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The original column was published on August 15th, 2019 and can be found below.
Just a content note, I’ll be talking about genocide, fascism, and political generalizations based on demographic trends, so you don’t have to yell at me if you’re “one of the good ones.”
Mother, did it need to be so high?
I spend a lot of time doing deep dives on music and I try to break open as much of what the songwriters are trying to say as I can, whether it be about themselves or the world around them. But it’s becoming more and more obvious that a lot of people don’t do that, even when they’ve been listening to these songs for decades and especially when they’re really popular. The more these songs are played out and diluted, the less real meaning they seem to have, like an album everyone seems to know, Pink Floyd’s 1979 album, The Wall.
I’ve been thinking about this in the context of older generations lately, after starting to really delve into the solo career of Roger Waters, the bass player and main songwriter for Pink Floyd, primarily Is This The Life We Really Want?, his newest record. I was searching through some reviews for it and came across this one:
If you know anything about Roger Waters, you already know more than “Steve S,” but if you don’t, he’s pretty consistently written political lyrics. Even before the Pink Floyd album I picked for this month’s column, you can clearly see his politics shine through in most of his post-Dark Side Of The Moon work, both solo and with Floyd. Here’s “Sheep” from their 1977 record, Animals.
What do you get for pretending the danger’s not real
Meek and obedient, you follow the leader down well-trodden corridors
Into the valley of steel
What a surprise, a look of terminal shock in your eyes
Now things are really what they seem
No, this is no bad dream
The entire album is politically driven, from attacking capitalism, media censorship and “traditional values,” to blindly obeying a leader until you realize how far you’ve fallen. The issue we’re seeing today, though, is that so many people, especially when they’re privileged enough to be less affected by day-to-day policy fights, don’t realize they’ve fallen from their ideals at all. They think they’re on the right side of history, but if you were to supplant their opinions now relative to the oppressive power structures back just a few decades, they would almost certainly be the people calling Martin Luther King Jr. a dangerous radical and contributing to the almost two thirds disapproval rating that he had in 1966. They’d much rather just “keep politics out of it” and “talk about something else” instead of standing up for what’s right. King talked extensively about the dangers of these (white) moderates who sit on the sidelines in his “Letter From A Birmingham Jail.”
First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride towards freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Klu Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action;” who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.
Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
I’m bewildered by the present-day rejection of societal optimism and justice from the generations that viewed their elders as the evil traditionalists standing in the way of integration, civil rights, ending the imperialism of the cold war, alongside so many societal ills that have by no means disappeared. The hippies of the late 60s and the punks of the late 70s grew up and stopped caring about making the world a better place, choosing instead to stay complacent in favor of the status quo that now benefited them. Instead of internalizing the messages of their heroes and inspirations, they became the villains of their favorite stories. They act like children who don’t know better, whether it be by naïveté or ignorance, but refuse to honestly engage with the things that inspired them when they were young, learning all the wrong lessons, just like the generations they fought against.
It’s a rock opera, and like most narrative albums, the plot’s a bit murky, so I’m not going to get into the inspirations on which characters are based on what or the deep cuts behind it. But the main bullet points of the plot are:
A young boy’s father dies in a war.
Daddy’s flown across the ocean, leaving just a memory
A snapshot in the family album, Daddy what else did you leave for me?
Daddy, what’d you leave behind for me?
All in all, it was just a brick in the wall
The boy is left with his overprotective mother, who pushes him to isolate himself from the world around him.
Hush now baby, don’t you cry
Mama’s gonna make all of your nightmares come true
Mama’s gonna put all of her fears into you
Mama’s gonna keep you right here, under her wing
She won’t let you fly, but she might let you sing
Mama will keep baby, cozy and warm
Ooh babe, Of course mama’s help build the wall
His school teachers’ harassments and cruelties add to his anxiety; they, too, are stuck in cycles of abuse
When we grew up and went to school, there were certain teachers
Who would hurt the children anyway they could
By pouring their derision upon anything we did
And exposing every weakness however carefully hidden by the kid
But in the town it was well known, when they got home at night
Their fat and psychopathic wives would thrash them within inches of their lives
As he grows older, after a back and forth of infidelities, a divorce pushes him even further into emotional isolation.
Day after day, love turns grey like the skin of a dying man
Night after night, we pretend it’s alright
But I have grown older, and you have grown colder
And nothing is very much fun anymore
Despite that, he becomes a rock star, has to medicate to even function through his anxieties, and imagines a world where he’s a fascist leader, who scapegoats minorities with extermination.
Realizing the monster that lurks inside him, he puts himself on trial within his own psyche and confronts the characters that pushed him to build up his walls.
Good morning, worm, your honor, the crown will plainly show
The prisoner who now stands before you was caught red handed
Showing feelings, showing feelings of an almost human nature
But in the end he is “sentenced” to let himself feel real emotions again, and tears down his defenses, exposing his vulnerabilities to the cruel world around him, while the album hints at the cycle starting all over again when it ends with a loop that connects it to the opening track.
Since my friend, you have revealed your deepest fear
I sentence you to be exposed before your peers
Tear down the wall!
The politics of the album aren’t explicitly clear until the latter half, but Waters is saying a lot throughout. Our protagonist, Pink, is constantly blaming everyone around him for his flaws. His father, his mother, his teacher, his wife, eventually blaming anyone “impure.” But throughout all of his projection, empty sadness, and blind rage, he only finds actual growth and solace when he does some, albeit dramatic, self-reflection. He puts himself on trial, not because he’s forced to, but because it’s the only way he can exorcise his demons. It’s not anyone’s fault but his. Sure, he had external struggles, but at the end of the day, he was just an asshole who was turning his daddy issues, mommy issues, issues with women, etc, but most of all his fears into a force to hurt people. Honest self reflection and confronting the internalized trauma, usually ingrained from childhood, are the only real ways we can grow and develop into the people we thought we’d grow into when we were kids.
The people that always look for blame around them, especially when directing it at the most vulnerable, instead of the systems that enable the real villains, should remember what it was like to be that scared kid watching the world change around them, whether it was in the 50s and 60s, or just yesterday. To imagine how the people that inspired them would look down at them now, with disgust, as they’ve gone from the victim of the trauma to the perpetrator. Maybe as an absent father, or an overprotective mother, or a cruel teacher, or maybe simply as a person who’s adding just another brick to the wall. But it’s a much better story if we tear down the walls in the end instead of building even taller ones for tomorrow’s children to have to smash through.