Friday, May 13, 2011

Guided Tour of Vs.: W.M.A.

Stip's busy with a new addition to his family, so I'm going to go ahead and post his Guided Tours for a while.  You'll know stip's back when "By Stip" disappears from the posts. -B
(A Guided Tour: Vs.)
By Stip

W.M.A. is one of Pearl Jam’s first real serious attempts at atmospheric songwriting, and with the caveat that I don’t necessarily think this is where they’re at their best, W.M.A. is a strong effort. There is a real compelling mixture of anger, plaintive sadness, and tragedy swirling in the background. This is music well suited to chronicling injustice. Eddie’s background vocalizations give W.M.A. a tribal, ritualized character. W.M.A. feels ceremonial in a way that no other pearl jam song really does—almost like this is a communal attempt to purge the soul, to purify something unclean., and this effect is only enhanced when the ‘police stop’ backing vocals from the rest of the background come in at the 3:30 mark. That the last two and a half minutes of the song are basically wordless chanting in between the ‘all my pieces set me free/human devices set me free’ mantra really crystallize this sensation, and the fade out gives the song an ageless quality. We’ve been trying to purge ourselves for a long long time.

Racism is America’s original sin, we’ve been stained with it since the very beginning. We’ve fought a war over it, we’ve defined our early understanding of freedom in opposition to it, and even after emancipation we managed to perpetuate the institution informally for well over 100 years. Even today, after the civil rights reformers of the sixties and a black president we still have yet to fully confront the legacy of institutionalized racism, the fact that blacks were largely denied access to the GI Bill welfare benefits that made the middle class, and that they are still underrepresented in government, in business, in positions of power. Blacks are still far more likely to be convicted of the same crime than a white person, and go to jail for longer. Newspaper captions of whites struggling to find supplies in the ruins of New Orleans were captioned in pictures as foraging. Blacks were looting. 

1993 was even worse. The Rodney King riots in LA are recent history. There have been no reforms to the crack/cocaine laws that devastated black communities in the 1980s. Ronald Reagan’s apocryphal addition of the ‘welfare queen’ to America’s symbolic vocabulary destroyed the legitimacy of the welfare state that still benefited whites more than blacks, but benefitted blacks nevertheless. Police brutality towards minorities is certainly not the norm, but it seems to happen with alarming frequency, and given the profound sense of alienation that blacks felt towards white mainstream society each incident only seemed to reconfirm that blacks remained second class citizens, powerless in their own homes. This was an existential as much as it was a physical sense of violation. Given the liner notes of W.M.A. this is clearly on Eddie’s mind. The song seems to be inspired by police brutaltiy—of white power committing violence against blacks and being able to do so with impunity because of their race, because when the public closes their eyes and thinks of a criminal they think of a black person. There is a concrete reference to the summer 1993 case of Malice Green, an unemployed black steel worker who was allegedly pulled from his car and beaten to death by 3 Detroit police officers. What actually happened seems to be uncertain, but the fact that we are prepared to entertain as a realistic possibility the premise of racially motivated violence speaks volumes about where we were as a society in 1993. 

Eddie is reprising some of the themes he raised in Glorified G. Both the sense of obliviousness and entitlement that forms the core of mainstream (read: white and conservative) American life in the early 1990s. Starting from the wonderful opening lyric ‘he won the lottery by being born’ we have an indictment of white privilege---the sense that being white confers all sorts of unearned institutional advantages that simply reflect what John Stuart Mill called the accident of birth. If you were fortunate enough to be born white, male, and American (the only major sociological divisions he is missing here are wealth and sexual orientation but W.M.R.S.A doesn’t roll off the tongue in quite the same way) it meant never having to say you’re sorry (or better, saying you’re sorry is your only punishment). It meant knowing that world existed to serve you. The imagery here is some of the most sophisticated in Eddie’s early writing. ‘Big hand slapped a white male American/Took his mother’s white breast to his tongue’. These advantages, these privileges, knowing your exalted place in the world (Jesus greets me/Looks just like me) are hardwired into the way we look at the world from the very beginning—so deeply embedded as to be invisible (I can say from experience that the hardest concept to teach to students is this notion of white privilege and male privilege, in part because it is obscured by class disadvantages that can cut across race and gender—although it’s usually worse for women/minorities, and in part because it is so deeply encoded into every aspect of our lives. It’s like asking someone to notice breathing.)

He moves pretty deftly to the issue of police brutality (trained like dogs, color and smell, walk by me to get to him), highlighting the pavlovian nature of institutional racism. Given how in your face a song like Glorified G is, this is, for a song with such an expansive and controversial message, a surprisingly delicate and subtle presentation, and the understated music , which manages to provide a sense of uneasy urgency and deep rooted injustice while still pillowing Eddie’s vocals to make everything seem simultaneously abstract and concrete, does a great job enhancing all this. Compared to the in your face nature of Rats, Glorified G and Blood this is a mature bit of songwriting from a band still discovering its identity, although the ‘police stopped the brother again’ chorus spoils the effect somewhat—a little too self-righteous and like Glorified G, takes something nuanced and complicated and turns it into a morality play.

The outgoing coda is intriguing, and I’m not sure I have a full sense of what it means ‘all my pieces set me free/human devices set me free’ although it seems to point to the longing for community and collective action, the way in which love for each other is where we find salvation, that is at the core of their music. 

W.M.A. is probably longer than it needs to be. The song would have even more of an impact if it was at least a minute shorter. It spends too long hovering in the same space, which causes the emotional impact of the song to plateau, rather than peak. Still, of all the political songs on the record this one does the best job hitting its mark. Eddie sympathizes more than he judges. It’s infused with the sense of opposition and defiance that gives the record its character, but here Eddie observes and tries to understand. There is empathy, and Eddie sees some of himself in the song, his own sense of alienation and injustice, but he doesn’t let his own hurt overwhelm the story he wants to tell. A record like Vs. needs these moments to give the listener a chance to catch their breath before the next song wounds the listener again.

Glorified G
Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town