Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Of Desperation and Desire in The Killers’ Battle Born

This paper was presented at the International Association for the Study of Popular Music - Canadian Branch Annual Conference in Hamilton, Ontario, in 2013. Some of the material here went on to a book review on Virilio that was published by Philosophy in Review. Some Virilio material also found its way into my book on Bowie, released by McFarland in 2015.

This paper will explore transience, desire, desperation and labour in the songs of The Killer’s Battle Born. It will take into account theoretical notions of desire and transience, in order to demonstrate how the album encapsulates these notions, creating a vivid picture, a desperate moment in time.

The celebrated Las Vegas band, The Killers, released their fourth studio album in 2012, called Battle Born. The band has also released 3 music videos in association with the album. Not all of the reviews seem to exactly legitimize the band’s output; while the reviewers of the song and video are mostly positive in their assessment, they are not always entirely serious. Jason Lipshutz, writing for Billboard, encourages the fans to “Let your fists punch the cold night air, rock fans—this one’s for you.” Writing for Rolling Stone, Jon Dolan describes Brandon Flowers’ singing with the following: “singer Brandon Flowers’ unmistakable commitment to unmistakable commitment. . . . Kind of cool, kind of ridiculous, and Vegas all the way.”

“Runaways,” though, recounts the experience of requited teenage love which blossoms to engagement because of pregnancy. Unfortunately, the male narrator of the song seems to have some trouble with the arrangement: “but I got the tendency to slip when the nights get wild.” Now married, the protagonist seems unsettled, pining for their happy past together. Nevertheless, the protagonist ends the song with the resolution that he will not let her go, since, after all, we are just “runaways.” What is particularly interesting for this present study is the nature of the lyrics: Flowers creates descriptive verses that seem to carry the song along a loose narrative. He writes of “blonde hair blowin’ in the summer wind / a blue-eyed girl playing in the sand,” and of their time later, “at night I come home after they [that is, the protagonist’s wife and child] go to sleep / like a stumbling ghost, I haunt these halls / There’s a picture of us on our wedding day.” These are vivid images that both involve and evoke photographs. Can the various vivid images that are captured in the lyrics of “Runaways” be likened to photographs, mediated “slices” of a sort of reality, arresting an image and enticing the viewer to discover the greater narrative?

If so, do they contain what Roland Barthes calls an “air,” the notion of the soul, the shadow, that makes an image “true”? Then this is the locus of the listener’s desire, what keeps the listener listening, and what makes, for that listener, the songs “true.” In his novelistic study of photography as a cultural process published in 1980, Camera Lucida, Barthes writes about the desire that he confronts when dealing with certain photographs. He wishes to “enter the paper’s depth,” a desire to see something more than simply the image that is presented. (100) He refers to notions of desire here: “I can have the fond hope of discovering truth,” though he admits he will not find it. (99)

He suggests that, sometimes, he perceives something of the truth in a photograph, what he calls “a likeness,” but the likeness is imprecise or imaginary. He concludes, “I cannot penetrate, cannot reach into the Photograph.” The photograph is unlike the text; that is, “our vision of it is certain,” a curious thing for a semiologist to suggest. The photograph arrests interpretation: “this-has-been.” (106-107)

Barthes’ frustration is evident here: he still seeks (more properly, desires) something more in the photograph. He wishes to discover the person in the photograph completely. It seems here that Barthes is grasping at straws, so to speak. He wants to find the truth in a photograph, and so he finds, as the locus of his desires, the air (or the expression). But then he immediately writes, “The air of a face is unanalyzable.” (107) But it evokes for the observer, “little individual soul, good in one person, bad in another.” (109) The air is what allows Barthes to identify his mother in the Winter Garden photograph.

For Barthes, this is the culmination of his desperate search through photographs, something that began as a phenomenological study of why photographs, these “slices of reality,” papers imbued with such memory and power, were so effective, and what draws people to view and keep them. Partly, the study emerges from the mourning that Barthes was experiencing due to the death of his mother in 1978.

Brian Dillon puts it this way:
Having lost his mother, with whom he had lived most of his life, he goes looking for her among old photographs; time and again the face he finds is not quite hers, even if objectively she looks like herself. At last, he discovers her true likeness, the “air” that he remembers, in a picture of Henriette aged five, taken in a winter garden in 1898. (In the journal entry that recounts this discovery, Barthes simply notes: “Je pleure.”)
Barthes explains it as follows:
All the photographs of my mother which I was looking through were a little like so many masks; at the last, suddenly the mask vanished: there remained a soul, ageless but not timeless, since this air was the person I used to see, consubstantial with her face, each day of her long life. (110)
This is what makes a true photograph: the capturing of the air (one’s soul, one’s shadow). But then consider Flowers’ words to the song “Here with Me,” in which he sings, “Don’t want your picture / on my cell phone / I want you here with me.” In this instance, the cell phone as carrier of images, does not allow the transmission of the “air” of the subject of the photograph. The narrator desires to have the person with them, physically present, rather than present in the photograph.

If one can think of the narrative and descriptive moments in the songs as photographs, can one think of the songs as fleeting and transient as well? Paul Virilio speaks of a kind of desperation in the transience of modern global society.

Is such transience also depicted in the spacial aspects of the music, such as on the track “Battle Born”? Writers at Billboard describe the song this way: “Rather than descend back towards earth on the album’s final song, the Killers come out guns blazing on ‘Battle Born’s’ finale.” The song begins with a single guitar playing over some soft strings until the full band joins it, until succumbing to a more sparse accompaniment once Flowers begins singing the first verse. With the chorus, the guitars rise in volume and the listener hears the first instance of strong background vocals (evoking Queen’s choir-like backing vocals). These vocals contribute to an increasing intensity as the song develops to a sort of climax, during which Flowers and the backing vocals alternate their delivery, in a sort of two-pronged attack that not only builds intensity, but also contributes to a sense of greater aural space. This might be why the writers at billboard use the following phrases to describe the album’s sounds: Battle Born contains songs that come close to “stadium size”; “stadium ready”; “aspiring anthem,” that is, songs that are aspiring to be anthemic; and songs “rooted in 80s arena riffage.” What is particularly compelling here is not only the description of aural space that the writers describe, but also the memory or nostalgia that is evoked in these sorts of phrases. The Killers and its lead singer Flowers cannot stand on their—or his—own, but must instead be situated among other artists, be it Queen, Bruce Springsteen or U2. Just as photographs point directly to their referents, so The Killers point to those bands that precede them. In a way, like photography, The Killers keep their referents alive. Of photography, Walter Benjamin writes,
No matter how artful the photographer, no matter how carefully posed his subject, the beholder feels an irresistible urge to search a picture for the tiny spark of contingency, of the Here and Now, with which reality has so to speak seared the subject, to find the inconspicuous spot where in the immediacy of that long-forgotten moment the future subsists so eloquently that we, looking back, may rediscover it. (510)
As Steve Edwards explains, in his brief history of photography, “Memory is, after all, a trace or impression of the past that takes place in the present.” (120)

One must also consider Brandon Flowers’ singing voice in this discussion: Flowers employs a very quick vibrato, which evokes the feeling that he is pushing his voice. His intonation is often slightly sharp, a consequence often blamed on tension in the singing voice. Both tension and the notion of pushing the voice both connote desparation, or the manic working out of some issue.

Desperation is often manifest in a kind of labour, in getting “worked up.” Both Barthes and Paul Virilio hint at this, in that desire demands a certain amount of work, in expressing, of searching and consuming, of effort in moving from one place to another to escape congestion, to long for another place or the next place.

Consider the depiction of airfields and road vehicles in “The Way it Was,” and the transience and soft relationships of new communications technologies in “Here with Me” (with images on cell phones rather than personal intimacy)?

Paul Virilio, in his book The Futurism of the Instant: Stop-Eject, approaches the subject of future environmental migrants, those displaced by conflict as well as by development projects. If earlier eras were about ‘sustainable staying-put,’ this new era will be one of ‘habitable circulation,’ which calls into question notions of citizenship and nationhood. He calls the resulting upheavals the ‘portable revolution,’ which, along with revolutions in transportation and transmission technologies, will lead to what he calls an ‘interactive planisphere.’ Throughout the work, Virilio moves from the smaller scale (for instance, discussing the loading dock or the train station) to the larger scale (the city as a whole, or the whole world in movement), suggesting that these spaces of movement are ultimately ungovernable, at least in terms of conventional legal governance.

Throughout the book, Virilio explores the idea of speed in the early twenty-first century and its results. His text is formatted for speed: he mentions issues and leaves them, moving on to a new issue with a new paragraph; this is not unlike the fragmentary nature of song lyrics. His book is an uncompromising look at the power of what he calls révolution de l’emport, or what translator Julie Rose has deemed the ‘portable revolution,’ a movement enacted because of the increases in the ‘payload capacity,’ or capacité d’emport, of the twenty-first century, in terms of transportation and communications technologies. If space is problematized in the twenty-first century, due to progress in terms of communication and transportation technologies, so is time, as Virilio argues in the third section of the book, ‘The Futurism of the Instant.’ What he calls ‘the balance of computerized terror’ leads to a loss of memory—a loss of the past, but also a loss of the future. Virilio argues, rather, that the result is the experience of a kind of perpetual instant.

What Virilio sees as a blight he also sees as a solution: in order to solve problems such as the erasure of space and time, and the chronic consumption of the Earth by its occupants, he suggests that we become nomads, to counteract the sedentary characteristics of the Ultracity. In its constant communication and transportation flows, one can find, in a way, rootedness. This is a rootedness in the notion of global citizenship, a community of all peoples, for the sake of the planet. If Virilio’s work seems too negative, he at least offers some glimmer of hope in a method of reversal of what, in other parts of his book, seem to be inevitable results of technological and spacial globalization.

The Killers are fundamentally, then, a band without roots: drawing musically from the 1980s, informed by the 2000s, inspired by English and Irish bands, and situated in the western United States. Their “unrootedness,” their supeficiality as recognized by reviewers, is manifest in their desperation, as they exist as a sort of photograph of the “perpetual instant.”


Author Unknown. “The Killers, ‘Battle Born’: Track-By-Track Review.” (17 September 2012). Available from Internet. Accessed 30 April 2013.

Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. Translated by Richard Howard. New York: Hill and Wang, 1981.

Benjamin, Walter. “Little History of Photography.” Selected Writings, Volume 2 (1927-1934). Edited by Michael W. Jennings. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard UP, 1999.

Dillon, Brian. “Rereading: Camera Lucida by Roland Barthes.” The Guardian (26 March 2011). Available from Internet. Accessed 29 April 2013.

Dolan, Jon. “Reviews: The Killers—‘Runaways.’” Rolling Stone (13 July 2012). Available from Internet. Accessed 29 April 2013.

Edwards, Steve. Photography: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Lipshutz, Jason. “Watch The Killers Be Epic in Their ‘Runaways’ Music Video.” (26 July 2012). Available from Internet. Accessed 29 April 2013.

Virilio, Paul. The Futurism of the Instant: Stop-Eject. Translated by Julie Rose. Cambridge: Polity, 2010.

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

Father Elijah

Father Elijah was the first Michael O'Brien book that I ever read, on the recommendation of a friend. As a young Evangelical Protestant, the story of a priest, along with (what I thought was) Vatican intrigue and Stato (the Vatican Secretary of State) and Dottrina (the Vatican Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) was a sort of exotic Other for me. I thought the story was a great read and a glimpse into a world that I found both mysterious and a bit forbidden (being a Protestant, after all). Rereading the book many years later, I didn't find it as effective as I did when I was younger: there are moments in the narrative during which the pages turn quickly (if you will), but there are others where O'Brien seems to step on his own soap-box, decrying societal lack or spiritual insensitivity. This is not to say that there isn't a very sincere and proper heart to the book. I think it does something quite daring, if not a bit theatrical. It tries to be a Roman Catholic take on apocalyptic--Dispensational-flavoured-- literature. In 2016, O'Brien published a follow-up to Father Elijah called Elijah in Jerusalem, a new book which spurred me on to read the older works. Part of the experience was nostalgic: I'm in a very different place personally than I was upon first reading. I must thank O'Brien, though, for this earlier book, a sort of guide for where I would be today, and a sincere and proper heart at the centre of his work.