Posts Tagged ‘future’

On ‘Children of Men’


I often describe this film to the unfortunate folks who haven’t heard of or seen it as “2007 turned up to 11” (actually, I think I did read an interview with the art director (or someone?) who explained that the future of the film had to be “like the present, but more so”). In that way, it’s like the cinematic equivalent of James McMurtry’s 2005 We Can’t Make It Here Anymore, a song that similarly captures the turned-up-to-11 bleakness of the Bush years:

Basically, it’s all the worst parts of the Oughts, where if you watched the news it looked like a possible war with Iran, climate change data was coming in and being disregarded, bird flu was on the horizon, Somalia was imploding (again), and it was gray and rainy for like, a month straight. Well, add a pandemic of infertility and throw it all into a blender with some beautiful cinematography and a very interesting soundtrack and Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men is what you get. In other words, because its roots are solidly in the actual present, it’s an entirely plausible (and thereby cautionary) future.

Together, this film and Max Brooks’ World War Z have probably had the biggest impact on my outlook of a postapocalyptic world; since both futures draw inspiration from histories past and present, both reinforce the fact that almost nothing happens in a vacuum: waves of refugees can result from distant wars (“Africa devastated by nuclear fallout” a background newspaper reads), rising sea levels (Maldives, anyone?), crop failures (don’t even get me started on totalitarian monocrop agriculture), &c.  It’s a good exercise—I can look at a scenario in one of these works and see how it might have come to be, and then pull back farther to see how it relates to what’s happening now.
By extension, these two properties have also played a huge role in influencing my philosophy on our idea of ‘survival’ in its current form, doomsday-ism, &c. As both are essentially topical, applicable, and political (as opposed to the apolitical, purely-entertainment ‘Zombie 2.0’ media wave), I don’t worry about The End of the World; I’ve always found it more important to focus on The End Of The World As We Know It (aka The End of Our Culture’s Unsustainable Way of Life), I educate myself on the key shatterpoints in play (and their root causes), and then imagine (or find in history) sustainable alternatives to embrace.

On a superficial level, this is also one of the few films where I see or pick up on something new each time I watch it (ditto for reading WWZ). I would love to see an annotated version of the film that takes time to point out all the little shout-outs (everything from Banksy’s art, Pink Floyd, and T.S. Elliot to next-gen military hardware and the use of oranges as foreshadowing a la The Godfather, &c.).
Actually, that might be a fun future post

Finally—and people always look at me like I’m batshit insane when I say this—this is my Christmas movie. Why? Best let me deconstruct it:

Our story takes place in December.
A man and an expecting woman travel together, going through many obstacles.
The woman is with child, but not by the man.
The woman’s child is the result of a miraculous conception.
The child will apparently redeem humanity.
The protagonist goes through his journey wearing sandals.

Now, did I just outline Cuaron’s Children of Men, or the story of the Nativity?

shanti shanti shanti!

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The Suburbs: ‘Deep Blue’

Here are my place and time
And here in my own skin, I can finally begin
Let the century pass me by
Standing under a night sky, tomorrow means nothing

It was with this song that I first started to suspect that there was an ‘Arcade Fire Sound’, which I can now articulate as ‘dystopian songs in A-minor with funky electronic backings’.
Once again, we have a reference to at long last being able to start or begin. Could it be that our singer—like that of The Smashing Pumpkins’ Muzzle, with its epiphanic climaxis at last at peace with his place in the world? After all, in the infinitude of multiverse, there can really only be one you in this time, this place.
As for that last line, the night sky falls neatly into the category of uncivilized Wild imagery; when you spend time soaking in the non-human world, you begin to realize how silly our attempts to control the flow of time really are. Spend an evening stargazing and tomorrow really does mean nothing. Here’s an experiment: go to bed early one night, then get up an hour or two before sunrise, and just watch and experience how the sky changes colour in the foredawn. There’s something sublime about the slow glow of a sunrise that the instantaneous flick of an electrically-charged liquid crystal can never capture.

I was only a child then feeling barely alive
when I heard a song from the speaker of a passing car
And prayed to a dying star, the memory’s fading
I can almost remember singing la la la, la la la la…

Now, another quintessential-Butler verse vignette: our singer as a boy (if it’s Win, this takes place in the ’80s), a car drives past, the radio plays some half-forgotten song. As for the identity of that song, Win has suggested that it might’ve been Depeche Mode, which would be pretty awesome if that’s the case. My real question is—what’s the dying star? Is it the general state of things, or our relationship with technology (because at its heart, that’s what this—and the next—song is all about)?

We watched the end of the century
Compressed on a tiny screen, a dead star collapsing,
and we could see that something was ending
Are you through pretending? We saw its signs in the suburbs!

Now, after turning the page of the millennial calendar, things are different. Glowing screens abound; people walk around all day with shiny devices stuck to their faces, cutting them off from all those around them; people experience life with gadget-screen as intermediary, recording and uploading every trifling moment of our lives. We’re connected, but we’re not connecting.
When our singer “was only a child”, the star (and the state of things) was merely dying; twenty-odd years (an entirely insignificant amount of time, on the planetary scale) later, that star has now died, and begun to collapse.
What could they see that was ending? While I’d like to say ‘the System’ or ‘the suburban way of life’, I think it would hit closer to the mark to say a world in which people were just people—we weren’t completely married to (and overly reliant upon) our beeping, glowing screens just quite yet.
I suppose it’s possible the Singularity is the endpoint of this path down which we’re blindly proceeding, but we must remember that it didn’t happen overnight, the signs were there in the ’burbs for all to see.

fate
You could never have predicted that it could see through you,
Kasparov, Deep Blue, 1996
Your mind’s pulling tricks now
The show is over so take a bow, we’re living in the shadows of…(something unintelligible)

Solid recent-history reference. For those of you who might not have been around or were busy watching MTV in 1996, Deep Blue was the IBM supercomputer that—with shades of Watson— saw through and beat chess champion Gary Kasparov in their first game. Granted, Kasparov eventually won the six-game match 4-2, but Deep Blue won the rematch 3½-2½ the following year.

Was Kasparov’s loss—to a machine—one of the “signs” seen in the suburbs?

The bit about living in the shadows is tricky, because it gets lost in the mix under the “la la la la” refrain; it might be “shadows of the night”, “shadows of the song”(that’d be a nice callback), or “shadows of the lie”, each of which could alter the interpretation of the song.

Hey, put the cellphone down for a while
In the night there is something wild, can you hear it breathing?
And hey, put the laptop down for a while
In the night there is something wild, I feel it, it’s leaving me

Note that they don’t sing, “Hey, throw the cellphone/laptop away”, just to “put [it] down for a while”. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the technology—cellphones and computers aren’t innately bad, if you use them to talk to friends and loved ones instead of playing Angry Birds or trolling the comment sections of Youtube—just don’t abuse and overdo it to the point of becoming grotesque and rococo, “where you have all this information that you don’t need or want but the medium is there so it’s filled up.”

(And yes, I’m completely aware of the irony that I’m writing this on my laptop, to be broadcast out into the electronic aether to be read by strangers. But at least when I’m done, I’m going to do just what Win and Regine say, and put the laptop down for a while, and go do some wood- and leatherworking with handtools.)

The Suburbs: ‘Month of May’

Man, when was the last time you heard a real rock-and-roll song that started with such a solid and sincere, “1, 2, 3, 4!”? It’s funny, while I’ve heard so many of Arcade Fire’s songs described as ‘anthemic’, not too many of them are real fist-in-the-air singalongs. Month of May, however, is definitely one:

Gonna make a record in the month of May
When the violent wind blows the wires away

This isn’t the first time on this album that we’ve heard about a wind blowing things around; the first time this thread was touched upon was in Rococo, which seems to serve as a companion piece to this song. However, while last time the wind was simply blowing around ashes, this time the wind is explicitly violent. Which begs the question: What is the violent wind? Is it a primitivist social movement, tearing down our culture’s machinery of enslavement (wires, &c.) like a force of nature? Is it a blast of radiation from a nuclear mushroom cloud (the EMP produced by high-altitude detonations could fry electronics and effectively “blow the wires away”)? Is it a massive solar flare, playing havoc with our unshielded power grid? Hmm…

Month of May, it’s a violent thing
In the city their hearts start to sing
Well, some people singing sounds like screaming
Used to doubt it but now I believe it

I believe the band has spoken in interviews how May is the time when Winter finally ends in Montreal, and everybody is full of an almost-violent energy with the promise of Spring. I’ve spent some time in Montreal, and it’s definitely the kind of place that would make my heart start to sing.
However, singing that “sounds like screaming” doesn’t sound too pretty. Is this the same as the “horrible song” being sung in Rococo? Butler has explained in interview that these songs were inspired by the Baroque period, and the notion that a beautiful piece of art could become “hideous and grotesque” by ‘turning it up to eleven’; the same could be said of the modern music industry, that it’s possible to take something decent and beautiful “and overdo it” into a rococo mockery of itself.

Month of May, everybody’s in love
then the city was hit from above
And just when I knew what I wanted to say
The violent wind blew the wires away

Traditional associations with May as ‘the lusty month’—all those young people’s springtime hormones—juxtaposed with violence. Once again, Butler’s songwriting exhibits a subversive undercurrent dealing with the destruction of our modern built environments.  I wonder if the city destroyed in this song is the same as the San Francisco of Half Light II?

We were shocked in the suburbs
Now the kids are all standing with their arms folded tight
Now, some things are pure and some things are right
But the kids are still standing with their arms folded tight
So young, so young, so much pain for someone so young,
Well, I know it’s heavy, I know it ain’t light
But how you gonna lift it with your arms folded tight?

Why were they shocked in the suburbs? As hinted at previously, is it because the ’burbs are designed to artificially insulate their inhabitants from the blows of Life? A city being “hit from above” is the kind of event that seems impossible (until it happens) to middleclass suburbanites. The rest of the verse is—like much of Rococo—another jab at that “certain breed of pseudorebellious youth”, the cynical hipster-types who are too-cool-for-school to uncross their arms to just get up and DANCE!

First the built they road, then they built the town
That’s why we’re still driving around and around and around…
(At least once at this point, Win has observed, “I don’t know where we are, but I know that something ain’t right”)

LLipton-Round&RoundAs brilliantly illustrated by pencil artist Laurie Lipton, it’s hard to break out of this vicious cycle of consumption, disconnection, and environmental destruction when the whole System is designed and built to encourage and reward those very evils.

2009, 2010—wanna make a record how I felt then
When we stood outside in the month of May
And watched a violent wind blow the wires away

Another reference to recent history (see Half Light II’s crashing markets) as Butler seems to break the fourth wall. So now we’re in the realm not of future dystopia but something that actually happened?

If I die in the month of May, let the wind take my body away,
I wish I may, I wish I might
Don’t leave me down there with my arms folded tight?
Start again in the month of May
Come on and blow the wires away

There are several songs on this album that speak of finally being able to start or begin, or starting again—this time, with fried wires. The destruction of the powergrid (or whatever) in the Springing of the year has given us an opportunity for a fresh start when we might connect with ourselves and the world—perhaps this time we will build the towns—if we build them at all—before we build the roads.

The Sububs: ‘Half Light II’

…an ominous, pulsating undercurrent, quickly joined by an equally-ominous thumping bass drum. All at once, this is overtaken by a mix of harmonica(?), synth strings, and drum machine beat—introducing what one reviewer astutely called “a new doom-laden hint of electronica”. The vocals of the verse stanzas are backed only by the drum machine and synth/bass; in between the verses, however, we get the full arsenal of the intro.

Now that San Francisco’s gone, I guess I’ll just pack it in
Wanna wash away my sins in the presence of my friends

Right off the bat, we are presented with what would seem to be yet another example of city-destruction. It makes one wonder, where did San Francisco go? Was it blown up? Was it “hit from above” by the violent wind of Rococo and Month of May? As for the rest of this verse, some have interpreted it to refer to a kind of survivor’s guilt on the part of the singer, wishing he had been with his friends in the city when it was destroyed.

You and I we head back East to find a town where we can live
Even in the half light, we can see that something’s gotta give

It is in compositions like this when the line begins to blur between the narrative of the singer and the narrative of the actual band. This stanza in particular brings to mind the biography of Arcade Fire found on their first album Funeral (“Members fled from Texas and Ontario at a young a and joined with local youth making their home in Montréal, Quebec, Canada.”); additionally, this verse seems to reference the Suburbs song Wasted Hours (subtitled A Life That We Can Live), which will deal with similar issues of seeking a connection to one’s own place.
Here we also have the sole use of the song’s title. Although from this line it might seem that the half light is now (instead of fallout in the future, as in the first part of this movement), because Butler’s lyrics have that nasty habit of jumping around in tense, I can’t know for sure. If that is the case, then perhaps we can say the Half Light in this song is the present kind of twilit, Long Emergency-type of slow decline of the world we know? Our characters are smart enough to look around and see that the way our culture functions can’t last (i.e. “[has] gotta give”), and so they are going East in search of a way to live that works.

When we watched the markets crash, the promises we made were torn
Then my parents sent for me from out West where I was born

Here we have a succinct reference to recent history (others feature in Antichrist Television Blues, Windowsill, Month of May, and Deep Blue, and probably in others) to ground us in the present, and yet another borrowed phrase from a previous work: parents also send for the kids in The Woodlands National Anthem—a song that, like the Half Light movement, deals with most of the band’s big ideas.

Some people say we’ve already lost,
but they’re afraid to pay the cost for what we’ve lost

It’s interesting to note that this is the first and only mention of fear on The Suburbs. This lyric is so convoluted the way it loops back on itself that it’s quite powerful to hear but I am completely unable to articulate what is meant by it.

Now that you have left me here, I will never raise my voice
All the diamonds you have hid in this home which has no life

A truly uninterpretable verse. Some have suggested that the singer’s old home was destroyed while he was away; hard to say. Let’s assume that the song conveys a definite story. It would seem that our characters (proxy Win and Regine, or proxy Butler Brothers?) were off in the East, searching for a life of their own (in the direction of proxy Montreal?). But then the markets crash, and their parents call them back to the West (proxy Texas or San Francisco?). Something happens to the Bay City; everybody dies? The characters still make the journey to their birthplace, though it is desolate and empty, and find their old home. While the Half Light has “torn them free” (see the first part of this movement), their freedom is mixed with tragedy, their friends and possibly parents are among the casualties (remember that this song is subtitled No Celebration).

Oh, this city’s changed so much since I was a little child
Pray to God I won’t live to see the death of everything that’s wild

This verse may be one of the most indicative of Arcade Fire’s grand theme. Here we see the recurring motif of rearranging streets (things are not made to last in the ’burbs, nor—to take the big-picture view—in our postpostmodern industrial culture), while Butler roots himself firmly on the side of the uncivilized with a whoop.
Furthermore, I’m unsure if this verse is being sung by the song’s narrator, or by Win himself in the present. While it’s possible to assume that the city referred to may be the devastated San Francisco (though Win wasn’t born in SF, it is the closest city to his birthplace of Truckee, CA), I would expect him to have more connection to a childhood home instead of a birthplace.

Though we knew this day would come, still it took us by surprise
In this town where I was born I now see through a dead man’s eyes

One wonders what day this verse refers to; in the framework of the band’s overarching themes (especially Neon Bible)—though it almost seems too easy—one can assume that “this day” is one of long-expected-but-sudden collapse or destruction. No matter how one prepares for such eventualities, you can never be sure when it will actually occur.
Musically-speaking, the dropping-out of the supporting instruments in this verse—and their sudden return for the following final refrain—only adds immensely to the weight of the words.

One day they will see it’s long gone…

Like Half Light I, the second half closes with an anthemic refrain, this particular chorus seems like a reiteration of the “It’s already passed” motif from The Suburbs.

The Suburbs: ‘The Suburbs’



In the suburbs I learned to drive
And you told me we’d never survive
Grab your mother’s keys we’re leaving

Three words in and we’re already knee-deep in the ’burbs; the singer relates how he gained that all-important skill for postwar civilized life—driving—in the cul-de-sacs and tract housing that is The Suburbs.
One must wonder on what grounds it was believed they wouldn’t survive in the ’burbs?, because our Mother Culture’s conventional wisdom is that the ’burbs are a great place to live. Regardless, if they’re not going to survive (maybe because the system the suburbs are built upon is inherently unsustainable and unsurvivable?), they’re getting out.
We haven’t seen the last of this sublime little triplet of a verse, and it will show up again—with some subtly powerful changes—around the halfway point of the album. Start checking off those keyword themes, kids: twenty words in and we’ve already touched on a place (the suburbs), driving, and Escape.

You always seemed so sure that one day we’d be fighting in a suburban war,
Your part of town against mine.
I saw you standing on the opposite shore
But by the time the first bombs fell, we were already bored.

The second verse introduces what is probably this album’s biggest connection to Neon Bible, ominous war imagery. As the album’s first scene, Scenes From the Suburbs covers this concisely in the first thirty seconds as our heartsick narrator explains, “There was always some sort of conflict going on…towns would attack each other if a golf course was built too close to a border, or if a shopping center gave off too much light pollution…”.
As to why they “were already bored”, your guess is as good as mine. I’ll say it was something to do with millennial emotional numbness and desensitivity as a result of overexposure to hyperviolent mass media.

The kids want to be so hard
But in my dreams we’re still screaming
And running through the yard
When all of the walls that they built in the ’70’s finally fall,
And all of the houses they built in the ’70’s finally fall
Meant nothing at all?
It meant nothing…

Ah-ha, our first mention of The Kids! They want to be tough, because our Mother Culture tells them that’s how they should be, to bury their feelings deep down? However, despite their attempts “to be so hard”, they’re still screaming in dreams. What kind of screaming is it—fearful (the bombs are falling, remember?) or existentially frustrated (the suburbs are a stultifying environment for restless youth)?
And what of the walls and houses from the Seventies? Are they falling due to the bombs, or due to abandoned decay, or are they only metaphor for things that keep us from connecting with each other?

Sometimes I can’t believe it
I’m moving past the feeling
And into the night

We move on to the falsetto refrain, possibly restating a sentiment of emotional deadness. But now our singer is moving into the night. The harsh orange glare from the sodium-vapour streetlights doesn’t penetrate into that shadowy area, so why go there? Perhaps that is the reason for the attraction?: as we will see, “in the Night there is something Wild”, out of reach of the civilizing grasp of the Suburbs.

So can you understand
Why I want a daughter while I’m still young?
I want to hold her hand, and show her some beauty,
Before all this damage is done.
But it it’s too much to ask, then send me a son.

In this verse we hear another motif from Neon Bible, the request for a child. Note, however, that the reason for the request has evolved from its previous, exploitative iteration—
“Oh God, would you send me a child?/Because I want to put it up on the TV screen/So the world can see what your true word means/Lord, won’t you send me a sign?/Because I just got to know if I’m wasting my time” (Antichrist Television Blues)—to the entirely healthier appeal of the above verse. Believing that “damage” (read: destruction) is looming (in the form of the World War mentioned in Windowsill and City With No Children, or in the violent collapse of the suburban/civilized system?), he wants to show his daughter at least something nice before it all goes up in flames.

Under the overpass, in the parking lot, we’re still waiting
It’s already passed
So move your feet from hot pavement and into the grass
Cause it’s already passed!

Our final verse gives us vignettes in the first line—visualized in SFTS
of the Kids killing time in the Sprawl. It’s hard to tell (Butler’s lyrics jump around from past to present tense and back again), but I suppose the first two lines could be the singer looking back narrating the scene of his youth—“Look at us, wasting hours, waiting for our lives to begin”—with that third line directed at his past self, essentially saying, “Get out!”
Here one wonders what is “already passed” that makes the singer implore us to step off the asphalt and onto the cool green? Is it that the time of the suburbs itself is passed, and it’s time to imagine a different way to organize ourselves and form communities, one that is more organic and better-suited to humans? Or that we should first simply seek out the organic and discover the new way on our own? Either way, these closing lines seem to direct us to get out of the concrete jungle and into the Wild.

‘The Suburbs’: Context & Composition

The Suburbs is (the) Arcade Fire’s third full-length album, and it continues to build on the themes of their EP and previous albums, especially 2007’s Neon Bible—so much so that it really seems a bit like a sequel or side-quel to that record.
In fact, the idea of successive sidequels continuing to explore deeper facets of an original’s theme reminds me of the life’s work of another Houstonite, Daniel Quinn, whose writings could (from a certain point of view) be interpreted to deal with the same issues as Arcade Fire (such as calls for change in how we relate to our communities; escape from the world in its present form; and imminent environmental destruction). I wonder if the Brothers Butler have read any Quinn?

But where Neon Bible seemed to focus on a cultural and environmental collapse/apocalypse brought on by the potent overlap of politics, overconsumption, religion, and television (which is to say, it’s an album about Right Now), The Suburbs dials down the doom to zoom in a bit.
While it’s entirely possible that both albums occupy the same universe, this time around, the story—while set against a backdrop of suburban war—is more intimate, focusing on a Millennial generation of nostalgic, dissatisfied Young People—alienated by technology and the sterile uniformity of their modern surroundings—yearning for a rewarding way of life outside the Sprawl.
Hopefully I haven’t scared anyone off with that serious description, but it’s just as deathly topical as its predecessor.

To provide comparisons as we start our examination of this album, I’m going to be relating examples from my previous favorite concept album (Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness), partially because they’re surprisingly similar in presentation, and partially because I’ve invested so much time studying that double-LP monster over the years it would seem like a waste if I didn’t.

So, for starters, both albums begin with an atypical-sounding first track or two. I have to wonder what the first ’Pumpkins fans to hear MCIS in 1995—expecting something similar to the swirling guitar layers of Siamese Dream—thought upon hearing the piano/synth and orchestral strings of those first two tracks (the ’Pumpkins’ signature sound would return in spades by MCIS’s third track); similarly, the splash of cymbals and the deceptively cheerful piano line that opens The Suburbs might’ve surprised Arcade Fire fans, although I suspect they’re smart enough to understand the band’s penchant for making songs in a wide variety of styles.

Since we’re talking about arrangement, I feel I should—even though I promise I’ll discuss it later as part of this series—draw attention to Scenes from The Suburbs at this point, specifically how Spike Jonze rearranges the album’s tracks to great effect to open his film.
As exciting an opening as those splashy cymbals on The Suburbs are, they sound way better when preceded by sorrowful narration and the melancholy strings of an extended version of The Suburbs Continued (the album’s coda track).
Hey kids!, just for fun, next time you listen to the album, try playing that reprise as the first track. Pretty cool, huh?
So, compositionally-speaking, this opening title track functions as an overture or prologue, containing concentrated versions of the album’s themes. The next song will open the programme proper (MCIS’s first ‘scene’, jellybelly, begins with the words, “Welcome to nowhere fast”; while after its prologue, The Suburbs launches with Ready to Start, a song that would be a perfect album-opener by nature of its musical composition, title, and lyrics).
The songs that follow will explore the themes first broached in the prologue, reaching an emotional climax about halfway through the album (Muzzle for MCIS; Suburban War for The ‘burbs), and ending the album with a Reprise of the main theme, which acts as ‘end titles’ for the listening experience.

Said title track (or in the case of MCIS, the second track, since the title track is instrumental) contains concentrated versions of most of the key themes examined in the course of the album (and in a larger sense, in all of Arcade Fire’s works). While there is some significant overlap for several of them (due to exploration of dichotomies, for instance—all coins having two sides, to be able to discuss something like the Wild without being aware at least on some level of its opposite would be an impressive feat of Orwellian thought), in their distilled forms the album’s themes may be classified thusly (in no particular order):

  • children/childhood/youth/adolescence
  • nostalgia for said carefree times ^ (the “wasted hours”)
  • Millennial Young People of today (“the Kids”)
  • music/singing/screaming
  • modernity/recent history
  • Place: Cities/Downtown/the Sprawl/Towns/the Suburbs/Home
  • one’s connection to said locales^, (especially issues that arise when said locales^ change)
  • roads and driving (inherent in our relationship to said modern locales^)
  • Destruction (either in the form of War, or another nonspecific source, and often of said locales^)
  • Technology (and its effect on the speed of life), and waiting (as metaphor for a slower-paced life)
  • alienation (often as a result of said technology)
  • authority figures with ‘power’ (emperors, kings, soldiers, police, &c.)
  • tribalism
  • insomnia/sleeping/dreaming
  • Escape
  • the “Wild” (often represented by “the Night”, used as a catch-all term for the natural/organic/uncivilized)

In fact, if someone asked me to further hyper-refine The Suburbs in 25 words, I’d say it is about ‘the dichotomy between Civilization/The Wild (and all that go along with both), explored from the vantage point of Young People in the early 21st century.’
But of course, that’s coming from someone with an anthropology/anarcho-primitivist background. Hell, as Win sings on Culture War, “You see what you want to see.”

Pretty heavy stuff, huh?