Who are the military wives?: The Military Wives Choir(s) and the new British patriotic popular music

After my last blog post on British war memory, where I wrote about how contemporary public commemorative culture seemed to be closing down the range of meanings that Remembrance symbols could have, I wasn’t sure that I’d been entirely fair on the Military Wives. In the original post, I used the Military Wives choir’s performances at commemorative events as evidence of an ‘entertainment/military complex’ in British showbusiness. This is certainly something that the Military Wives have been incorporated into, but at the same time, I don’t think it captures all the reasons why the choir formed, and I don’t think my discussion of them entirely followed the approach I prefer to take: start with the people and their stories, then let’s talk public.

For one thing, rather than talking about ‘the choir’, it would be more accurate for me to talk about ‘the choirs’. The choirmaster Gareth Malone, whose project to prepare a choir of amateur singers to perform at the Royal Albert Hall in 2011 was filmed for a series of the BBC documentary The Choir, in fact formed two choirs at Royal Marines Base Chivenor and another base in Plymouth. (Each series follows Malone forming and rehearsing amateur choirs that reflect a particular social group; other series have featured choirs of schoolchildren, care home residents, NHS staff, postal workers and so on.) The recording artists presented to the public as ‘the Military Wives’, who recorded two albums in 2011 and 2012, are actually an assembly of five choirs – the Chivenor and Plymouth groups plus others from Portsmouth, Catterick and Lympstone, each contributing one or more songs to the album.

Beyond commercial showbusiness, moreover, the idea of a military wives choir with an everyday social function has spread well beyond the bases where the project was filmed. The Military Wives Choirs Foundation, set up by the wife of a soldier based at Catterick, has now developed choirs at more than 50 bases as part of the support services that military spouses on and near bases offer each other:

As military wives and partners we are often on the move, which means being far from friends and family, often at times when we need them most. Our network of choirs is growing across the UK and beyond which means our members can now move easily between choirs when they receive a new posting.

With choirs now in varying stages of development at over 50 locations, wherever women with a military connection are, our choirs are there. So when or wherever you move again, a new choir is there to welcome you in. If there isn’t a choir at your new post, get in touch and we can offer you practical help and support to set one up.

An excerpt from Malone’s autobiography suggests that the televised project publicised an idea that wives in other military communities felt would fill a need:

More and more military wives around the country were contacting me via Facebook and Twitter to say: ‘I’d like to join one of these choirs — where can I go?’

The first person I contacted was Nicky Clarke, a wife at the Catterick Garrison in North Yorkshire, who had written to me a couple of years before to ask me to form a choir there.

It hadn’t been possible at the time, but it was her letter that had inspired the whole project.

Now, I discovered, Nicky had started a choir herself, which was creating a stir of its own. Not only that, but she was passionate about rolling out military choirs across the country. The time, she said, was ripe — and I agreed.

What we see as ‘the Military Wives’ in showbusiness, then, is only part of a network of everyday music-making which has the potential to provide meaningful comfort, solace and solidarity for the women who belong to it, but which largely goes unseen by the producers and members of the public who record, book, watch or buy the music that the national face of the choir(s) has made. At the same time, though, the choir does have a public representation: the producers of records, television shows and public events choose musicians with specific intentions, for the sake of the audiences they appeal to, the images and histories they have, and the narratives that producers consciously or less consciously want to express. If the concept didn’t resonate with widespread discourses that already exist in public, the choir wouldn’t have had the commercial success that it has had.

After their series of The Choir, the Military Wives were signed by Decca. This is a large classical label whose roster includes several British forces bands, among them the Band of the Coldstream Guards, the Royal Air Force Central Band, the Pipes and Drums of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards and the RAF Squadronaires, a big band that originated when a number of professional musicians were called up to join the Royal Air Force band in 1939. These long-standing military bands with recording contracts have been joined by newer groups, whose songs are often released as charity singles: in 2009, for instance, the Band and Bugles of The Rifles recorded a version of Love Farewell (a song familiar from the Sharpe dramas about a fictional Napoleonic rifleman) to raise funds for Help for Heroes, after a year in which the regiment had suffered the biggest losses of any regiment in Afghanistan. The Soldiers, formed of two Army musicians and a guardsman who reached the boot camp stage of The X Factor in 2007, similarly released their first single in support of the Army Benevolent Fund. The market that the Military Wives fit into is established.

The first Military Wives single, and perhaps the choir’s showbusiness project as a whole, exists somewhere between the level of personal memory and the level of national cohesion. The singers’ T-shirts in their first video read ‘My Husband Protects Queen & Country… and I Sing for Queen & Country’. Yet the video also includes family photographs; letters between soldiers, wives and children; ‘welcome home’ posters; home videos of troops’ return. Sometimes these include flags or other national symbols; more often, they’re personal and intimate. Incorporating these mementos into a public text, advertised with the encouragement to ‘Buy “Wherever You Are” and support our armed forces’, means that they cannot stay solely personal and intimate; they contribute to a collage that tells a story of who British troops and their wives are and what they do. For the people who have contributed these items, at the time they contributed them, this isn’t a contradiction.

The sound of the new British patriotic popular music is recognisably a genre. Songs are in choral or musical-theatre style; where the arrangement doesn’t involve a military band itself, hints of pipes or snare drums are likely. The thematics of this genre are consistent, too. The songs on the Military Wives’ albums deal with separation and reunion. The lead single of the first album, which became the British Christmas number 1 in 2011, is an original composition; others are cover versions of earlier pop songs (U2’s With Or Without You; Coldplay’s Fix You; Up Where We Belong, used in the final scene of An Officer and a Gentleman where the uniformed naval officer returns to his girlfriend’s workplace and literally sweeps her off her feet) or hymns (Eternal Father, Strong To Save, traditionally sung in prayer for military and civilian sailors). The formula is the same on their second album, Stronger Together, which is likewise a collection of songs by different choirs: choral versions of pop songs such as Richard Marx’s Right Here Waiting (frequently requested on radio by the partners of US soldiers deployed in the First Gulf War), a Christian hymn (the carol In The Bleak Midwinter), plus original singles including the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee song Sing (the most ‘public’-scale, rather than personal-scale, song the choir has performed).

These align with the lyrics of other musicians who are marketed as part of this genre, although the music by serving soldiers seems to deal more directly with the thought of death. The Soldiers’ Coming Home (‘Coming home with pride / coming home with heads held high / coming home from lands afar / coming home to your arms’) begins with an acknowledgement of ‘the wounded and the brave / the ones God couldn’t save’). Love Farewell, the song revived by The Rifles in 2009, depicts a soldier’s thoughts at the moment of parting from a lover:

If I should fall in far-off battle
Bugles roar and rifles rattle
Thoughts fly homeward – words unspoken
Valiant hearts are oft-times broken
Love farewell

Will you go or will you tarry
Will you wait or will you marry
Would this moment last for ever
Kiss me now and leave me never
Love farewell

The possible fate of troops serving overseas is present in the thoughts of military wives, in the knowledge of their listeners, and in the existence of the charities for which their music raises money. It is a silence in their music itself.

The women who constitute the Military Wives choir in its showbusiness engagements are public figures, in a way. Compared to most other groups in showbusiness, it’s difficult to find information about the members as individuals: this hasn’t routinely been part of their publicity, although this Christmas a book of their personal accounts as military wives has been published by HarperCollins. Their significance is in standing for military wives as a collective. What is reproduced here is a powerful public narrative, far older than this choir or indeed these women, on which the practices of the military and the state depend: the male soldier who leaves in order to protect, and the wife who waits. The opening of non-combat military roles to women and the lifting of the ban on homosexuality hasn’t fundamentally changed the position that this dyad has at the heart of the military and public imagination.

Much is missing from the public image that representations of the Military Wives choir present. Missing are the same-gender relationships; the male spouses and the female soldiers; the increasing racial diversity of the military (since the wives and soldiers pictured are predominantly white); the non-Christian and atheist expressions of hope and grief; and, of course, the many instances where the actions of a military husband on deployment or his actions towards his own family have not been the actions of – as the chorus of Wherever You Are describes the soldier – ‘my prince of peace’.

Although it’s possible to call the members of the commercial Military Wives Choir public figures, all military wives are of public importance in another sense. States depend on their emotional labour to confirm the particular masculinities with which they need male soldiers to identify, as Cynthia Enloe argued in her research into the militarisation of women’s lives:

If I could show that the state is so dependent on these people called military wives who are never thought of as serious political actors, I could show two things: one, that states were more fragile than was presumed because look, they were dependent upon a whole group of actors that people didn’t give the time of day to; and two, the state is conscious of that dependence and expends scarce resources to try to control those women. (Enloe and Zalewski 1999: 142)

Incorporating this choir into occasions of state, such as the royal jubilee or the Festival of Remembrance, incorporates military wives as a category into the public life of the nation. While not a glorification of war, the choir’s music most certainly functions as a celebration of military service: opinions will vary as to whether it is possible to celebrate one without necessarily glorifying the other. I hope it would be fair to say that military wives are neither purely victims of war nor purely beneficiaries of it.

Thinking about the Military Wives Choir and its place in contemporary British public life means thinking about several levels of experience. There are the personal experiences of being separated and anxious, and of the practical problems faced by the partners of deployed soldiers. There is the social community that military wives form with other women who can share their worries, and which the wider choirs initiative seems to have been able to strengthen. And there is what the civilian public observe and understand of these activities, largely mediated through showbusiness and commemoration: how far do these meanings relate to the things that have created solidarity between the members of the choir, and how far do they relate to the overarchive narrative of wives waiting for their husbands, which serves to explain a particular gender order and its militarisation?

The choirs initiative as a whole, on the fifty or more bases where it now operates, seems to have functions grounded in its members’ everyday lives that aren’t so visible in the public representation of the commercial choir. I hesitate to talk about a ‘disconnect’ between the activity and the representation, since it isn’t clear to me that the choir members would perceive any such thing. But one thing, perhaps, is a group of women in the same situation, facing common problems as a result of a shared experience, developing a skill, participating in music, and using choir rehearsal as a way to strengthen emotional bonds. It’s another thing to reduce a choir’s members and their vocal craft entirely to one social identity, as the public representation of the Military Wives Choir seems to do; what’s distinctive about them as public performers is no more and no less than the fact that they are military wives. Should commemorative culture change or public interest in the lives of military families decline, showbusiness would be unlikely to stay involved with them very long.

So maybe this is where the disconnect lies: between musicians as individuals and workers, and the public representations that are made using their images and voices. To what extent does the military wives’ choirs initiative help to improve the wellbeing of military partners and children in general, and how much potential does it have to alleviate the damage that the conditions of military service cause to families? And how far is its incorporation into commercial showbusiness able contribute to these objectives in a lasting way? These are the criteria I’m drawn to judge it by, and time will tell whether any of it causes change. But my feeling is that music videos and chart positions don’t tell us everything about the choirs as a whole.