You’re All Gonna Die: Low, War, and the D&C

Arthur Mormon, movies, music, Peace, war 12 Comments

“Therefore, renounce war and proclaim peace, and seek diligently to turn the hearts of the children to their fathers, and the hearts of the fathers to the children” (Doctrine and Covenants 98:16)

“All soldiers
They’re all gonna die
And all the little babies
They’re all gonna die
All the poets
And all the liars
And all you pretty people
You’re all gonna die” (Low, 2007)

The chilling opening words to Low’s most recent album, Drums and Guns, somehow had a remarkable effect on me.  Low has progressed a great deal since their inception in the early ’90s and this album is particularly moving.  It is a themed album; an anti-war album.

As many of you know, Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker of Low are practicing members of the Church (Alan being a BYU graduate, Mimi a convert).  One of my interests is the way that art plays off testimony in the Church, and I admit, most of the time I’m left wanting.  Drums and Guns was such a pleasant surprise for me.  Alan and Mimi have taken their experiences, testimonies, and desires and crafted an album that is anti-war.  In today’s political climate one would assume the album, released in 2007, is an anti-Iraq War album, but this does not seem to be the case, necessarily.  It seems to truly be two members of the LDS Church being obedient to the Doctrine and Covenants in renouncing war and proclaiming peace.

I explained to my mom the concept for the album.  “It’s an anti-war album, Mom.”

And she looked at me and said, “It’s so easy and popular to be anti-war when you’re a musician, isn’t it?”  I’ll let you parse that one yourself, but for the most part, it’s true.  Musicians since the Sixties have been renouncing war and proclaiming peace for various reasons, sometimes because it’s the trendy thing to do, and sometimes through a heartfelt desire to change the world somehow.  War is a common theme in music, from Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind” to CCR’s “Fortunate Son”, to Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs”, and the other end of the spectrum, Alice Cooper’s admission that he was pro-Vietnam.  It was in part these songs and artists that influenced the popular opinion of the war, for good or bad.

Musicians understand that they have the ability (and some would say responsibility) to influence popular opinion.  Some musicians have taken this to great lengths, such as U2’s Bono, who has been outspoken on numerous causes such as poverty, homelessness, and hunger.

I searched my memory and realized that, with Drums and Guns, this is one of the first times (if not THE first time) I’ve heard LDS musicians take a stance on anything in their art.  Where are our outspoken LDS artists, musicians, and filmmakers?  I concede that there are a few possible explanations:

1) I just haven’t been paying close enough attention.  This may be the case, but I would say that I probably pay much more attention than the average member to things of an artistic nature, so if there are politically active LDS artists out there…

2) …perhaps they just don’t have the outlets they need to get their message to me.  This seems rather unlikely, as well.  They have their art.

3) Fear.  There is an inherent risk in voicing opinions, and struggling LDS artists with families don’t feel like they can afford taking risks.

Unfortunately, the last option is 4) LDS artists aren’t making statements like this, and aren’t concerned with issues such as war.  If this is the case, then Mormon art, like Mormon hairstyles*, is indeed 40 years behind the rest of the world.

And yet it leads me to wonder about the progress of our Church.  There are some that criticize the Church (from within and without) for being provincial, non-progressive.  Could it be so due to the lack of progressive art in our community?

Or do we take a more Marxist view (thanks Russ) and assume that Mormon art merely reflects the culture it is created in?  That art is not in itself causative?  This debate has raged for centuries.

When will we as a people of rising prominence in this world start making artistic stances to change the world?  When will we take advantage of our position?  Alternatively, am I just missing something?

Either way, for a beautiful yet jarring picture of war and its emotional elements, try Drums and Guns by Low.

*cheap shot

Comments

comments

Comments 12

  1. Option #5) Mormon musicians don’t feel like they have to appeal to a different market to get music sold.
    I would assume that the people who buy Mormon music buy it for the “Mormon-ness” of it (clean language, possibly inspirational message) and not for reinforcement of their own political ideologies. There are plenty of other bands that can do that for them.
    Seriously, when do musicians *have to* “take a position” on any or all of the world’s problems? What if they are trying to “make art” that expresses some part of their soul, and this pet-topic doesn’t move their soul to do so? I suppose one could decide only to buy music from musicians whose souls are moved to say that “war is bad” and other cheap and obvious things.

    When will we as a people of rising prominence in this world start making artistic stances to change the world? When will we take advantage of our position? Alternatively, am I just missing something?

    I think you are missing something. Mainly, it is that “artistic stances” don’t change the world. They make the artists feel better, but that’s about it. It’s a romantic and naive notion, and one we fall into too easily. I can’t think of any major world change that has a real causal link between art/artists and the change itself. I would be interested in find one actual, provable causal chain.
    My own somewhat cynical opinion is that artists and musicians are often too caught up in their own narcissism to imagine that art really *doesn’t* change the world. I don’t believe that musicians have the *ability* to influence popular opinion (or responsibility, but that’s another issue). They think they do, but I see very little evidence of people *changing* their opinions because of what a singer sings, or a painter paints. People like Norman Borlaug change the world with what they do, not crooners and rockers.
    As an example, I’d like to use Bono’s (Product)Red charity. Bono is arguably the most “successful” advocate-musician today. In addition to him using his vast wealth to start charities or lend his fame to other causes, he promotes (Product)Red as a way to raise money for AIDS research/cure/treatment. A business makes a (Product)Red version (usually colored red) of a product and promises to give a portion of the profits from that red item to AIDS charities.
    My employer makes such a product, and I have been approached by easily a dozen people who want me pick the Red version up for them at the company store. I usually say “awesome, and Bono’s charity gets some money too.” They are usually dumbfounded. They have *no idea* that the red version is the special AIDS charity version. They just like the color red. If a charity with the most popular and successful musician-advocate at the helm still can’t generate enough knowledge to influence people to save a life at no additional cost to themselves, I can’t imagine some small-time band with a few “war is bad” and “screw the Man” songs can do any better. On top of this all, I think that *anyone* with the name recognition and money that Bono has could do just as much for their own pet causes and Bono could do. It has nothing to do with his art, as much as it has a lot to do with his money and recognition. If Paris Hilton were to start charities and advocate causes, she probably could do just as much as Bono, and she’s no artist.
    FWIW, the (Product)Red charity deal is great for the charity recipients and consumers. Essentially, they’ve convinced businesses to donate $10 of the profit of the item to the charity, at no additional cost to the consumer. So buy Red if you feel inclined; you’re essentially having your product manufacturer make a donation of its money but in your behalf.

  2. Great questions. What is the total population of LDS artists in the world? Then what percentage of them feel moved to express their views on war in their art?

    There may be quite a few bands with LDS members which speak out on these issues that we don’t hear from, but I think that the apolitical quality of LDS art has to do with the way LDS folk of a certain generation have been told to check their politics at the church door.

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    #1 Call me naive but I am only a pacifist because of media and music. A song and a film convinced me to be anti-war. I think it has to do with being exposed to that sort of thing during my formative years. When I was a teenager I loved war films and reading about military history and the Punic Wars especially. At the time, war was a video game, or something that happened miles away. Then, when I saw war depicted in film, and the bleak way it was spoken of in the music I listened to, my opinion slowly changed. I’m sure my experience wasn’t some sort of isolated incident. I had to understand how horrible war truly was before my opinion changed. I realized that my votes determined to some extent whether or not war actually happens. It opened my eyes to a bigger world that I was really a part of. So, as a response, I say that an artistic stance changed ME.

  4. To be a pacifist is a luxury only the protected can afford (as the people of Ammon were protected by the Nephites). No good person is in favor of war per say, but as long as evil men with ambitions and means exist, war will exist. And take my word for it, they do exist. (Iraq vet, 2003-2004).

  5. One reason why LDS artists don’t show up as political is because most of them are politically conservative. They support “righteous” war, believe that conversion to spiritual ideals is the primary social effort, and believe in obeying the laws of the land. How do you make that into art? Toby Keith? I think conservative expressions take a more subdued form.

    If a typical LDS political position might be patriotic, “God bless America” sentiments would be an expression of that political position, and those do exist in LDS art. If the LDS position is anti-gay marriage, art that strongly supports wholesome family concepts could be considered the expression of the position.

    #1: Sounds like you are making some pretty firm conclusions from assumptions and anecdotal evidence. I do agree that the power of art is often exaggerated by artists. But theoretically, art can inspire an individual who is naturally passionate to think about certain ideas and issues specifically because of the delivery through art. Change in the world doesn’t come from art, but it does come from inspired and motivated people, many of whom could be motivated and inspired and sustained by art without you even knowing it (because that may be a private aspect of their motivation they just don’t talk about).

  6. I would assume that the people who buy Mormon music buy it for the “Mormon-ness” of it (clean language, possibly inspirational message) and not for reinforcement of their own political ideologies.

    Your follow-up, Mainly, it is that “artistic stances” don’t change the world. They make the artists feel better, but that’s about it. was the heart of a discussion on NPR today.

    Interestingly and timely presented.

  7. I am anti-war because I am squeamish. It’s the same reason I don’t watch ER, and I didn’t think a date to see the autopsy room in the Widstoe building was a good time.

    As to art, I read a very interesting interview about the near impossibility of Mormons being artists (especially literary–it talked about how “The Great Mormon Novel” has yet to be written). The key issue (boiling it way down) is that the church culture rewards conformity and is skeptical of non-conformity. Here’s the interview: http://www.bookslut.com/features/2006_11_010188.php

    One passage I thought was interesting was: “I think this is true in any faith that puts a lot of pressure on people to conform. Most people adapt themselves to that pressure and conform or they leave the Church, but a small percentage of people find themselves caught in the middle in a way that either destroys them or transforms them into a kind of juggernaut of violence. I grew up in Provo, Utah, which people referred to proudly and unironically as “Happy Valley.” People took great pride in looking on the bright side of life. In addition, we were counseled to only record positive things in our journals so that our memories of things would preserve the good and forget the bad. Well, to be able to do that, you need to repress a tremendous amount, and some of what’s repressed is going to bubble up again. The return of the repressed is something that functions both for the individual and for the culture as a whole.”

  8. Cheers for bringing Low to the discussion. Drums and Guns is not an easy listen but it’s a challenging album on many levels. It’s unfortunate that more church members aren’t aware of Low, but they don’t try to be “Mormon artists”. They are artists who happen to be Mormon, and their beliefs do show through in not-very-obvious ways. I think in some ways they are a great normalizing influence on public perception of Mormons. Low has a big following in Europe and in the independent music scene in the US, and people become aware of their religion without much fanfare.

    One song on this album is chilling — “Murderer”. It takes on the idea that sometimes we feel justified in killing because we’re doing God’s work, raising the question–does God need someone to “do his dirty work”?. There’s an interesting documentary done recently by a European filmmaker, called “You May Need a Murderer,” that uses that song as a theme. Alan is given a lot of time to talk about his life experience and beliefs, and some of the footage was shot on a Sunday when they’re going to church.

    As for Mormon artists making a statement… Carol Lynn Pearson comes to mind as one who tries to stay in the church through some difficult public statements and challenging topics. Most creative Mormons who really have something to say (like Neil LaBute) seem to wander away from the church because there’s little tolerance for their views. Brian Evenson has been harassed for his dark view and subject matter. Sunstone has published a number of good plays over the years, but they rarely get produced to a larger audience. As for musicians, well… I think Marvin Payne, when he was a Mormon-hippy singer-songwriter in the 1970s, tried to bring in some socially conscious things. But that faded.

    I tend to think along the lines of hawkgrrrl’s comment that conformity is the killer of political (or controversial) opinions. Mormons have a deep need to feel acceptance and safety from each other (“the world” is so hostile, we look for a safe refuge in the church), and somehow with art that translates to “anything not in harmony with church teaching is suspect”. So all kinds of art are filtered through this religious rating system. I’ve had personal experience with a number of visual artists who are baffled by the need church members have to judge the religious value of their art: conceptual or abstract art is almost always discarded as irrelevant, and if it ain’t “uplifting” it ain’t worth looking at. And sadly, I think many Mormons simply look at art as irrelevant unless it is either religiously uplifting or blandly entertaining. Even Shakespeare is too challenging for most Mormons, in spite of Spencer Kimball’s wish for a great Mormon art tradition to match Milton and Shakespeare and all that.

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    #7 – That quote has echoed my sentiments for a long time, thank you.

    #8 – Thanks for the comments as well. Out of curiosity, is “no-man” a reference to Steven Wilson’s old band? Porcupine Tree is one of my long-time personal absolutely favorites.

  10. Hmm, not familiar with Porcupine Tree or Steven Wilson, sorry. ‘no-man’ refers to Odysseus’ encounter with the cyclops, by way of Belgian composer Wim Mertens’ obsessions with Ezra Pound’s Cantos (LXXIV – “I am noman, my name is noman” and XLV – “With usura hath no man a house of good stone…”) … aw, never mind, it just sounded good at the time and now I’m stuck with it. And I didn’t realize I shared it with a band (looked at their website, sounds interesting, I’ll have to check it out)

  11. well, i am a mormon artist-writer, and i am politically active in my country. i think some mormons feel that issues like this are beyond their realm. the majority i know are apathetic. they feel that being politically involved is a sin. trust me, i’ve been judged. maybe this is not true to you, maybe this is only true in my part of the world.

  12. Valid points…LDS culture really represses a lot of things that would allow both the creativity in art and the possibility to make a statement. I’m torn between thinking that almost everyone in Happy Valley is extremely apathetic and thinking that they think it’s wrong to have thoughts and statements to make.

    Case in point: my wife’s in nursing at BYU and in a seminar about international health and our effect as members on the world, someone asked how going to war sits with that. At least 3 other students told her to hush up, that “we don’t talk about that here”. It’s like there’s a stigma in even discussing it! It boggles my mind, because it such a counter to the principles and doctrines that we teach. Maybe it’s because we can’t admit that our “inspired” political and social beliefs are sometimes wrong…I can’t think of another reason why Bush has the highest approval rating in Utah, followed closely by Idaho.

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