Monday, March 13, 2023

The mummery of "You Cannot Walk Here"

The music I want to hear changes with the season, and during the fall and winter months I crave industrial. Since the clocks were set an hour back in November, I've been listening to a lot of Wumpscut in my little alcove in the office. I've enjoyed listening to KMFDM's Nihil all the way through at least once a week. Give me Skinny Puppy, give me SPK and Frontline Assembly and LeƦther Strip.

Sometime in early February I started on a Birmingham 6 binge. Maybe we could say they spent their all-too-short career playing second fiddle to KMFDM, but I love them all the same. I kept their 1995 album Assassinate (a mixed-up stateside version of 1994's Mindhallucination) in heavy rotation throughout high school, but it wasn't until the days of file sharing that I came upon their epic sophomore effort Error of Judgement (featuring Front 242's Jean-Luc De Meyer).

A week or two I caught myself singing along to to Error of Judgement's fifth track, "You Cannot Walk Here." And why not? It's a jam. But listening the lyrics coming out of one's own mouth can be jarring, perhaps to the extent that some neurotic mutant might wish to issue an apologia for the track and his enjoyment of it.

Here, then, are the words to "You Cannot Walk Here," copy/pasted in their entirety, presumably transcribed from a set of liner notes. Do forgive the awkward diction and improper capitals; Birmingham 6 is from Denmark, and English wasn't their first language.

You Cannot Walk Here, You Cannot Walk Here
I've Been Watching You All The Way
Where The Hell Do You Think You Are?
You Cannot Walk Here, You Cannot Walk Here
You're On My Land, Soiling My Ground

You Cannot Walk Here, You Cannot Walk Here
What You Say I Don't Understand
Beware I Have My Gun At Hand
You Cannot Walk Here, You Cannot Walk Here
You Want A Shelter From The Rain
I Don't Want You To Stay
Wrong Way! Dead End! No Entrance!
There Is Nothing For You Here!
Wrong Way! Dead End! No Entrance!
Wrong Way! Dead End! Is It Clear?
Crawl Back To Where You Come From!
Hey Stranger You're Not Welcome Here!

You Cannot Stay Here, You Cannot Stay Here
I Don't Want To Be Seen With You
What Would My Neighbours Say?
You Cannot Stay Here, You Cannot Stay
For We Just Might Get Used To Know Each Other
Maybe Become Friends And I Don't Want That
And I Don't Want That
There Is No Bed For You Tonight
No Room Inside For Someone Like You
For Someone Like You
You Cannot Stay Here, You Cannot Stay!

Wrong Way! Dead End! No Entrance!
There Is Nothing For You Here!
Wrong Way! Dead End! No Entrance!
Wrong Way! Dead End! Is It Clear?
Crawl Back To Where You Come From!
Hey Stranger You're Not Welcome Here!

The Spring Has Gone, My Well Is Dry
There's No More Water In My Jars
That's Why...

You Cannot Drink Here, You Cannot Drink Here
My Wine Has Turned To Vinegar
The Well Is Dry, The Spring Has Gone
You Cannot Drink Here Nor Even Eat
You Say You're Starving, You Say You're Starving
But There Is Nothing Left For You
I Have A Family To Feed, My Granaries Are Empty
You Cannot Eat Here, You Cannot Eat Here
You Cannot Eat!

You Cannot Walk Here, You Cannot Walk Here
This Place Is Not Your Paradise
Go To Hell, Shrivel Up And Die
You Cannot Walk Here, You Cannot Walk Here
You Cannot Walk Here!

You Cannot Walk Here!

Context is important here.

Birmingham 6 takes their name from the six innocent Irishmen made to take the fall for a string of IRA bombings in the 1970s. Most of their lyrics treat political topics. They condemn violence motivated by religion, the prostitution of minors to sex tourists, antiabortion laws, thuggish police, and warmongering politicians. "One of These Days" (pointedly included on the You Cannot Walk Here single, below) fearfully predicts a resurgence of violent right-wing nationalism; undoubtedly the band's retired members took no pleasure in the twenty-first century proving them right.* Point is, Birmingham 6 is decidedly left-of-center. The sentiments expressed in "You Cannot Walk Here" are not genuine.

* Hmm. Not that it matters, but this is a remix. You probably need either the compact disc or a torrent to hear the album version.

"You Cannot Walk Here" gets you bobbing your head and singing along to a song about bigotry, sung from the perspective of a bigot. There's no last-verse epiphany, and the closest thing to an ironic wink to the listener occurs when the speaker briefly considers the possibility of friendship with the Other whom he addresses, only to immediately bark "and I don't want that! and I don't want that!" It's despicable from beginning to end.

And yet, Birmingham 6 trusts the listener to pick up on the irony. The band doesn't mean to glorify the speaker's viewpoint, even though it's articulated in a song that's damned catchy and doesn't utter a single syllable that explicitly disavows itself. The palpable meanness of "You Cannot Walk Here" suffices to get across what it's actually saying. The klansmen on the single's cover aren't glamorized; they're depicted as monsters.

Even so, that doesn't change the basic fact that the listener is bobbing his head and taking pleasure from a song in which some hard-hearted jerk heaps abuse on some impoverished itinerant who's Not From Around Here.

* Another contextual note: the single's American release had a different cover. Possibly there were concerns that the image might be misconstrued as celebrating the KKK instead of demonizing them, which wasn't an unreasonable fear in the slobs' home country. There's no room for ambiguity in the alternate cover.)

"How often do popular musicians put out songs like this?" is an impossible question, whether we're only talking about the recorded music of our own progressive and enlightened age or including sea shanties and 78s. Whatever the frequency of it, tunes that coax out our imps of the perverse do penetrate the mainstream, and much more deeply than did a track by an obscure Danish industrial act. Nirvana's epochal Nevermind had "Polly." Foster the People's "Pumped Up Kicks" was fucking inescapable for a while in the 2010s. With the rise of gangsta rap in the late 1980s and the recent popularity of drill, there's been at least one sphere in the orrery of Western popular music in which antisocial and/or criminal behavior is romanticized.

But "You Cannot Walk Here" is a bit different. One could make the case that its lyrics represent a more fundamental moral failing than calling 187 on an undercover cop. Beating a bitch down in the goddamn street is a bad action, but we understand bigotry to be the expression of a bad will and a generally bad way of being. (John McWhorter has repeatedly said that in the United States the only epithet that carries the pejorative weight of "racist" is "pedophile.")*

* This can give rise to some truly bizarre behavior, as recently witnessed in the case of a Pennsylvania woman who flipped her shit at a pizza parlor. "What's wrong with that is you're not an American," she says in one breath, and "I am not a racist" in another. She's clearly comfortable acting the part, but nevertheless fears the label.

The pleasure a [theoretical] listener takes from "You Cannot Walk Here" (assuming he isn't actually someone whose Facebook posts routinely read like the lyrics) might be comparable to the pleasure a horror buff takes in watching slasher movies (assuming he isn't actually a knife-wielding maniac himself). Jason, Freddy Krueger, Ghostface, et al. are popular icons, and we love them because we thrill in watching them viciously murder people (and get their comeuppance) in scripted spectacles—even though we have absolutely no sympathy for actual serial killers who butcher people in real life.

"The man who first flung a word of abuse at his enemy instead of a spear was the founder of civilization," runs the Freudian aphorism. And it was also the instatement of repression and neurosis as cornerstones of human existence. Cathexis is the upkeep cost of living in society.

Freud might say watching a Friday the 13th flick gives release to the energies of the death drive. On some level, a part of us wants to behave like the chimps we essentially are and brutalize people who irritate us. (At the risk of editorializing, I'd wager this is more common in human males than females.) When Jason hacks off some camp counselor's head with a machete, that part of us is relieved to identify with him. He's doing what we cannot ever allow ourselves to do, and if we didn't feel good about it, Jason wouldn't have lumbered across another nine movies after Friday the 13th Part 2.

The analogy here should be obvious. You know the speaker's attitude in "You Cannot Walk Here" is unacceptable, but at the same time, there's a shadow in you that doesn't want to be the nice, understanding, generous person you try to be, and whom you'd like to be recognized as. That part of you wants to let go of the leash with which you restrained your biases and your ungenerous thoughts, and let them slather and snarl at the Other to whom you've always been taught to Be Kind. Listening to "You Cannot Walk Here" is an opportunity to relax your arm in a way that doesn't cause actual harm to another person and ultimately remind yourself why you're gripping the leash in the first place.

In its a crude, disintegrated modern way, all of this is somewhat analogous to ancient communal rituals like Kronia, Saturnalia, and Carnival—holidays during which norms were inverted and taboos lifted. There is no indication that any of these festivals weakened the social order by periodically subjecting it to a controlled dissolution. As a matter of fact, there is reason to believe the way of things came out reinforced.

I can imagine Birmingham 6 playing a little club somewhere in late 1996 and performing "You Cannot Walk Here" to an enthusiastic audience that had memorized the lyrics. (We should assume that band's categorical opposition to religious fundamentalism and reactionary nationalism, writ large in their lyrics, filtered out the right-wing rivetheads.) Like Saturnalia in miniature, it would have provided an occasion for a socially liberal audience to temporarily "flip," verbally acting out the character of their political rivals and moral opponents (whom the lyrics still present as execrable bastards) within a space where it was permissible to do so. Moreover, it would have still been under contextual control: confined to that place and time, and with the Christian mummer's implicit understanding that dressing up in a devil costume as part of a Christmastide festival is a left-handed gesture of faith.

This is healthy. It's like a kind of cultural homeopathy wherein a small, ironic dose of a baleful way of thinking inoculates the listener against coming to truly countenance it. Again, context is crucial here: I wouldn't be saying any of this about "You Cannot Walk Here" if it were rather written and performed by a Nazi punk act who shouted its lyrics in earnest. As it is, though, we have a dark bop with an anti-prejudicial message articulated in the language of prejudice. Sometimes we can more effectively confront the devil within and without when we've had some experience wearing the mask of his likeness.