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Political Theory 101

by Brianne Mueller



Everyone it seems has an opinion about the current political situation in the United States.. We are bombarded dozens of times every day from local and national news, pop culture-based shows, even cartoons are becoming overtly political these days. With no shortage of mildly troubling to increasingly upsetting coverage around the country, it’s nice to be able to laugh and make light of an unfavorable situation. Enter the Decemberists.  

The Portland, Oregon band (named for the infamous political Russian uprising) is no stranger to political and cultural commentary. Lead singer Colin Meloy with his whimsical poetic style has often tackled micro and macro social and politically relevant themes within the band’s repertoire. Catchy tunes like “Calamity Song” and “Shankill Butchers” go inside the events of an event and narrate from within. This technique gives current and historical events a unique and fresh angle.

Likewise, the 2005 single “16 Military Wives” from the album Picareque (2004) playfully addresses a particular concern the band has with the current state of U.S. politics. They paint a portrait of the private (and public) reactions to the deployment of 17 specific fictional military men in order to characterize and humanize the situation. Naturally, their point comes across better this way as well. Meloy, who is often praised for his charming and somewhat antiquated lyrics, wrote the song “16 Military Wives” in direct response to the political climate of the time. Although it was pre-recession era, the sentiment remains not only culturally relevant, but frighteningly accurate (although arguably exaggerated) as it details petty U.S. foreign relations and a stereotypical quick-to-blame approach to politics in general – content certainly fit for the drama of a high school classroom.

The song itself is not just inspired by political events, but by what the Decemberists perceive to be as an American pop-culture response and superficial celebrity engagement within politics. “Fifteen celebrity minds / Leading their fifteen sordid wretched checkered lives / Will they find the solution in time / Using their fifteen pristine moderate liberal minds?”. Instead of ripping apart the ‘infotainment’ industry, the Decemberists take a more lighthearted approach by creating a fictional storyline and using colorful lyrics to describe its characters – less impetuous way to get their point across.

Director Aaron Stewart-Ahn facilitates a direct and painfully accurate comparison of the U.S. political system to high school politics. The scene is set at the fictional “Barger Rothery Academy”; more specifically, on the floor of the school’s model United Nations.  The main character and antagonist, U.S. representative Henry Stowcroft, hastefully declares war on the shy man-boy Carl, who represents Luxembourg.  His unchecked aggression towards Luxembourg is due to an inferiority complex in regards to the French representative, school stud/rockstar Jude, who excels beyond Henry’s capabilities in every way. Along with his allies, Poland, North Korea and Maurtius (a tiny island off the coast of Madagascar), a boycotts and smear campaigns are unleashed against poor Carl, who is saved in the end, by a protest song which is written with the help of Jenny who represents the Republic of Ireland. 

Lyrically speaking, the music video doesn’t line up all action on screen directly to the lyrics within the song. Rather, the song’s concept it used as a loose outline that guides the themes present in the video, allowing the stylized film techniques to take over. The topic of ‘infomedia’ is loosely referenced in the music video by the presence of mock U.N. member and student reporter Jack. Other than that, the topic is a mere player in the larger field of the high school/U.S. politics analogy, which is a far more visually amusing and thematically flexible.

As far as the stylistic elements of the music video are a clear reference to Wes Anderson films, complete with serif typography inserted over the action of many scene. In fact, the director cites the Wes Anderson film Rushmore (1998) as the main inspiration for the music video. Well-framed, static shots (such as when a group of students are seen running on the outdoor field) are also reminiscent of films such as Napolean Dynamite (2004) that possess similar cinematic qualities to many of Anderson’s films. This particular filming and editing style effectively creates a sense of nostalgia by framing action as if it were a still picture. In combination with the overdramatized acting, it’s hard not to let an involuntary chuckle escape one’s mouth. This sense hyper-reality shows us that the scene at hand is not to be taken too seriously, while still remaining grounded in realistic social exchanges, however caricature-like it may be.

In terms of content, the video is hysterical. I particularly enjoy Henry Stowcroft’s cartoonish villainous qualities. Often the image of Mr. Burns from the Simpsons comes to the mind’s eye; skulking in the shadows and muttering phrases of personal victory (“Excellent....”). His feeling of inadequacy to France and lashing out at another smaller countries is both pre-adolescent drama and an American tradition under the Bush administration – “Cause America can, and America can't say no / And / America dies, if America says it's so / It's so!”. Within the song itself, Meloy’s distaste for the news media is clearly illustrated within the anchorperson who dominates the later half of the song’s chorus.  In clear mockery of the accountability of today’s reporters, the anchorperson’s dialogue is restricted to nonsense words: “La de da de da de-dadedade-da”.

The conversion of large-scale war and political tactic to the high school setting is particularly clever (i.e. – the lunchroom sanction, weapons planting and ‘bombing’ campaign).  Also, it’s particularly poignant that Carl’s saving grace comes in the form of a protest song, which sends his nemesis from the Model U.N. and down the hall, screaming in horror. Not so coincidentally, the song “16 Military Wives” was deemed by Meloy as a protest song about the Iraq War, but it’s doubtful anyone’s reaction to it would be as dramatic and immediately rectifiable as that depicted in the music video.

Even within a fictional setting, somehow it gives me hope that music not only is able to bring people together, but it saves them. As the stress and despair about our current situation increases, it’s always nice to have a laugh about things that typically hold our nation’s emotions hostage, even mere 4 minutes and 49 seconds. Hopefully it will all be as laughable as the events depicted in this delightful music video.  Ultimately, the symbolic story of Henry and Carl to the United States and Iraq is likely to amuse or at least strike a chord in its viewers, which is the point. Even if it manages to offend or come off as distasteful, it has started a dialogue somewhere. Art always serves as a vehicle to start important conversations and I can only hope it gets more people talking - if not now, then when?

Bri Mueller is a life-long music enthusiast with a recent passion for film. An aspiring music video director, she is a theatre arts major (Psychology minor) from Lawrence University, currently employed as a Marketing Coordinator. Bri enjoys gluten-free brownies, parenthetical phrases and rock 'n' roll. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin. Photo courtesy of Daniele Teodoro. Contact Bri at bri.mueller[at]