Viewpoint: Rockin' in the free world

Take note – story published 7 years ago

At some point during the last few years, middle-strength rock music became the default soundtrack of the military. 

I use the term 'middle-strength' because in general it is more towards the pomp/power end of the rock spectrum (at least in peacetime) and while there are exceptions - Latvia seems to prefer its riffs slightly further towards the infra-red hard rock end - we have not yet reached the stage where out-and-out speed/death metal is preferred. As far as I am aware, Motorhead's 'Bomber' has yet to be used to promote bombers.

The Latvian Armed Forces' latest promotional video features their new howitzers going bang in Austria. The filming is slick, showing the clear influence of many episodes of Top Gear as we get close-ups and slo-mos of caterpillar tracks and gleaming barrels, the graphic overlays are Star Wars sci-fi and the whole thing is very skilfully edited and produced. And all the while the power chords and synthesized orchestra build, giving it such a sense of increasing urgency that we would not be surprised to see the words "...and they have only 24 hours to do it" flash onto the screen at the end. 

Rock, the music of the 1960s counter-culture is now the theme music of what General Dwight D. Eisenhower called "the military industrial complex" as these promotional videos are in effect advertisements for the military as an institution and/or their equipment. There is nothing wrong in this as all institutions and products need to promote themselves. It's just interesting that the old 2/2 march has been superseded by the 4/4 beat in everything but ceremonial functions and is seen as the musical medium in which to communicate with the public. 

Even the briefest scan of military marketing online in recent years will turn up dozens of examples of this phenomenon. The impression is that tanks are not so much modern, driveable cannon as the Harley Davidsons of Easy Rider after some serious modification. But what does the use of rock music in a military context tell us about that military?

I would suggest it tells us it is trying to appeal to a mass audience, that it wishes to portray itself as vigorous without being aggressive, that it doesn't want to pay a great deal in royalties and that it is still predominantly male. Yes, women rock too, but it's hard to find a military promo video with a female singer. Yet ironically it was the use of a woman singer that produced the most overtly aggressive use of popular music in recent decades (excepting torture when various more extreme forms of rock have been used) when Nancy Sinatra's 'These Boots Are Made For Walking' was pumped at besieged Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega by US Marines. Noriega surrendered soon afterwards.

After all, military music came into being precisely because it was terrifying. It was supposed to scare the opposition and reinforce the courage of friendly forces. The bagpipes of the Scottish clans and the beating of shields by Zulu warriors were not sounded because they were particularly tuneful but because they were intimidating. They also served a humane function in that if sufficiently terrifying, everyone could simply run away and avoid bloodshed altogether.

While films like Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket plus their countless imitators and derivatives undoubtedly played a major role in the popularization of rock in a military context, the music in these films was originally used as commentary, often to satirical or comic effect. The weed-smoking dude with the peace sign and psycopathic tendencies would tend to be the one digging Jimi Hendrix or the Rolling Stones between bursts of heavy machine gun fire. Not exactly ideal recruitment material. And it is the insane use of Wagner's 'Ride of the Valkyries' by the helicopters in Apocalypse Now that sticks most in the memory, while even something as superficial and advertising-influenced as Top Gun made equally memorable use of 'Take My Breath Away', a largely beat-free ballad (sung by a woman).

So in general, the mid-rock of the military ad campaigns seems a bit bland, perhaps because it has become so ubiquitous. I'm not suggesting a wholesale switch to be-bop, reggae or calypso (though these would open up some tantalizing possibilities) but something other than box-set rock would be nice. And in this respect, Latvia's martial hit parade does offer a bit more variety than most. Its new recruitment ad is not only an animation, it uses a modern interpretation of folk music. But no discussion of rock would be complete without a top ten countdown so here's a top ten selection of current martial marketing films.

1 Howitzers - Film trailer thriller material.

2 Slovakian armor - Depeche Mode in a personnel carrier!

3 Yanks in tanks - real rockin' riffs!

4 F35s in Europe - slick ad makes you want to buy one.

5 Estonians train in Latvia - they bring their own rock with them.

6 Winter training - odd Ryuchi Sakamoto-style electronica

7 Black hawks - like a lost episode of Airwolf.

8 Tank hunter - Lenny Kravitz probably wants royalties for this one.

9 Summer shield - Hooked on classics pop orchestration.

10 A French affair - radio commentary adds an extra dimension!



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