"...the main purpose of criticism...is not to make its readers agree, nice as that is, but to make them, by whatever orthodox or unorthodox method, think." - John Simon

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." - George Orwell

Friday, May 18, 2012

In Case You Didn't Feel Like Showing Up

Imagine the scene. A packed, pulsating crowd waits with arms raised in the air in anticipation. On a darkened stage an immense screen dominates the background projecting sampled footage from old news reels. A chain-link fence separates the stage from the audience or vice versa, while burning fires on either side provide the only light source. Two men begin drumming. One drummer is wearing a black and white striped shirt and sports wild blond hair that reflects his drumming style. In contrast, the other is dressed in a fashionable white dress shirt with a black tie and is neatly groomed. They start with simple drum rolls to warm up before launching into a steady, tribal beat. The crowd goes crazy as the rest of the band appears, led by a man in a beaten-up black leather jacket offset by a white cowboy hat and sunglasses. William Rieflin, the well-dressed drummer clicks his drumsticks together and the band explodes into "Breathe," as a blinding white light engulfs the stage and its occupants: welcome to the apocalypse. Or, as one of the band members aptly described it, “It’s not a band-It’s Rollerball.”

"I'd rather get somebody's attention by slapping him in the face than shaking his hand. It scares some people off, but those people aren't ready to hear our music anyway." These words were spoken by Al Jourgensen in 1989 and were an accurate reflection of the approach of his band, Ministry, towards its audience at the time. He started the band in the early 1980s as basically a Depeche Mode clone complete with soft vocal styling and a cheesy, fake British accent that sent him catapulting up the dance charts. After being burnt out by the music industry and meeting up with Paul Barker in 1985, Jourgensen decided to do a complete 180 degree turn and produce hard, loud, "ugly" anti-dance music. He changed his vocals to a primal, distorted growl and changed his image to that of a tough, tattoo covered, scuzzy biker, which is basically a reaction to the sellout years.

Ministry’s visceral music is a rude wake-up call to the listener in an attempt to draw attention to a society in decline. Some people may say that their musical approach, an intricate mixture of samples and industrial music, and especially in their rather colorful live shows, is innovative or even postmodern in some way. By this I mean that Ministry’s songs are a collage of various fragments that include sampled dialogue from films and distorted vocals that are accompanied by a punishing soundtrack which is in turn given an ironic spin by using these various components to comment on the negative aspects of society. However, Ministry is innovative only in the sense that their shows reflect contemporary society – one that is on the verge of collapse, “a deranged experiment in social Darwinism, designed by a bored researcher who kept one thumb permanently on the fast-forward button,” to quote William Gibson’s Cyberpunk novel Neuromancer. Their live shows, in particular the 1990 The Mind Is A Terrible Thing To Taste tour, illustrate in a rather dramatic fashion how industrialization and urbanization divide the classes. Their performances also show how escaping social control, through manipulated chaos results in a sense of freedom.

Often this sense of freedom is expressed in disorderly, excessive behavior via the body in an exaggerated form: moshing and stage diving at concerts, for example. This conduct is a response to the repressive nature of everyday life. As writer John Fiske observes, “anything out of control is always a potential threat, and always calls up moral, legal, and aesthetic powers to discipline it.” Chaos terrifies the “forces of order,” Fiske argues, because it shows how “fragile social control” can be. The threat to order posed by their reputation for creating chaos is evident in the consistent problems Ministry and its crew faced at every show during their 1990 tour. An unidentified crew member commented in an interview, “I hope the fans appreciated the shows, because in most cities it was a miracle that we played every show and that all the band members made it on stage. If we weren’t having trouble with the police, trouble came from promoters or security guards.” This comes with the territory for bands like Ministry who have notorious reputations and as a result are always under the thumb of repressive legislation. So-called “vulgar” leisure pursuits have always been controlled in some fashion, whether it be through ticket prices, bouncers, or the size of the venue itself. In the past these controlled events appeared in the form of cockfights, bull-baiting, and carnivalesque festivals – today one of the most popular forms is that of live concerts. These events were usually viewed by the elite as loathsome affairs for the masses, yet the middle and upper classes had their own “vulgar” pursuits like fox hunts and shooting fowl that were merely given a civilized facade to disguise their true, ugly nature.

Soon pubs and music halls became an outlet for the masses, only to be criticized by authorities who saw them as “sites of drunkenness, prostitution, and rowdiness,” according to Fiske. The middle class viewed such popular pleasures as “immoral” and “disorderly.” Things really haven’t changed since then. Pubs and music halls are still inhabited by people who drink, do drugs, and revel in rowdy excesses like rock ‘n’ roll music. No one represents these extreme traits more than Ministry frontman Al Jourgensen, a man who was not adverse to heavy drinking or a variety of narcotic substances, and led a musical group dedicated to loud, abrasive industrial music. His exploits have become the stuff of rock legend and infamy. Jourgensen is the perfect spokesmen for the apocalyptic message his band delivers for he has lived and experienced it first-hand. Jourgensen and his band are acutely aware of the importance that the pleasures and excesses of the body are and the threat they pose to the social order. When heightened appetites such as drunkenness or violence in the service of anarchy and freedom are performed, people are exceeding the norm and therefore considered by authority to be a threat. Ministry celebrates the notions of rebellion, anarchy, and excess as a way of smashing the norms and conventions of society As a result, they acquire a radical or subversive potential that they embrace in their live shows.

Ministry released a video, or as Jourgensen cheekily called it, “an officially sanctioned bootleg,” of their live show from the 1990 tour entitled In Case You Didn’t Feel Like Showing Up. Shot over two nights in Chicago, the video features a powerhouse lineup of musicians – a who’s who of alternative rock luminaries including ex-Killing Joke member Martin Atkins, Skinny Puppy’s Nivek Ogre and ex-Dead Kennedys frontman Jello Biarfa. The concert clearly demonstrated Ministry’s rebellious, often extremist approach. The video also revealed how the band’s live show is one of the best contemporary examples of the term, “carnivalesque” – a world without social hierarchy. With the absence of bouncers at their shows, Ministry breaks down the social barriers normally in place between the performer on stage and the audience. In addition, the presence of a fence separating the band on stage from the audience was Jourgensen’s playful jab at what he saw as rock concert posturing: “Everyone wants to protect their precious little stage so the club doesn’t get sued, but forget that. We love aggression. It’s our little party, ripping apart the notion of idolatry and icons. ‘Here we are, the monkeys in the cage, don’t feed the animals!’ We were taking the piss out of the whole rock star dogma.”

This domain is what M. Bakhtin sees as a “second world and a second life outside officialdom.” Ministry’s concerts, with their blend of tribal atmosphere and contemporary aesthetics, go to great lengths to create a second environment in order “to liberate from the prevailing point of view of the world, from conventions and established truths, from clichés, from all that is humdrum and universally accepted.” Their songs cut through the clichés and strike right at the heart of the problems of contemporary society as the opening song, “Breathe” so effectively illustrates. The song, with its images of city life driving one to insanity, is an explosive comment on pollution – both of the chemical kind, and the social pollution of conformity, the 9 to 5 work ethic of urban existence. Add to this, a crazed collage of images ranging from tall buildings to thick, black smoke billowing out of factories to shots of overcrowded streets and it all amounts to a sensory overload – a postmodern blitzkrieg. The video intersperses these images with the chaos that is occurring during the concert. Spectators leap on stage and into each other before diving back into a throbbing, swirling crowd of sweaty kids all packed together like sardines with various legs, feet, and fists sticking out indiscriminately. It is this anarchistic scene that one critic described so well when he commented that, “Ministry offer[s] us the next best thing, viscera through voyeurism.” It is a titillating sense of imminent death and destruction without the actual danger that one experiences during their shows.

The centerpiece of the concert is the song “So What,” an impressive 11+ minute denunciation of the apathy that so many young people feel towards the world. The song is a series of calm interludes of listlessness complimented by samples of movie dialogue that is underlined by a catchy bass riff. Mixed into this writhing compost heap of music are moments of absolute fury as thrashy guitars and frenzied drumming come crashing in like a colossal wall of sound. “So What” raises this constant battle between composed indifference and intense anger to an epic level. In keeping with their “viscera through voyeurism” tone, the song, like many of their others, is a protest against the “perceived threats” of white middle class suburbia who are not on the front lines of the problems expressed by the band, but are taken there by the songs. By identifying the problem of indifference in a song, and showing how destructive this trait is, Ministry tried to combat against it with their rather bombastic musical approach that often compensated for the weakness in their lyrics. “So What” shows the extremes that people are driven to because of the alienation they feel on a daily basis. When the song’s narrator says, “Now I know what is right / I’ll kill them all if I like / I’m a time bomb inside / No one listens to reason / It’s too late and I’m ready to fight!” it is an example of how people snap and lash out violently. They often feel that they have no choice, that no one will listen to them and that violence is the only way to prove one’s existence. “So What” captures this frightening mindset perfectly. The aggressive parts of the song can be interpreted as the band’s anger and resentment towards apathy (as represented by the calm interludes) and its attempt to destroy it through noise and chaos. Ultimately, the chants of “So What,” repeated with the religious intensity of a demented mantra, can be interpreted two ways: Ministry may be saying so what I’m bored or so what are you going to do about it? Both meanings rather effectively comment on the power of apathy and the battle against it.

One of the most important aspects of the carnivalesque that Ministry incorporated into In Case You Didn’t Feel Like Showing Up was the presentation of a world abiding by certain rules that give it a pattern, but soon “inverts those rules and builds a world upside down,” Fiske observed. This is more apparent in the song, “Burning Inside,” which is perhaps the most striking example of the carnivalesque’s influence on the band’s show. The stage is lit by bins of fire with ominous floodlights providing additional illumination; a man whose head is covered by a hood spins helplessly on a wheel while a muscular man on stage breathes fire into the crowd. It is this song that harkens back to a garish, nightmarish atmosphere where all the excesses of the body are taken to the limit and the line between sanity and madness blurs. Jourgensen, shown singing and playing the guitar at a rather odd angle, lit by a strobe light, presides at the vortex of this furor like some demonic Faustian creation.

The concert concludes with an encore featuring “The Land of Rape and Honey,” Ministry’s satiric attack on the current state of the United States by suggesting that it is gradually slipping towards the same direction as Germany was under Nazi influence. The screen on stage shows old footage of Nazi occupied Germany where citizens are kicked out of their homes only to be herded by soldiers like cattle. These images seem to indicate that we are being metaphorically herded by our own governments but in a more subtle fashion. However, the intent is similar between the two regimes: they both stifle individuality and any expression that does not conform to the status quo. Jourgensen appears wearing army pants, his leather jacket, and a Nazi helmet that has been defaced with a large skull painted on the front and flames on the sides – a parodic blend of a demented Hell’s Angel biker and a Nazi soldier. Former Dead Kennedys lead singer, Jello Biafra crouches near Jourgensen with no shirt on as he alternates between sucking his thumb and giving a mocking Nazi salute. Biafra wears a stunned expression on his face as if he has been turned into an unthinking zombie, merely going through the motions. The whole song takes on a mocking tone, complete with precision military drumming and the pseudo-army garb that the performers wear, but there is no mistaking the satiric intent of the band as Jello marches in feigned military fashion back and forth waving the American flag while Jourgensen hops around like a monkey, only to retrieve a bottle of alcohol. The song makes it clear that the United States has become so fascistic that they can no longer tell the difference anymore as Jourgensen sings, “Which country is the very best?” At this point he shrugs his shoulders and continues the song. It is this use of rather shocking imagery and statements that makes one think of the Surrealists or poets like Irving Layton who use rather disturbing imagery to jolt the audience to a realization. Ministry clearly exceeds the norms with this performance and as a result attain a rather subversive tone that is cemented by the song’s conclusion: Jourgensen pouring lighter fluid on the American flag and burning it. This action is an excellent example of the level of excess that Ministry achieves in order shock its audience.

As one critic wisely observed during a Ministry concert, “Al Jourgensen knows we’re all image junkies, because addiction means never having your fill.” Listening to Ministry or seeing one of their live shows is like sitting too close to the television with volume turned way up – it is often an overload of the senses and that, I think is the point they are trying to make. Ministry delight in taking the rather garish and often warped notion of American culture and distorting it to even more absurd levels as a kind of wake-up call to the apathetic masses. The band’s approach and attitude is summed up best by poet, Irving Layton in his poem, “Whom I Write For.”

For I do not write to improve your soul;
    or to make you feel better, or more humane;
Nor do I write to give you new emotions;
   Or to make you proud to be able to experience them
or to recognize them in others.
   I leave that to the fraternity of lying poets
- no prophets, but toadies and trained seals!

This quote from Layton’s poem could very well be Ministry’s manifesto. The band’s music does not seek to coddle or embrace its audience but rather shock them into a kind of awareness of the problems that plague contemporary society. The band’s music, at its best, does just this, but Ministry treads the line, often risking the chance of being consumed by the madness that they try to parody. In a weird and wonderful way, Ministry was the perfect protest band for the 1990s as they took their audience close to the abyss, to the heart of darkness, and gave them just a glimpse of the madness within. “Viscera through voyeurism” indeed.


  1. OH!!!! I saw clips of that film on YouTube and this was when Ministry was awesome. I have that CD. Great record.

    BTW, have you seen the new Ministry documentary Fix?

  2. thevoid99:

    The CD is fantastic alto, bummed that it doesn't have all the track that are in the video! Oh well.

    I have not seen FIX yet. Didn't Jourgensen try to block it. I have to admit I'm curious.