This is perhaps the most well recognized image of the indie rock band Modest Mouse, a group with humble beginnings in suburban Washington. What do we notice about this picture? In the background is a dingy, dull yellow wall, and the borders seem to contain some numbers, perhaps to indicate that the image was spliced from a reel of film? We see Isaac Brock, the writer and lead singer, holding up a gramophone horn to his ear as if it were an ear horn. The rest of the band members are gathered around the horn, three peering into it, one shouting at it, and the other looking pleasantly bemused. They are all well dressed yet casual, and Isaac has his sleeves rolled up to reveal his tattoos.
The members of Modest Mouse, judging by this picture, are obviously not high-rollers. They look quite ordinary, and seem to be displaying different personality traits among them. The three peering into the horn are curious, the one shouting is bold, the one looking amused is critical. Most of the focus however, is on Isaac, whose face is aimed toward the camera in an intense expression of thought. Because he is in fact holding a gramophone horn, it symbolizes that he is the core of the group, and that their music comes from him. Perhaps his thoughts and views are exiting his head through the horn, for all the world to hear. And some people might be critical, and some people may not listen, but the majority seems to pay attention.
More obvious than this, Isaac is at the same time using the horn to listen. It is a balance. It shows that he does not let his opinions out without observing the world carefully, and by his expression, pondering it thoroughly. The picture overall reflects the style of the group very well, which is humble simplicity with underlying levels of complexity. The group sings songs about real life issues, sometimes silly, sometimes serious, and often with many metaphors and hidden meanings, so it seems appropriate that they are well recognized in the manner they are depicted here. And Isaac Brock is an ordinary person, who maybe just takes a closer look at things, and works a little harder to make other people see too.
Considering the type of society we live in, egocentric and lined with affordable luxuries, we don’t often stop to think about human suffering on the grand scale at which it occurs. We don’t even realize what a large percentage of it is entirely needless. It is a heavy burden to think about such things, and more often then not they are simply ignored. Life is already hard enough without the woes of humanity weighing upon us. But there are still those who fret over the condition of the world beyond their own, and they are trying to speak out. They are trying to open our minds and hearts, and reveal the horrors we pretend not to see. They are trying to alert those of us who are well off, so that we might be inspired to help, or at least to better appreciate the lives we have. And one of the best mediums for sharing this is music.
In 2006, the indie rock group Islands released a song called “Rough Gem,” which illustrates the suffering caused by the diamond mines in Africa. Many people believe they are already aware of the horrors of the diamond industry: the violence and corruption spread by “illicitly” traded blood diamonds. However that is only a small part of the story, and much misrepresented. As described in a 1996 investigation by Jani Roberts, apartheid is alive and well in South Africa, and families are torn apart by an industry that promotes a materialistic marriage ritual.
The song is unique in the manner which it presents such a serious and morbid issue, because the song itself is very happy sounding. It opens with cheerful flutes, synth and strings, and remains energetic throughout. The lyrics are from the perspective of an actual diamond, who seems to pity the miners in a detached sort of way, saying “Dig deep but don’t dig too deep, when it’s late you’ll see the hole is empty, and oh so deadly.” A careful listener is shocked by the contrast of the pain and struggle in the words against the pleasant tone of the melody. And thus by illuminating this subject in such an unusual and ironic light, Islands has created piece of music that is both entertaining and stirring.
The tactics employed in the composition of “Rough Gem” can also be found in the famous 1980s song “99 Red Balloons” by the German group Nena, written during the frightening escalation of the Cold War. This song describes a fictional incident in which a large cluster of balloons released by some children are mistaken for an aircraft by the military, triggering a violent overreaction ending in a devastating war. It is also set to a cheerful, energetic mood, accompanying such depressing lyrics as “It's all over and I'm standin' pretty, in this dust that was a city.”
Both songs depict cases of needless human suffering that could be prevented by a little less greed, or a little more cautiousness. The artists of these pieces took a long, hard look at the harsh side of humanity that we rarely ever see, and presented it to us in a beautiful and powerful way. Isn’t it sad though, that reality sometimes has to be slyly sugarcoated for us to swallow it? Hopefully more musicians use such tactics in the future, because they certainly have an impact, and will be a great tool for opening the eyes of our spoiled society.