What do you think of when you think of war music? Maybe you think of the civil war style snare drum with an accompanying trumpet, maybe you think of an orchestra of brass and strings that could be put to a war movie about brave soldiers in harrowing circumstances — there’s a good chance you think of Jimi Hendrix or Creedence Clearwater Revival.
I’ll tell you what I think of: the top 40 pop hits of 2011.
Going into the military, I assumed most people would be listening to Vietnam-era music, or country and metal. Country music seemed to reflect the people who I assumed joined the military, and metal felt like it would match the aggression you’d need to rage your way through rough training (don’t judge me, I didn’t know anything about the military). I was partly right, those were definitely common genres during my time there.
Let me start by saying I absolutely did not like pop music going into the army. I was a movie soundtrack nerd, and I loved alternative, folk or anything Bob Dylan. I turned my nose up at anything with that electronic, dance-centric sound and someone singing about grinding on the dance floor, or making obscene amounts of money, or whatever other things super rich young people brag about.
I got into Ranger Battalion in 2010, and there was a little country music and metal played throughout our locker rooms, which was constantly flooded by some kind of music. The most popular was, well, pop, dance, electronica and of course the newly emerging dubstep — anything with a solid melody, a heavy beat and someone singing or rapping about nothing military-related. The closest I got to any music that could be construed as military was Wiz Khalifa’s “Black and Yellow,” (so not very close) which I had to do push ups to every time I heard it until I earned my Ranger tab.
And this wasn’t just relegated to the young guys. I’ll never forget my platoon sergeant, over 10 deployments into his career, walking in and shouting with his rough, Alabama accent: “Why is G6 not playing in my AO?! I’d better be hearing ‘Like a G6’ real fuckin’ quick.” And of course, he got what he wanted.
And I fell into the same trap that many did: I developed a taste for it, and began to associate it with Ranger Batt. A new, incoming private in our platoon was the biggest alternative, Portland-acoustic type music snob — before the end of the first training cycle, he was going home with playlists of Ke$ha and M83. This carried over into deployments too — there’s something special about getting ready for a mission with Katy Perry or The Cataracs blaring in the background. Maybe it’s because we thought it was cool; maybe it was the irony of the whole thing; maybe it’s because light, pop music just sort of brings you back to the here and now that isn’t so bad. Maybe it was all of the above.
Of course that wasn’t everyone’s experience, but it was pretty common across the board in the circles that I ran in. Some people still held on to their ideas of what music “should” be played in such places, and that “back in their day” they would never be caught dead listening to any of that — I remain skeptical of those assertions. The military, while it makes you old, has a way of making you young too.
All those Vietnam-era songs that are so regularly associated with war? Popular music. I would argue that it was “better” music I guess, but that’s kind of a useless distinction. Every generation has a chip on its shoulder of how things used to be, and can’t imagine that whatever the new generation likes could ever be good in any way. I’m sure Vietnam era guys got the same grief about their music back in the day.
Now excuse me while I go load some magazines to M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes.”
Featured image: U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Daniel Hughes/Released