Music writers tend not to discuss The Blood Brothers’ rhetoric. It’s easy to understand why: it’s damn near impossible to make sense of their guttural shrieks without consulting the liner notes, and experience has taught us that that it’s almost always better to avoid scrutinizing an angry band’s lyrics. Bands like System of a Down are great at sloganeering and generic rage, but when they try to offer up more nuanced discussions it comes out as songs like Mezmerize’s “Sad Statue”, where they warn that “You and me / Will all go down in history with a / Sad statue of liberty / And a generation that didn’t agree”. If The Blood Brothers wrote political commentary of that caliber, I honestly wouldn’t want to know about it.
It’s no surprise, then, that most writers seem to prefer to leave them in the realm of the eternal cipher, casting them as wild-eyed ghouls without reason or argument. Whatever we’re angry about, we want to believe the Blood Brothers are raging against it. The thing is, their lyrics are actually excellent, powerful, and persuasive – and the Blood Brothers are probably pissed off about a lot, but Young Machetes, their latest and best, is all about war.
From beginning to end, the album is a parade of images vile and violent. “We Ride Skeletal Lightning” orders us to watch the bombs. In “Camouflage, Camouflage”, Alice says to look for her lips in “the empires roaring”, and we are told to imagine a world draped in camouflage. In “Spit Shine Your Black Clouds”, the band taunts us, saying that “everything is war and who’s fucked their way to the top.” Young Machetes is unified by one goal: persuading the listener to imagine, for a moment, that the world really can be an ugly, awful place.
They seem to understand intuitively that to see the world the way they describe is indeed an act of imagination even if it also reflects reality. War, as we tend to understand it in the West, is a rite of manhood, an inevitability, and a moral proving ground. These may be dreams, but these are our dreams, long-held and deeply ingrained into the culture. To escape them would require a massive act of imagination, even in the face and vastness of all the world’s reality. The Blood Brothers fight these dreams with nightmares: unicorns with tar teeth, witches with obscene riches, and carnival graveyards. A huge, gold, AK-47. Presented with these two dream worlds—the pleasant fantasies of a grand clash of civilizations, a noble conflict of ideologies between a heroic West and evil terr’rists or the Blood Brothers’ nightmare phantasmagoria—the listener must try to find the truths, such as they are, in each.
In these terms, “Lift the Veil, Kiss the Tank” is simultaneously the most powerful and the most troubled nightmare in Young Machetes. From nearly the beginning of the song, they sing that “War never ends / War never begins”. This serves to establish their theme more precisely: both the song and Young Machetes as a whole are concerned not only with the debacle that is Iraq, but with the moral and structural issues constant to every war. Iraq, they are suggesting, is only the newest in a long succession of names for the same phenomenon; and, insofar as the increasingly unpopular war is a moral disaster, so must every war be a moral disaster. Even the hallowed Gulf War I (hallowed for some, that is). Even the “good war”, World War II.
The nature of that disaster as described by the Blood Brothers lies in its destructive amorality. They warn us of a man “with a fistful of pills so you can kill with no remorse”. They shriek, “Dance on your conscience until it’s a corpse!” The institutions behind war have mouths that are “empty hole[s] full of quadriplegics”—the Iraq war has killed far fewer American soldiers than it has maimed for life. In the face of these engines of war, we are infinitely frail Having been “charmed into a frenzy” by “young machetes in lingerie”, we charge into battle imagining that our “muscles rippling, tanks tingling” offer protection, even immortality. But “before you fire a shot / white flash feels up your flesh / and cloaks you in a robe of blood”. When we go to war, we risk our own bodies. Perhaps worse, we risk doing this to others.
They go on to recast the soldier not as the ultimate American hero, but as the worst kind of whore: “They left you in the desert / haunted with the ghosts of prostitutes”. This has a strange, bitter logic to it. A prostitute sells his or her body for the pleasure of others. A soldier sells his or her body to be destroyed, and to destroy others. To pretend there’s no parallel here is the sort of wishful thinking antithetical to the Blood Brothers.
In a final, brilliant coup de grace, the band warns us that that “They want you! / They want you!” This appropriation of Uncle Sam’s seemingly-friendly invitation to service suggests that the Blood Brothers and the government are very much on the same page; one of them just uses brighter colors and prouder language in their posters.
There’s still a little song left, and this is where The Blood Brothers trip up. Setting out into virginal heights of irony and further developing the idea of the soldier as a prostitute, they sing, “Dress my corpse up in a low-cut dress. / Drizzle lipstick on my charred French kiss.” This echoes the title of the song. If you “lift the veil”, the Brother’s argue – if you can get past the embroidery of war – you’ll see that you’re kissing a tank, or rather, kissing death. To go to war is to whore yourself, to embrace death, to debase yourself completely. So far, so good, but then they aim for the jugular – and miss by a significant margin.
In the final, rousing chorus, the Blood Brothers join together to sing in fist-pumping fashion that “A death’s just death no matter how you dress it up”, and repeat, and repeat, and repeat. But if there’s one thing we can learn from recent events in Iraq and at home in the US, it’s that this couldn’t be more wrong. A death can be many different things.
Consider the case of Saddam Hussein’s execution. The Bush administration’s goal in the Iraq war is ostensibly to create a liberalized constitutional democracy with legitimate representative government and a functioning justice system. Saddam was potentially useful in telling a story about Iraq that suggested that mission was accomplished. Putting him through a legitimate trial for his crimes would display the Iraqi justice system and prove its quality. Simultaneously, a conviction and execution would serve as a sort of exorcism; by casting out the butcher, Iraq would be symbolically rejecting everything he symbolized. It would be the dawn of a new era.
This narrative was undermined from the start. Far from a demonstration of the quality of Iraq’s courts, Saddam’s trial was widely seen as a farce. While it’s true that most people weren’t too broken up about said farce – Saddam was a bad man, we all knew he was guilty, and so on – news accounts consistently described the trial as a circus. The Bush administration was, however, generally able to advance his narrative in spite of these setbacks, thanks in large part to a sycophantic United States press and cowed Democratic party. It was, at least, some kind of trial – more than many thought Saddam deserved. The true collapse of Bush’s version of events came with Saddam’s execution.
The narrative deathblow was dealt by the Shiite-dominated government, which had its own story to tell. Bitter from decades of oppression under the Sunni Hussein, Shiites were eager to spit in the once-privileged Shiite minority’s collective eye. As such, they rushed the execution. In violation of Iraqi law, they hanged Saddam on a major holiday celebrated only by Sunnis. As if this wasn’t bad enough – and it surely would have been – the execution was a sordid affair, even by a hanging’s standards, and somebody (probably a major Iraqi official) made a video from a cell phone. The video, instant history, was omnipresent within days.
This led to the emergence of a third, distinctly Sunni narrative. While it was widely agreed even among Sunnis that Saddam had been a terrible man, his peaceful acceptance of death, which they perceived and retold as heroic bravery, helped to make him a Sunni martyr. Even as Shiites used his death to advance a narrative of Shiite power, Sunnis understood the death as simultaneously an insult and a triumph. There were rallies in support of Saddam throughout the Muslim world where, unlike Iraq, Sunnis are very much in the majority.
So Saddam Hussein’s death is hardly “just death”. To some, it is the end of a long national nightmare and proof that Iraq is going to be just fine. To others, it’s proof of Shiite hegemony. To still others, it’s the loss of a proud – if deeply flawed – soul, who was far better on balance than the Shiites and their American commanders. Saddam’s death is a symbol. It is a story. It is rhetoric.
This is where The Blood Brothers’ argument falls short. Nothing any human does is only what it is. Kenneth Burke, probably the most important and influential rhetorician in 100 years, argued that every human action was in some sense persuasive. We wear certain clothing because we want people to see us certain ways. We lift weights not only to improve our strength, but to convince ourselves and others that we are strong. Indeed, Burke wrote that the distinction between action and mere motion was that actions had symbolic content. Actions, which are things done by humans, have the inestimable power to signify. Motions, which are done by particles and planets, can only happen.
While this is a weakness in The Blood Brothers’ argument, it can also help us to understand that argument’s strength. Whether or not they are aware of it – and I suspect they actually are – they are making an argument about death and its meaning when they say a death’s just death. They are participating in that same process of rhetoric employed by Bush, Iraq’s Shiites and the world’s Sunnis. They are asserting, in full consciousness of the way other people dress death up – the way different institutions and persons use deaths like Saddam’s to tell self-serving stories – that they have the best clothing, the most important and essential story.