eddie’s vocal performance too. There isn’t anger in Grievance as much as there is exasperation, which should tell us who the audience is.

The song culminates with its statement of principles. Life derives its meaning from the ability to act. We’re not really free unless we’re agents, and we become agents when we embrace that desire to live. Grievance urges us to remember that it is the act itself, and the hope and faith that create it, that makes anything and everything possible.

If Binaural ends with this thought then we are listening to a record of redemption. But it doesn’t, and so Grievance is an outlier on the record—a reminder of what once was and perhaps might be again someday, but are currently not. Like I Am Mine on Riot Act, it is an ember to preserve, in the hope that one day there can be a new fire.