Deserter’s Songs – Hang on to Each Other: The Critical Dystopianism of Silver Mt.Zion
Arts & Culture, Columns, Deserter's Songs - Posted on Saturday, September 25, 2010 0:00 - 2 Comments
By David Bell
A couple of weeks back I provided an analysis of Talking Heads’ Heaven as a song about utopia: a place so ‘perfect’ that it’s a place where ‘nothing ever happens’. Yet, of course, such a place would be chillingly dystopian on both the existential and the political levels. In talking about Heaven I focussed solely on the former: the boredom that would be inherent in a society purged of all difference and hope for change. Yet more terrifying is the second: the totalitarianism that would be necessary in order to prevent change from rearing its head.
Dystopian literature, of course, is famous for the totalitarian control it employs- in both ‘hard’ forms (the executions in Nineteen Eighty Four and We) and ‘soft’ forms (soma in Brave New World). “Thank God”, the reader invariably thinks “that we don’t live in a society like this”.
Except perhaps we do. Is our world not itself totally closed to change? We are locked in what Mark Fisher calls ‘capitalist realism’ to the extent that it’s ‘easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism’. The triumphalism of capitalism has created a ‘utopia’ beyond which there seem to be no alternatives: a utopia that kills utopianism. Instead of the possibility of change we face an endless barrage of new ‘trends’ which produce nothing genuinely new and leads to a mind-numbing cultural boredom (soft totalitarianism), whilst brutal control is used unsparingly on those who do seek to challenge the system even peacefully (hard totalitarianism).
There is hope, though. Pockets of change springing up- prefigurative utopias showing that- in the words of the World Social Forum- “another world is possible”. Social centres; popular education collectives; communally held allotments; the new social movements in the global south: all point to ways of living beyond capitalism’s totalising utopia. There is a light in the darkness.
The music of the Canadian band Silver Mt.Zion (variously adapted to Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra, A Silver Mt. Zion, The Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra & Tra-La-La Band, Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra and Tra-La-La Band with Choir and Thee Silver Mountain Reveries) expresses this juxtaposition of horror and hope better than any other I know. Their pained, sorrowful and always beautiful music invites the listener to meditate on the horrors of US imperialism; the ineptness of Canadian politicians and the general “shit and dismay” of a world in which neoliberal capitalism has run amok.
They encouraged visitors to their website to read Robert Fisk’s The Great War for Civilisation: a harrowing account of the west’s involvement in the Middle East over the last 25 years and frequently and articulately denounce neoliberal capitalism in interviews. But it’s their music that’s their most effective communicative device: moment coming in the song Ring Them Bells (Freedom Has Come and Gone) when they invite the listener to “Imagine the view/From a helicopter gunship/When the man comes into view/And you hit that switch and you cut that man in two”.
This is a band that’s acutely aware of the dystopian nature of our present reality. Yet to call their music purely dystopian is to deny it its openly utopian aspects. In that sense, it might be best regarded as a ‘critical dystopia’: a dystopia in which there is some glimmer of hope for future change. Many scholars see critical dystopias as texts which play into the hands of the reigning orthodoxy- the lone individual battling against a totalitarian communist/fascist state. Yet this is something of a misnomer, for even in the classic dystopias which focus on a single individual’s struggle against an oppressive, ‘collectivising’ state the hope for transformation lies not solely with such atomised individuals, but with a different form of collective: the anarchistic Mephi resistance movement in Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We and Winston Smith’s claim that “if there is hope, it lies with the proles” in Nineteen Eighty Four.
This communal aspect is emphasised in much of Silver Mt.Zion’s music, in which the vocals are sung in beautiful, choir-like harmonies. Sow Some Lonesome Corners So Many Flowers Bloom, the opening track to their 2003 album “This Is Our Punk-Rock,” Thee Rusted Satellites Gather + Sing,* was inspired by communal shape note music whilst Hang on To Each Other from 2005’s Horses in the Sky album was recorded around a camp fire (which can be heard crackling in the background). To see them perform live, meanwhile, is to experience the genuine power of people working together. Yet this does not mean each person becomes lost in the collective: they become ‘dividuals’ and acknowledge, as Lewis Hyde has put it, that ‘we are always simultaneously individuals and sunk in our communities’.
Their lyrics also extol the power the power of community. The song Microphones in the Trees, for example, begins by poetically detailing the oppressive regimes of surveillance we are subjected to before opening up into a chorus of utopian hope which, when played live, precedes an ecstatic instrumental climax:Microphones in the trees- cameras in the sky Antennas in the canyon, and the lobby’s full of spies; For us who are like bulldozers Sleeping in the sun, For us who are like lightning Buried in the mud Don’t! Give! Up! Don’t! Give! In! Our time will come ’cause we are the flood.
Yet even at its most strident, Silver Mt.Zion’s music remains tinged with a melancholy. But it’s from this melancholy that their beauty and hope also comes, and there’s an important message in that. Our world may be fucked, but it’s not how things have to be.
This isn’t heaven, and it needn’t be a place where nothing ever happens.
David Bell is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham. His work seeks to rethink utopianism through the work of Gilles Deleuze and anarchist thought. He is currently writing a book on the politics of improvising music for Zer0 Books. Deserter’s Song, his column on music, is published every Saturday.
*this comma is in the album title!
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