Wargasm: Militaristic imagery in popular culture
Simon Reynolds -
‘Weapons are tools not just of destruction but also of perception - that is to say, stimulants that make themselves felt through chemical, neurological processes in the sense organs and the central nervous system, affecting human reactions and even the perceptual identification and differentiation of objects.’
- Paul Virilio, ‘War and Cinema’
In the last five years, pop music has been colonised by militaristic imagery. Popular avant-gardes like East Coast hip hop and British jungle act as mirrors to late capitalist reality, stripping away the facade of free enterprise to reveal the war of all against all: a neo-Medieval paranoiascape of robber barons, pirate corporations, covert operations and conspiratorial cabals. In the terrordome of capitalist anarchy, the underclass can only survive by taking on the mobilisation techniques and the psychology of warfare - forming blood-brotherhoods and warrior-clans, and individually, by transforming the self into a fortress, a one-man army on perpetual red alert.
Wu-Tang Clan and its extended family of solo artists (Method Man, Ol Dirty Bastard, Genius and Raekwon) are the premier exponents of the doom-fixated, paranoiac style of hip hop - sometimes called ‘horrorcore’ or Gothic rap - that currently rules the East Coast. The Clan’s 1993 debut album Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) begins with a sample from a martial arts movie. ‘Shaolin shadow-boxing and the Wu-Tang sword… If what you say is true, the Shaolin and the Wu-Tang could be dangerous. Do you think your Wu-Tang sword can defeat me?’ Then there’s the challenge ‘En garde!’, and the clashing of blades as combat commences.
Wu-Tang’s Shaolin obsession only renders explicit the latent content of hip hop: a neo-Medieval code of blood honour and fortress mentality. Look at the videos of post-Wu rap acts like Mobb Deep, and the dancing actually resembles shadow- boxing or kung fu: eyes hooded, mouths contorted in screwface animosity, the rappers seem to be fending off invisible adversaries, their arms slicing and dicing in a ballet of vigilance and hostility.
Listen to the Wu-Tang’s raps, or those of peers like Gravediggaz, Jeru The Damaja and Sunz of Man, and you’re swept up in a non-narrative delirium of grandiose delusions and fantastical revenges, a paranoid stream-of-consciousness whose imagistic bluster seems like your classic defensive formation against the lurking spectre of emasculation. The imagery is of pre-emptive strikes, massive retaliation and deterrence. ‘New recruits, I’m fucking up MC troops’; ‘Wu-Tang’s coming through with full metal jackets’; ‘call me the rap assassinator’; ‘merciless like a terrorist, hard to capture’.
Hallucinatory and cinematic, the music is a sonic simulation of the city-as-warzone, a treacherous terrain of snipers, man-traps and ambushes. Over drum-and-bass grooves as tautly coiled as a rattlesnake poised to strike, unresolved motifs - a horror-movie piano thrill, a hair-trigger guitar - are looped, instilling suspense and foreboding. Usually, the loops and grooves don’t change; the lack of bridges or tempo shifts increases the sense of non-narrative limbo, of tension without release.
Side two of Enter The Wu-Tang begins with yet another martial-arts movie sample: ‘the game of chess is like a sword fight, you must think first ... dope style is immensely strong and immune to any weapon’. This sample resurfaced a year later in the British jungle scene, on You Must Think First by Dope Style, a.k.a. DJ Hype. Hype’s battery of breakbeats mimics the slashing and scything sound effects in martial arts movies, an effect also achieved on another 1994 classic, Lionheart, by Bert and Dillinja. One of drum and bass’ most inspired producers, Dillinja is also responsible for ‘Warrior’, a masterpiece of abstract militancy.
And there’s The Terradome’s ‘Soldier’: its histrionic sample - ‘I’m not a criminal, I’m a soldier, and I deserve to die like a soldier’ - is the ultimate crystallisation of the idea of the gangsta as a rogue unit in capitalism’s war of all against all. In fact, gangs in American inner-city ghettos have long been organised along military lines; in some ways, gang brotherhood offers an alternative form of joining the US military.
Jungle is hip hop’s British equivalent, just sped-up with the rap verbals replaced by abstract atmospherics - and as such is saturated with warzone imagery. From urban-paranoia samples to metaphors of the DJ as artillery-man, Jungle’s militarism goes back as far as the early days of hardcore rave. 4 Hero’s 1991 debut album In Rough Territory features cover images of a commando unit planting a flag on enemy soil; one of their alter-egos, Tek 9, is named after the gangbanger’s favourite automatic weapon. Goldie, one-time A&R for 4 Hero’s Reinforced label, talked of his protégés as ‘prototypes’. 2 Bad Mice’s Bombscare actually employed the sound of a suspect device detonating as part of its bassline, making funky the sound of urban dread. Their label Moving Shadow continued this idea with 1994 tracks like Renegade’s Terrorist and Deep Blue’s Helicopter Tune, which turned Latin percussion into the sound of Apocalypse Now’s helicopter dawn raid.
How did these militant sounds emerge out of hardcore rave’s smiley-faced benevolence and gloriously soppy sentimentality? Ecstasy is the androgynising drug, melting psychic and bodily rigidities; its anti-aphrodisiac effects encourage a regression to the infant’s polymorphously perverse sensuality. But regular use causes its blissful effects to wear off, leaving only the jittery speed-rush. This is exacerbated as ravers take more and more pills in a vain attempt to recover the fast-fading rapture of yore. Either that, or they switch allegiance to the cheaper, more reliable sulphate altogether.
Amphetamine has historical connections with warfare. Millions of pills were given to British troops during the Second World War, to fight fatigue, boost morale and promote aggression. Hitler was given methamphetamine shots seven times a day, and Japanese kamikaze pilots were speeding out of their heads as they hurtled to a glorious death. After WW2, speed was the drug of choice for veterans who couldn’t adjust to civilian life (Hell’s Angels, truckers), and for kids who were bored senseless by it (Mods got ‘blocked’ on purple hearts and black bombers, before battling the Rockers on the beaches of Brighton). Today, the Bosozoku - Japan’s delinquent ‘speed tribes’ - fuse mod and rocker with their greaser image and their fondness for listening to cassettes of their turbo-charged bikes revving up and for getting wired on injectable methamphetamine.
As Ecstasy’s androgynising powers began to fade around the middle of 1992 (the second wave of Rave having come on line a year to 18 months earlier), so there was a gradual re-masculation of rave culture, and a militarisation of the music. In England, ‘ardkore techno turned into jungle; in Scotland and Northern Europe, hardcore turned into gabba. In both cases, the tempo rose dramatically to match the overdriven metabolisms of a new generation of speedfreaks, peaking at 150 beats per minute with jungle, and rising to 180, 200, even 250 bpm with gabba. Rave music turned darker too, its video-nasty soundbites, rude-boy/gangsta threats and persecutory soundscapes reflecting the paranoia and psychic malaise that are long-term effects of prolonged Ecstasy, amphetamine and marijuana abuse.
With E’s luv’d up vibe haemorrhaging from British hardcore, out went the cartoon hypergasmic bliss of squeaky, sped-up voices, the rush-inducing, tremulous piano riffs. The music stripped down to drum and bass. The bass sound in today’s jungle lacks the wobbly glee and wombadelic warmth of hardcore rave; instead, there’s the sinister radioactive glow of the ‘Dread Bass’ sound, or dry, metallic, atonal B-lines that palpitate joylessly and tunelessly. As for percussion, jungle basically consists of James Brownian funk beats tightened and tuffened into the martial paradiddles and triplets of the parade ground; snares are sped up and pitch-shifted until they sound like bursts of machine gun fire. It’s easy to imagine today’s ‘hardstep’ jungle being picked up as a training resource by the military, a new kind of drill (with JB barking like a sergeant!) designed to sharpen the motor-reflexes of the new breed of soldier - more improvisatory, less regimented - that will doubtless be required for the urban conflicts of the future.
Right now, jungle already has just such a quasi-military function for its followers. With its unstable beats and landslide/landmine bass, jungle creates a kinaesthetic sound-picture of 90s reality in all its dread and tension; at the same time, the music’s interminable energy gives the junglist street-warrior the will and the stamina to survive. But while jungle has got blacker, taking on influences from Jamaican ragga and US hip hop, hardcore techno’s other half evolved into the Teutonic, funkless sound of gabba. Originally invented in Rotterdam, gabba is an aural blitzkrieg of stormtrooper beats, distorted bass, death-swarm synths, and rabble-rousing, expletive-undeleted samples. Its aura is of mass rally and proto-fascistic brotherhood, its sensations are velocity, fixation and aimless belligerence. Gabba’s shaven-headed, mostly male fans grind their teeth, shake their fists in the air and jump up and down on the spot in a peculiar Dutch variant of the pogo.
Like jungle events, gabba raves create a sensory overkill that blurs pleasuredome and terrordome, using lasers, intelligent lighting, and 80K mega-bass sound-systems to create a hallucinogenic hellzone of light and noise that recalls the nocturnal, up-river battle scenes in Apocalypse Now. And even more than jungle, gabba is explicit about its militaristic fantasies. The imagery recalls heavy metal’s super-speedy, sadomasochistic sub-genres such as thrash, death-metal and grindcore; band names include Search & Destroy and Annihilator, and compilations like Battlegrounds. As well as diabolical horror-movie voices, gabba often resorts to sampling rappers, particularly those from the Def Jam rap/metal crossover era, such as Chuck D boasting ‘my Uzi weighs a ton’.
Gabba offers all the pleasures of war without the consequences, a Mindwar as one track by Annihilator puts it. Beyond gabba there’s a realm of even harder’n'faster subgenres like speedcore, terrorcore, scare-core, doomtrooper. On labels like Cold Rush, Napalm, Killout, Shockwave and Bloody Fist, the near-autistic fetishism of technology and the perverse identification of libido with the military-industrial complex is even more intense; fantasies of man-machine interface and of prosthetic access to übermensch powers abound. What’s odd is that this cyber-fetishism often goes hand in hand with a militant opposition to the pan-global corporate forces that actually developed this technology, articulated on one label as ‘guerrilla warfare on vinyl’.
Alien Underground, a London-based zine that monitors this international ultra-core network, sometimes reviews tracks using ‘samples’ from Virilio’s writings on speed and the war-machine. One review, actually credited to Virilio, raves about ‘instantaneous explosions, the sudden flare of assassinations, the paroxysm of speed… an internal war-machine’. Gangstar Toons Industry’s 250 bpm ‘pure Uzi poetry’ is hailed as ‘exercises in the art of disappearing in pure speed to the point of vertigo and standstill’. Everything that for Virilio represents an anti-humanist cultural exterminism that must be resisted and reviled, is valorised and revelled in by these speedfreak techno-junkies.
Bruce Sterling coined the term ‘military/entertainment complex’ to describe the way in which technology used in military research feeds into the leisure industry: many video games and virtual reality systems originated in the flight simulators developed by the military to train jet-fighter pilots. Gabba is exactly the kind of music that ought to be playing in the background of all those carnographic games. Likewise, the blitz of lights and lasers at gabba raves could be seen as an attempt to make the raver feel as though they’re inside a video game.
Nintendo games and post-rave styles like jungle and gabba are to virtual reality what cocaine is to crack. By stoking an appetite for ever-escalating doses of hyper-stimulation, Nintendo/gabba recalibrates and hotrods the nervous system in preparation for insertion into the virtual domain. If the crack metaphor seems hyperbolic, consider the way that TV ads for video-games play on the addictive nature of velocity and ultraviolence, the two sensations they offer the player. One commercial shows a mother begging her sallow, red-eyed teenage son to ‘please try to go outside today, honey’; with its murky gloom and its fixated occupants, the living room suddenly takes on the atmosphere of a crackhouse. The game Zoop is advertised as ‘America’s largest killer… of time’. The commercial shows a boy doing cold turkey in a padded cell, twitching and puking. Peering through the peephole, the doctor asks ‘how long has he been playing?’; the nurse answers ‘17 straight days’, at once setting up the association with the speedfreak’s sleep-defying ‘run’. Here is Virilio’s ‘becoming-speed’ or Arthur Kroker’s ‘speed-flesh’: a sexless euphoria that bypasses the adolescent’s hormonally-troubled body to recover the prepubescent boy’s imagination of explosions and pyromania.
Playing up the video game’s emotional spectrum from autism to psychosis, the commercial for Zero Tolerance begins with a maternal voice chiding ‘clear your room’. The boy (and it’s always a boy) responds with another kind of cleansing, entering the virtual sensorium to blast innumerable foes to smithereens; meanwhile, a list of non-virtual ‘enemies’ (including ‘your sister’) scrolls up the screen. The closing slogan: ‘there’s way too much reality out there’. It’s already a cliché that the Gulf War was a Nintendo War. But perhaps it’s less well known that, according to Arthur Kroker, Allied ‘jet fighter pilots [flew] into combat listening to heavy metal’. Consider that ‘Heavy metal’ was originally a military term (in the early 19th century it signified large guns, carrying balls of a large size), and the countless examples of the militaristic streak running through rock’s imaginary, from Motorhead to the Young Gods, make complete sense.
All of these instances of man-machine interface fantasy have an ancestor in Norman Mailer’s 1957 essay ‘The White Negro’ which concerned the building of a new nervous system by experimenting with psychopathology. And all find their culmination in hardcore techno’s kinaesthetics of rush and crash. The rush is when your nervous system’s circuitry is plugged into the machine, charged with artificial energy, turned to speed-flesh; the crash is when the all too human body can’t handle the pace anymore. Back in 1992, the hardcore rave DJ would sometimes abruptly switch the turntable off: the nauseous, vertiginous sound of the record slowing from 150 bpm to zero was a hideously voluptuous preview of the drug comedown, the inevitable crash, only a few hours ahead. Then, whoosh!, the DJ would flick the Technics’ switch, and the force field would repossess the dancer’s body.
For today’s digital-Dionysian, release doesn’t take the form of Mailer’s ‘Apocalyptic Orgasm’, but the orgasmic apocalypse. Hence a band like Ultraviolence, who fuse thrash metal and gabba, and whose Psycho Drama LP is trailed with the promise: ‘10,000 Nagasakis in your head!’ For the modern militarised libido, the equivalent of serene post-coital tristesse is the aftermath: post-apocalyptic wastelands, razed cities, dead suns, the empty horizon, entropy-as-nirvana. Virilio’s ‘ecstasy of catastrophe’ is revealed as a cybertronic update of Bataille’s sacrificial violence and ‘expenditure without return’. Militarism offers entertainment culture diverse technologies of ecstasy, the means of procuring the Wargasm to end all orgasms.