Music

Ministry, L7, Sex, and Violence

Photo: Phil Parmet

We need to talk about Ministry's anti-war statement, because it encapsulates so much that's so wrong about testosterone-driven masculinist activism.

It opens with a menacing electronic throb. Jet fighters streak overhead, bombing targets. Cue the hard, driving bass and guitars; sampled percussive beats kick in. Cue more images of missiles firing, bombs falling, tanks rolling. A nefariously made-up Joker-like character laughs at the viewer: "War is fucking sexy." Skulls on fenceposts; more missiles and bombs; soldiers in trenches. Scantily-clad women appear, hopping about in sexualised military uniforms. The vocals descend, textured through metallic reverb: "Death, power and sex / These are the things that we do best".

In case you haven't yet realized, it's an anti-war video.

That was a bit sarcastic: you could be forgiven for not realizing it's an anti-war video. In fact, if you were a pro-war fanatic -- the sort of person who loves nothing more than stockpiling guns, watching misogynistic videos of naked women and fantasizing about bombing other countries into the dust -- you'd probably like it.

We need to talk about Ministry's anti-war statement, because it encapsulates so much that's so wrong about testosterone-driven masculinist activism. The song is called "Wargasm", and it's featured on Ministry's newest album, AmeriKKKant. It's not the only song to use that title, and thus lends itself to a fascinating comparison. Twenty-five years ago, seminal all-woman hard rock band L7 -- who inspired much of the grunge and riotgrrl scene -- also released a song called "Wargasm" on their 1992 album Bricks Are Heavy. No, Ministry's version is not a cover. It's a brand new song, appropriating the title of the L7 classic.

It's impossible not to compare the two songs. Two bands: one all-woman, the other all-man, doing a song with the same title, same message, 25 years apart. They're even roughly contemporaneous bands (of course, Ministry could say that about any band from the past 40 years).

In terms of content, the two songs are equally short and to the point (Ministry's is about two minutes longer, perhaps to accommodate all those extra images of bombs and naked women), both expressing the sentiment that our governments -- especially the US government -- have an addiction to war that's almost sexual in nature. Ministry's song is directed at the fraught politics of the American present. For US President Donald Trump and his ilk, it suggests, violence is desirable; carnage is arousing. The song's intent comes from a good place. It's intended as a broad critique of elite-driven militarism but as with so many other metaphorical messages in this era, the line between satire and reality becomes increasingly corroded.

Ministry: "Death power and sex / These are the things that we do best… Carnage and calamity / It's how we masturbate…"

L7's version casts its net a bit more broadly, flagging the US government's double standard of glorifying war yet ignoring and mistreating amputees and vets; likewise its disdainful treatment of the refugees created when it bombs out country after country. "Wargasm, wargasm one, two, three / Tie a yellow ribbon around the amputee / Masturbate watch it on TV / Crocodile tears for the refugee…"

Ministry doesn't aspire quite so high, sticking mostly to their chorus of "Wargasm addict / We'll blow you away", yet they do flag the sexual violence inherent in war: "Subjugate… then rape".

The Big Difference Between Ministry and L7's Songs

Neither song aspires to be deeply intellectual, but there is one huge difference between the two: their use of imagery. L7 used none: there was to my knowledge no official video, so the song is most immediately associated with live recordings of its performance, such as this one:

Ministry did produce an official video for their song. It too features extensive footage of the band on stage, in poses nearly identical to those of L7, but with one notable exception: the video is also stock full of images of women in skimpy military attire, combined with imagery of war: bombs falling, missiles firing, soldiers marching.

These differences are significant. Both bands draw connections between sex and war, in a manner which they intend to be critical of war. But only the male band – Ministry – felt the need to underscore it so emphatically with images of naked women. To what end? Do they think viewers are really stupid enough that they don't get the lyrics: "Violence! We love it! / We just can't get enough of it!"

The women of L7 felt no need to do the same. The only women in their video recordings of the song are the powerful women on stage.

For Whom Is Ministry's Video Made?

There are important consequences that flow from the use of sexist and violent imagery. While still rampantly common in much of the music industry, Ministry's video merits a different scale of scrutiny because it purports to be sending a progressive message; that's the song's shtick, so to speak. Yet the conflation of violent and sexual imagery problematizes this message.

It takes no conspiratorial leap to point out that music and videos are often taken out of context, even directly abused. In 2010, an article in Foreign Policy offered a 'Top 10' of the best music for heading into combat, noting that a lot of soldiers like to listen to "grandiose, amateurish, cliched, narcissistic, high-energy songs — but of course, that's what heavy metal is all about, as is a lot of male adolescence."

Ministry would no doubt fit right in.

The lyric content doesn't even matter so much as the sound and energy of the piece. In response to the incongruity of Rage Against the Machine -- an overwhelmingly anti-imperialist, anti-establishment band -- appearing on lists of favourites from troops in combat areas, one US military officer cited in the article shrugged: "Hey, I get my music from them, not my politics."

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It's also been revealed that loud and aggressive music is used by the US military in torturing prisoners. Canadian industrial band Skinny Puppy famously sued the US government when they learned their music had been appropriated for illegal ends in the employment of torture.

The point is this: it's not enough to just say that your music is anti-war. Bands need to be cognizant of how they express that message and how their music is used and abused, especially when they claim to express one message but deploy imagery that suggests an altogether different one. When they do so, they open themselves up to accusations of fence-sitting and ambivalence: producing a video that claims to be for one audience, while ensuring it's equally appealing to the very opposite audience too.

That's not to say L7 couldn't, or hasn't, been used by the US military as well; "Wargasm" is a catchy, loud and aggressive song. But it doesn't rely on pictures of violence, death and naked women, and this helps to forestall the potential of its misuse and more strongly anchor it in the intended context: an anti-war, anti-macho-militarism message. They didn't necessarily subject their song to this scale of analysis, but it doesn't really matter. This point is this: they don't rely on objectifying women to get their message across.

Satirical Sexism?

In a 21 September 2010 post on her site Feminist Current, Anita Sarkeesian called out advertisers who engage in "retro sexism and ironic advertising." She defines 'retro sexism' as: "Retro Sexism (n.): Modern attitudes and behaviors that mimic or glorify sexist aspects of the past, often in an ironic way." The problem with that, she goes on to explain, is that it's a tricky way to design a message so as to appeal to two audiences with opposite interests simultaneously.

"It's really the normalization of sexism through the use of irony. It's the 'they know that I know that they know, that they're being sexist,'" she writes.

In fact, she explains, this 'ironic sexism' "...doesn't challenge anything. Marketers love the uber ironic sexist style of advertising because they can use all the racist, sexist misogynist imagery they want and simultaneously distance themselves from it with a little wink and a nod."

There's a similar dynamic happening in the Ministry video - an attempt at a progressive social critique, but one gratuitously and self-indulgently laden with unnecessary sexist, violent imagery.

In a recent issue of Wales Arts Review, musician and producer Angharad van Rijswijk poses the very important question: "When does satirical sexism become just plain good old-fashioned sexism?"

"For me, that thin line between satirical and actual sexism were presented to me when one day I just said it wasn't funny anymore," she writes. "Guys, it's… boring. Can we all just get on with it now please? The same shitty jokes day after day that are beginning to sound really suspicious. It's the responses you get that turn from cheeky elbow nudging satire to nasty biting stereotypical beliefs. It turns out they do think and believe most of the things they say, just not in the way they like to be perceived. How very clever, you can say what you like, but call it a joke. LOL."

After exploring some of her experiences studying music tech, she concludes:

"So it's all beginning to make sense now. Why this shit still carries on into higher forms of education and then later on in professional fields. It's clear that not enough is being taught or perhaps more importantly, led by example… there is still not enough being done in our education system. By education system, I don't exclusively mean just schools, colleges, universities etc.

"Education in the home, on the street, in work and so on. The problem from my point of view is that it's tolerated, and tolerance sieves through and through and through, until you end up one day with this weird semi-transparent fog that lingers cunningly and confused. It doesn't know whether it wants to be a soft or a satirical sexism."

That, I think, is a key point: lead by example. Ministry had an excellent opportunity to do so, but instead released a soft-porn video with images glorifying war and objectifying women, under the guise of making an anti-war statement. This is not to criticize Ministry for trying to be political. Ministry frontman Al Jourgensen, in particular, has been unapologetic about putting out political messages even when they may be unpopular; earlier this year he called men to task in the wake of widespread sexual harassment and assault complaints in the entertainment industry.

Yet when you produce a video that's just as appealing for the other side as the side you're purportedly making it for -- and when you make that video drawing on all the images which perpetuate the ideologies you claim that you're writing against -- what exactly are you accomplishing? You've put out a song with a message obliquely expressed in distorted vocals that are largely drowned out by the loud and violent music (except for your keywords: Death! Violence! Sex!); one which can be enjoyed by everyone, including those who love the very things you claim to hate.

Contrast that with the same message expressed by L7: an all-woman band who didn't feel the need to pepper their videos with big bombs and naked women, but who presented it simply, straightforwardly, with all the energy and anger it deserves. They did it without appealing to viewers by objectifying women; and they did it without couching their message in abstractions that could be ignored. As they put it in the opening to their live performance of Wargasm in Rio in 1993, calling out the armies participating in the Balkan War at the time:

"It's really fucked up, so this is going out to all those assholes."

Now that's how you make a point.

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