Laibach: Divided States of America [DVD]

[21 March 2007]

By Mike Schiller

“We know that America likes us and we shall therefore come back; nonetheless, we have seen it and we agree that it is the only nation in history which has miraculously lapsed from barbarism directly to degeneration without the usual interval of civilization.”—Laibach, Divided States of America

At one point near the middle of Laibach’s documentary concert film Divided States of America, one of the many interviewed concert-goers finally gets it right.  You see, he has discerned that the overriding message in Laibach’s music and performance can be summed up in a one-word imperative: “Think”. 

Laibach is not here to tell us what’s wrong with the world, what’s right with the world, or what we should think of any of it; rather, they provide us with information and allow us to come up with our own conclusions.  Call it cryptic, call it guarded if you must, but Laibach traffics in informationdustrial; juxtaposing the rights and wrongs of the world with their own vaguely totalitarian, satirically neo-fascist spin, and then leaves it all to us to sort out. 

It’s an interesting goal, given that most artists would rather base their songs around their own beliefs and absolutes, a goal that makes Laibach far more interesting than most of the dark electronic artists they get lumped in with.  It’s also a goal that Divided States of America accomplishes with varying degrees of success.

Divided States of America is a concert film.  If this film is about anything in a literal sense, it is about Laibach and life on the road in the US.  It’s about fans and a tour bus and interviews with shady-looking sorts from college radio shows and cups of soup in diners with American flags on the walls, tablecloths, and hanging from the ceiling. 

And, in a sort of secondary way, it’s about music, as we see from the various clips of live performances that we wish we were at.  Laibach’s music is featured in the background, too, especially when there’s one of those keen “life on the road” montages, like you see on TV shows about fictional bands.  It’s also there when the cameraman tapes a flying plastic bag for two minutes, American Beauty style, for no particular discernable reason other than to try to get we, the viewers, to try and figure out why such a blatant and obvious cinematic reference was appropriate just then.

Look past the band-on-the-road focus, however, and Divided States of America is a portrait of everything that’s right and wrong with America, as told by anyone who agreed to be taped by Laibach’s cameras.  Obviously, most of those doing the telling are Laibach fans, most of them far more hardcore than this writer could ever hope to be, but cab drivers and political activists get in on the mix as well, whether they know who Laibach is or not. 

The views presented are unfailingly liberal, but in viewing the mix of opinions presented, one doesn’t get the impression that the Democratic viewpoint (or, at least, America’s translation of what a Democratic viewpoint is) is the answer, either; the most striking aspect of the interviews isn’t necessarily that everybody’s pissed off that Bush won, it’s that every single person who has an opinion about whether he should have won or not is absolutely, unequivocally sure that they are right, and the “other” side is wrong.  There is no room for compromise, there is no room for discussion, it’s simply taken as a matter of fact that the “other” side is the wrong side, because they do not subscribe to the views of the speaker.

Of course, such a divide invariably gives rise to a third side: the “America Sucks!” side.  The Laibach fans who don’t explicitly say that Kerry should have won tend to gravitate toward this viewpoint, as exemplified by a rather well-spoken representative of the Church of Satan who has decided that “America Possesses no soul, so technically, killing this country would not be a crime.”

It is in its exploration of this particular side that Laibach stumbles a bit—the band’s trademarked bone-dry humor can sometimes get the best of them, as it’s often difficult to discern where they’re being serious, where they’re being funny, and where they’re just trying to prod us to provoke a reaction (as I believe they are in the quote that opens this review).  They never break their facade of dead seriousness, but then they present us with things like a screen of white-on-black text that says “If you don’t like our music—turn around for 360 degrees and go.”  It’s this unexpected humor that tells us to beware of what we take too seriously; subscribe too close to someone else’s views, and you’re bound to be swallowed by those views. 

Still, the anti-American stench is palpable, often through cheap-shot, quick-hit images like a flyer that features one of the iconic images of Abu Ghraib with the words “MORAL VALUES” in block letters underneath, or a quick view of a ticker that displays the cost of the Iraq war thus far.  If Laibach truly wishes for us to think for ourselves, they should be more careful about the implications of such images.

Almost as an afterthought, a full concert is provided on the DVD as well, though oddly, it is not one of the shows in the American tour that is chronicled by the film.  Rather, it’s a show from later that year, filmed in Paris at La Locomotive. 

Perhaps Paris was a natural choice given the common impression that Frances holds general disdain for American policies and values, though Laibach wisely chose to avoid this topic altogether, perhaps to keep from stereotyping an entire country’s views.  What we get is Laibach being Laibach, pure and simple, with no fancy editing, no quick camera cuts, and no distracting lighting. 

They do their songs, those songs sound more or less the same as they do on the albums (though Milan Fras’ voice has notably deepened over the years), there’s some occasional fantastic choreography, lots of people get sweaty, and that’s that.  That said, much of the power of live Laibach is doubtless lost in the translation from stage to media, and as such, only the most devoted of Laibach fans will have the time or patience to watch the whole concert beginning to end.

Like it or not, what Divided States of America ultimately does is give face to the beauty of America (and the rest of what is considered the “free world”) via all of the ugly that it deigns to show.  When a National Socialist shows up to give his opinion of a Laibach show, even going so far as to acknowledge that Laibach would probably not approve of his politics, there’s something that’s actually a little appealing about the way he feels so spurred on, so free to express his views (while giving Laibach the requisite pats on the back).  He becomes a symbol of the way that anyone in that “free world” could do the same, as long as those views are expressed within the laws of the nation in which they are shared. 

Of course, there’s a punch line: he puts the wrong side of his cigarette into his mouth.  And Laibach, undoubtedly, joins us in giggling a little.

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