Manic Street Preachers
Photo: Alex Lake / Courtesy of the artist

Orwellian Times: On Manic Street Preachers’ ‘The Ultra Vivid Lament’

Manic Street Preachers’ The Ultra Vivid Lament is driven by George Orwell’s aim to make political writing into art.

The Ultra Vivid Lament
Manic Street Preachers
Columbia
3 September 2021

The Manics’ Dystopic References

The album’s political dimensions can be understood, in line of Orwell, in the broadest sense possible: as the aim ‘to alter other people’s idea of the kind of society that they should strive after’ (Orwell 2003: 5). In the case of The Ultra Vivid Lament this aim comes about in a specific manner: by critically showing in what kind of society the lyrical ‘I’, as well as its listeners, do live, without necessarily claiming in what kind of society we should live. The choice for this approach is fueled by, and the lyrics of several songs on The Ultra Vivid Lament make clear, that it is becoming increasingly difficult to carve out a position in contemporary political debates. The only thing the self is able to do, these lyrics suggest, is reflect on the claim that this is difficult and express the confusion and alienation caused by this situation. This is the first dimension of the lament constituted by the album: a lament for truth, meaningful discourse, and connection, which are, the album suggests, drowning in a post-truth political landscape.  

This lament is most clearly expressed in the song ‘Orwellian’, released as the album’s first single on 14 May 2021. The lyrics open with the following four lines: ‘We live in Orwellian times / It feels impossible to pick a side / In sentences that dance and hide / The truth becomes a broken lie’. Referring as well to words that ‘wage war’ and meanings that are ‘being missed’, ‘Orwellian’ criticizes the contemporary phenomena often characterized as ‘culture wars’ for turning political and social debates into shouting matches that are no longer concerned with listening to each other and with developing meaningful arguments.

Instead, the lyrics suggest, these wars have divided the political arena into two camps that deliberately misrepresent each other without exploring the many different sides of political standpoints, experiences, and ideas. The word ‘Orwellian’ was chosen as the song’s title because it is continuously ‘weaponized‘ by the right and the left, employed as a reference to 1984 to argue that ‘the other side’ tries to frame debates by policing language and presenting falsehoods as truths. In his analysis of the album, Price observes that some of the lyrics of ‘Orwellian’, as well as this explanation for the title, come across as a bit simplistic: 

Taken in isolation – which is literally what happens when you release a single (especially an album’s lead single) – it feels a little weak, a compromised response to extreme times. “It feels impossible to pick a side”, Wire writes (and Bradfield sings). Does it really, when the right are in the ascendancy? This equivocation smells like a cop-out.

(Price 2021)

To some extent I agree, but this analysis pushes the song’s meaning into the same dualism between two ‘sides’ that ‘Orwellian’ encourages its listeners to question. By lamenting truth, critical reflection and social connection, meaningful disagreement and discourse, after all, the song expresses the idea that it feels impossible to uniformly pick a side because one may have different opinions and ideas about different issues. Reducing the debate to two sides misses the importance of knowledge, reflection, debate, and argumentation, as well as the willingness to listen to each other and recognize the value of each other’s experiences.

‘Everywhere you look’, ‘Orwellian’ goes on, ‘The future fights the past / The books begin to burn’. Given the song’s title, it is impossible not to link the first line to the famous slogan of the Party in Orwell’s 1984, that ‘who controls the past controls the future’ and that ‘who controls the present controls the past’ (Orwell 1977: 33 – these lines occur prominently as well in Rage Against the Machine’s ‘Testify’).

Not only does this reference again emphasize the importance of, in this case, historical knowledge, it also points at a different aspect of the political and social whole diagnosed on The Ultra Vivid Lament: the moment history disappears and is changed in the name of concerns of the present or ideas about the future, we come to live in a ‘perpetual now’ (see also Peters 2020: 283) in which we are destined to respond ad hoc to each other’s claims and arguments without recognizing their political and intellectual history and without exploring the multi-dimensional contexts in which words gain meaning. 

This idea resonates as well with the second line of this passage, regarding books that ‘begin to burn’. The song’s references to Orwell and 1984 point the listener, when hearing this line, to another dystopian novel: Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, which depicts a society in which books are burned to destroy knowledge and to make people uncritically accept the social and political status quo. Again, therefore, this reference emphasizes the value and importance of reading, writing, reflecting, and exploring different perspectives and experiences, which often means that one is confronted with ideas that one might not necessarily agree with. 

People Machines

This lament for truth, for meaningful discourse, for education, and for a recognition of historical knowledge is furthermore linked in ‘Orwellian’ to digitalization processes, social media, and big tech companies. The algorithms shaped by the latter companies, the song suggests, are to a large extent responsible for the tribalistic and simplistic culture wars revolving around the phrase ‘Orwellian’, as well as for the constitution of a perpetual digital ‘now’ in which historical awareness loses its relevance.

Bradfield already made similar claims in a 2018 interview, stating for example about the title of their fifth album: ‘That’s why Nick called our album ‘This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours’. It says ‘This Is MY Truth, now TELL ME YOURS’. Not ‘This Is My Truth now let the algorithm send me a truth that’s the same as mine’. There’s an algorithmic pressure to make you read things that will keep you warm at night because they agree with you, and that’s just very, very unhealthy’.

The lyrics of ‘Orwellian’ make a similar claim by mentioning ‘people machines’ that are ‘still making fools out of us’. This phrase, as Clarke notes as well, refers to the American Simulmatics Corporation, founded in 1959 to develop mathematical models that would be able to predict and eventually manipulate the behavior of people. Jill Lepore writes in If Then: How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future about these machines:

Simulmatics’ scientists were known as the What-If Men. They believed that by simulating human behavior, their People Machine could help the human race avert each and every disaster. It could defeat communism. It could counter insurgencies. It could win elections. It could sell mouthwash. It could accelerate news, like so much amphetamine. It could calm agitated wives. It could win the war in Vietnam by targeting hearts and minds. It could predict race riots, and even plagues. It could end chaos.

(Lepore 2020: 20)

In 1964 the Simulmatics Corporation and its ‘people machines’ were critically explored in Eugene Burdick’s novel The 480, and in 1973 in Rainer Maria Fassbinder’s television serial Welt am Draht. Mentioning them again in a popular music song in 2021, Manic Street Preachers make the listener aware of the long history of algorithmic-driven forms of manipulation, providing the ‘perpetual now’ to which these same algorithms reduce us with a historical background. As Lepore writes: 

Hardly anyone, almost no one, remembers Simulmatics anymore. But beneath that  honeycombed dome, the scientists of this long-vanished American corporation helped build the machine in which humanity would, by the twenty-first century, find itself trapped and tormented: stripped bare, driven to distraction, deprived of its senses, interrupted, exploited, directed, connected and disconnected, bought and sold, alienated and coerced, confused, misinformed, and even governed. They never meant to hurt anyone.

(Lepore 2020: 16)

Warnings for a post-postmodern age characterized by critic Alan Kirby as revolving around digimodernism have formed a continuing theme in Manic Street Preachers releases: they can already be found, for example, in ‘Don’t Be Evil’ (on 2012’s Postcards from a Young Man), named after Google’s former motto. Furthermore, they formed an explanation for the photograph used for the cover of their 2018 album Resistance is Futile. Depicting one of the last Samurai Warriors, Wire stated: ‘I just can’t navigate myself through the digital hysteria and political insanity of the current times. I’d be lying if I said I felt that absolutism of my youth now, because everything overlaps. That’s the idea of the samurai warrior being an analogy for us – everyone else has their iPhones and we’ve still got our guitars’.

In several interviews, Manic Street Preachers also linked these warnings for digitized processes of polarization to reflections on the fragmentation of working-class consciousness and the splintering of the left‘. In ‘Orwellian’ this analysis returns in the lines ‘A deepening sense of fear of crime / On the playing fields in exclusive clubs / And the people machines still making fools out of us’. Coupling these lines suggests that the culture wars that are being fought, propelled by social media, undermine the possibility of leftist critical resistance, eventually playing into the hands of the upper classes as well as conservative and reactionary movements. Furthermore, the album’s title suggests, we are all aware of this situation: we see truth and meaningful discourse disappear in an algorithm-steered age, but it feels like nothing can be done about it, apart from lamenting its disappearance. This is what makes this lament ultra vivid in character.

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