If You Open Your Mouth
477 · 18 March 04
Trans Am: Liberation
My freshman year in high school, some uncooperative heathen pointed out that a public school wasn't really supposed to be broadcasting Christian prayers over the loudspeakers every morning. The administration, presented with the resulting thorny tension between doing a very simple right thing and appeasing wealthy idiots, decided to put the practice to a student vote. I could see my homeroom teacher's head struggling with the impulse to combust. On the one hand, the vote was a usefully immediate civics lesson. On the other hand, any sensible educational message you attempted to derive from it would immediately point out the thoroughly fantastic inapplicability of the procedure to the issue. On the third hand, surely it was her professional responsibility as an educator to at least provoke us into considering the implications of the process we were participating in. On the fourth hand, one generation of wealthy idiots begets another, and here they were mostly filling her classroom. On the fifth hand, she was an algebra teacher.
I guess she did the mutant math, and held the vote as instructed. The administration, diligently intent on conducting the vote as moronically as they conceived it, actually called for it to be done with raised hands. In my class, I supplied the only opposing digits. It is tempting to blame a certain amount of my peer-persecution on this, but in an accurate history I suspect more of it arose from my informing Jimmy Holmes, back in second grade, that the Earth had been formed by orbital mechanics out of dust, and not by his God out of whatever it is that frightenedly religious second-graders think Gods throw together shabby backwater planets out of.
And frankly, having a pet injustice of my own was more than worth the trouble. It was 1981, and my town was all too securely sheltered from pretty much anything we didn't manufacture ourselves. The student body was essentially ethnically homogenous, so it was hard to get much traction on civil rights issues. We were slowly learning not to use "gay" as an insult, but slowly enough that nobody bothered coming out, which deprived that debate of any urgent immediacy. The startling discovery of the distinction between communist philosophy and totalitarian practice made for some interesting rhetoric, as did the time the principal made us take a perfectly good poem about suicide out of the literary magazine, but these came later. For the first couple years, the prayer debacle was by far the best opportunity for self-deafeningly self-congratulatory dissidence. The vote shouldn't have happned, and I shouldn't have had to raise my hand at all, let alone alone, but getting to was great. Every good childhood needs some of these loopy triumphs. You need to learn what it feels like to stand up against a crashingly obvious wrong, so that later, when the wrongs aren't so obtusely blatant, you have something against which to calibrate your inevitably more ambivalent adult convictions. You need to know what it feels like to defend a sound principle against shoddy contingency.
In the photographs taken for the cover of Liberation, the seventh studio album by DC trio Trans Am, the band's three members stand in front of Washington political monuments wearing faceless orange body suits. This image is fabulous. The perpetual menacing orange of the inane Homeland Security beacon, obviously, is being used to muzzle political discourse in this country. Dissent is being rendered voiceless by paranoia. We must have the clear perspective and supreme courage to defend our rights and freedoms even when a terrified government tries to treat all its enemies as allied. This defense is just, and here is an album of dark, surging anthems in which to savor our justice.
The problem with taking stands on really obvious principles, of course, is that there's not always a lot to do beyond standing. School prayer did not belong in a public school. I was right about that. I knew I was right about that. I had humane morality, the Constitution and specific legal precedent on my side. My portion of the "discourse" mostly entailed repeating myself. The idiots in favor of school prayer were guilty of nothing more interesting than the banally pervasive belief that they didn't need to follow a rule whose protection they didn't themselves currently need. I hadn't found a new answer to an old question, I'd just found a lot of people who were out of date. We defend freedom of speech half the time against abrogation inspired by fear, the other half against compromise incubated in complacency.
Liberation, however, is an album of the feeling of resistance, not a contribution to that resistance's substance, and I think Trans Am have done this intentionally. Their protest portraits are easy enough to find on the web, but they appear on the album's packaging only in the parallelogram slices of the cover collage, where the aggregate effect is abstract, and even on close examination you will have a hard time finding them in their jumpsuits unless you already know what you're looking for. Other fragments of the collage provide rubble, flames, soldiers and the faces of random politicians, but they are assembled without comment, as the similar slicing of a single photograph of some placidly snowy mountains on the back cover analogically reiterates. Trans Am are especially unlikely to have become the victims of routine censorship, themselves, because most of their music is instrumental. We could argue whether this makes a protest gesture of voicelessness more incisive or just funnier. Either way, though, it doesn't add any detail. And Liberation's one awkward attempt to directly court administrative disapproval is a brief sitting-duck-hunt in which sound-clips of a Bush speech about the war in Iraq are re-edited to reverse the accusations, but identifying an implied subtext is not at all the same as proving that the primary text is a hypocrisy.
Structurally speaking, admittedly, this is no different from doltish flag-waving. Flags, in themselves, are fine, and obdurate patriotism in the face of attack is no more superficial as a contribution to national discourse, never mind international discourse (although the American tendency to never mind international discourse is arguably a more fundamental problem than our habit of myopically second-guessing our own rules). But if reminding the government what else it is supposed to be defending ought to be stating the obvious, in this country it does seem like somebody usually still has to stand there.
The real clue that Trans Am mainly just enjoy standing there, in their orange suits, is not any internal inconsistency in their cursory political agenda, it's the rest of the album. Yes, there's the Bush edit, and another track with an Iraqi official shrugging about the nature of war, but these texts are quickly lost in the album's cheerfully content-free cacophony of hooks and blurts. On a real protest album, music is a means. Here, it is an end. You wouldn't take the Homeland Security alert "system" too seriously, either, if its five states were lovingly rendered illustrations of Asterix, Tintin, Andre the Giant, Piglet and a leering Bob Hoskins. For all but a couple brief moments of Liberation, the general political gist is not "Smash the system", it's "Man, wasn't New Wave great!?"
On this topic, happily, Trans Am have rather more to contribute. The rumbling "Outmoder" sounds like a hapless mash of Prince's "Kiss", King Crimson's "Elephant Talk", early Gang of Four and Dave Grohl's drumming for Killing Joke. The synth flutter under the Bush edit, "Uninvited Guest", sounds like a distended intro to a Berlin demo. "Idea Machine" could be a jumpy post-emo remake of some old Teardrop Explodes song. "White Rhino" runs a spare mech groove (like Tricky muttering over Propaganda's springy bass and Kraftwerk's drum machines) behind a sped-up DC weather forecast (though of all the DC monologues they could have singled out for ridicule, this is what they pick?). "June" might be Don Caballero playing Tangerine Dream. "Music for Dogs" is a shameless New Order homage over a drum loop that sounds suspiciously like it was made out of bits of the intro to the album version of "In a Big Country". "Total Information Awareness" leans into a hammering, self-nostalgic vocoder groove, and "Pretty Close to the Edge" only resembles Yes in a loosely relative sense, but "Is Trans Am Really Our Friend?" slips back into twitchy New Wave form, the bass lost in flanging, the drums ticking tinnily. "Divine Invasion" has the title and the helicopter noises of a political finale, but turns out to be a joyously nontextual math-rock thrash truncated abruptly by static. I got through the Eighties on three or four political issues, but a lot of records. Style-grafting has always been Trans Am's basic approach, merely varying the specific sources, but Liberation might be their most consistent whole record, the one on which they come the closest to sorting through their scattered influences and picking a coherent set of them to turn into a single hybrid style of their own, rather than an array of them simply juxtaposed.
Perhaps the most obvious sign of Liberation's ultimate apoliticality, fittingly, is its least evasive pop song, "Remote Control". For nearly two minutes it's an ebullient arpeggiator trifle, and then for a minute more it's a geeky prog-funk band rehearsing on a slowly warping oil tanker. New Order is murky and over-sentimental by comparison, Barcelona childish, Magnetic Fields labored. The cover art is doubly misleading, as Trans Am's songs are never literally constructed as collages, but maybe they are actually best when they do the least. For a couple minutes the drums just pop clearly, the low synth simply hums, the high synth merrily burbles. With a little creative stretching and transposition, you could probably make this whole song, both sections, out of less than a dozen GarageBand loops and one reverse-reverb vocal effect. If this were really a protest album, the song most likely to be excerpted for its music would be its most sneakily trenchant.
And maybe in some sense it is, I guess. Somebody sings breathily over the first part, and they might be saying something. It might matter what. They might have found the words to express, so clearly that nobody who hears can sustain disagreement a minute longer, what is wrong with how the United States has conducted foreign and domestic policy for two and a quarter centuries.
But we'll never know. The vocals are buried so far into the mix that I give up on transcribing them long before extracting anything intelligible. Trans Am songs are instrumentals even when they have words, sometimes, and although in theory an instrumental album could be violently political, trying to make abstract art tell concrete stories is always tricky and rarely necessary. Sometimes music participates in discourse's content, but sometimes its role is just to describe the discourse's shape. There are songs of what we think, and what we wish to think, but so too are there songs of how we know and change our minds. There are songs that decode our beliefs, and songs that encode them, and on albums like this there are songs that simply bear witness to what we have believed. There are propulsive songs that sing us the strength to stand still, and wordless songs that play us the willingness to speak.