August 2, 2016
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Roy Scranton's War Porn is one of the year's standout debut novels, a truly unsettling and empathetic work.
Booklist wrote of the book:
"Scranton's provocative debut novel lucidly captures the fractured perspectives of war. Scranton writes with honesty and authority about a complicated clash of weapons, politics, and culture. [War Porn] is an unflinching, and sometimes difficult, examination of humanity during wartime."
War Porn is a novel about war, and, like most American wars, a war in a far-off place, but it's also about how war comes home and how war becomes home. "There are strange Hells within the minds War made," wrote British poet and composer Ivor Gurney, and this novel gets inside some of those hells. War Porn is structured by three stories nested one within another, like Russian matryoshka dolls, which work together to show how the violence we commit overseas is never as foreign or as far away as we'd like to believe. One story is about a young couple hosting a barbecue in Utah, another is about an American soldier in Baghdad, and the third is about an Iraqi mathematician named Qasim during the American invasion of 2003. Each section has a different feel, a different style, a different tone and filter. Making mixtapes was one of the first ways I learned how to make art, and you can see the mixtape aesthetic in War Porn's different narratives, its cut-up "Babylon" sections, and the way different voices come in and out of the narrative flow. I was really excited by the invitation to put together these Book Notes, and I hope the music in this playlist might convey something of War Porn's flavor and arc.
Jolie Holland, "Demon Lover Improv"
War Porn begins with a brief, noisy mash-up of propaganda, political rhetoric, news reports, and samples from war porn past. Once the chaos settles, we're introduced to Matt and Dahlia, two young lovers uneasily lodged in Moab, Utah, circa 2004, prepping for an end-of-summer barbecue. Waiting for their guests to arrive, Dahlia puts on Jolie Holland's then-hip, raggedly earnest solo debut Catalpa. It's still a great album today, ghostly, raw, and lonesome, and this cut manages to condense its many virtues into a rueful four-minute wander that's almost wholly instrumental, with just a few stray lyrics telling of a woman's bitter regret at realizing she's run off with the devil.
Britney Spears, "Toxic"
The pop anthem of the early Bush years, as if America were vamping for Dick Cheney: "I'm addicted to you / Don't you know that you're toxic?" The James Bond strings pumping under Britney's barely-legal cooing and half-crazed swerves between seduction, delirium, and aggression crystallize the fantastic mix of sexual sadism, global espionage, and violent release that was (and remains) the political atmosphere of the Global War on Terror.
PJ Harvey, "Teclo"
Returned war vet Aaron put this on a mix-tape for his girl Wendy back before the war, and this gloomy, grief-stricken clutch at redemption still echoes through their reunion. When PJ Harvey wails out "Just let me ride on your grace for awhile," you hear a lost soul pleading—not for forgiveness or even for peace, but for just another few minutes before the dark comes down.
Mark Lanegan, "Clear Spot"
Mark Lanegan of the Screaming Trees and Queens of the Stone Age brings a grungy, junk-tainted, lo-fi vibe to this Don Van Vliet classic. The song's surreal lyrics portray an obsessed, haunted soul desperate for a way out, while the drums thudding down the growling guitars let us know we're going nowhere, fast. The only hope for escape comes in Alain Johannes's squealing guitar solo, lashing out across the break like a wounded animal.
Jay Z, "Takeover"
Pure aggressive masculinity: if I were going to give the American invasion of Iraq a musical form, it would be this boasting, growling, Kanye-produced over-the-top track famously dissing Nas, Prodigy, and Mobb Deep. A mess of contradictions at once puritan and crazy baroque, contemptuous and desperate to impress, murderous and bored with its own power, dropping a brazen claim for supremacy built out of other people's music—what better metaphor for America?
Pet Shop Boys, "West End Girls"
A bit of real world glued in like newspaper in a Dada collage. I drove a Humvee in the Iraq war, just like Wilson in War Porn, and my commander had a lot of ‘80s dance music on his MP3 player. At the time, it seemed there couldn't be any more surreal existence than leading a military convoy through Baghdad while listening to "West End Girls." The refrain still takes me right back to Sadr City.
The Breeders, "Happiness is a Warm Gun"
Who can say what this notoriously trippy Beatles song means? All I know is that the refrain took on a whole new truth in Iraq, where my assault rifle's black receiver got very warm indeed in the desert sun, and happiness seemed very far away. I love the way the band all but falls away at the end, leaving Kim Deal almost inaudibly whispering the closing verse, like maybe it was a mistake. Bang, bang, shoot, shoot.
50 Cent, "In da Club"
More reality. My unit spent part of its deployment in a giant gymnasium at Baghdad Airport, where we all lived in each others pockets, sleeping on cots, bringing in scavenged plywood to create little cubicles for some kind of privacy. We all had to listen to each others' TV shows, video games, movies, music, fights, and jerk-off sessions. We watched a lot of Sex and the City and played a lot of Halo, but this song in particular seemed to be on constant rotation, perhaps because it offered a fantasy of the life we could—would—should be leading, drinking Bacardi, chilling out "in da club." Maybe we were in Iraq for WMDs, maybe for 9/11, maybe for oil, maybe some other bullshit, but 50 Cent rapped about what we were really fighting for: the American way of life.
Johnny Cash, "Rusty Cage"
Enlisted military life during wartime is a simmer of low-level aggression caught within stupidly oppressive systems of control. Johnny Cash brings a leathery, abraded intensity to this propulsive Soundgarden anthem, evoking war's weird mix of boredom and violence, interminable stasis and sudden release.
This syrupy sweet ballad from Lebanese superstar Elissa is a great example of mainstream Middle Eastern pop, and just a taste of the rich cultural life of the region that American soldiers in Iraq only got to know in bits and pieces, and then only if they really tried. The TV in the Iraqi-run café on FOB Falcon played Arabic music videos constantly, but beyond that interactions between regular soldiers and Iraqi civilians were mostly limited to checkpoints, searches, and buying bootleg DVDs. One of the many tragedies of the American occupation of Iraq was how little we opened ourselves up to Iraqi culture, no doubt believing in our self-righteous superpower status that one of the world's youngest civilizations had nothing to learn from one of the oldest.
Acrassicauda, "Garden of Stones"
This is, I'm sorry to say, the only Iraqi band on my list. Acrassicauda learned to play rock in Baghdad by listening to Metallica bootlegs, then went on to become the most famous heavy metal band in Iraq. But as the war burned on, playing Western music became a more and more dangerous pastime, and one by one the band started fleeing to Syria. Thanks to Suroosh Alvi and Vice (who made a documentary about them, Heavy Metal in Baghdad), Acrassicauda managed to make it to Turkey and then New Jersey, where they started new lives. The band's still together, though the line-up has changed: they released their first full-length album, Gilgamesh, last year. This head-banging, hellacious song from their debut EP, Only the Dead Sea the End of War, captures the feel and sound of wartime Baghdad as much as it captures what Marwan Hussein, Firas Al-Lateef, Faisal Talal, and Moe Al Ansari do so well together as Acrassicauda: righteous, rhythmically complex heavy metal with delicious, delirious Arabic inflections.
David Bowie, "Sunday"
In the core section of War Porn, we meet Qasim al-Zabadi, an Iraqi grad student earning his Ph.D. in mathematics. Qasim listens to Bowie while he works on his dissertation, and this ethereal, elegiac song, at once light and heavy, seems to capture something of the imminent tension in Qasim's life as he waits for American bombs to start falling. When the song came out in 2002, the line "Nothing has changed, / Everything has changed" seemed to speak directly to the attacks of September 11 (though Bowie insisted that the lyrics were written before); when Qasim listens to it in Baghdad on the eve of the American invasion, the lyrics invert the cataclysm and suggest, perhaps, how "Shock and Awe" might have looked to the people who had to live through it. The chanting ambiguity of Bowie's lyrics leaves the listener, finally, in a troubled interzone somewhere between ecstasy and dread.
Rachid Taha, "Rock el Casbah"
Another cover, this one by Algerian rocker Rachid Taha, taking the punchy Clash anthem that he might have inspired and bending it back through a furious postcolonial snarl. The original song's knife-edge flickerbounce between Orientalist caricature and acid satire returns in Taha's hands a joyfully barbed rejoinder to the West's cartoon vision of the Arab world.
I couldn't not include this song, which I heard for the first time in Baghdad, after buying a bootlegged copy of Hail to the Thief from an Iraqi vendor. There's a lot I could say about this furious and unsubtle song, how much it fit the moment, how good it felt to hear it in Baghdad, how perfect the building rage of the music seemed, but it's almost too much. Instead, maybe, just these lyrics, as a reminder of how far we've come since 2003:
"It's the devil's way now
There is no way out
You can scream and you can shout
It is too late now
You have not been
Tom Waits, "The Part You Throw Away"
This song is from Robert Wilson and Tom Waits's adaptation of Georg Büchner's unfinished 1837 play Woyzeck, about a soldier who goes mad and murders his common-law wife. Woyzeck was a major inspiration for War Porn, and I've been a huge Tom Waits fan since forever, so including this grim, self-piteous ballad was a no-brainer. We're all damned, in the end, to be exactly the person who makes the kind of choices we make, and even worse, we're forced to live with the consequences. From a certain bruised slouch—this song's perspective—life looks like one loss after another, a string of regrets eased only by moments of forgetting. The irony in the song's refrain is that you might think you get to decide which part to throw away, when in the end you lose everything.
Roy Scranton and War Porn links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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