How do they militarise a music video?: using popular music to teach about militarisation

Longer ago than I care to remember, I was part of a conversation on social media with some colleagues who teach and research in the area of critical military studies about ways of using various kinds of cultural texts about war and the military – including war art and also music – in our teaching. In the meantime, Critical Military Studies has become a journal as well as an approach, I’ve been getting my intro text on the Yugoslav wars ready for publication (more on this soon…) and I still haven’t found time to write up the points on using popular music in teaching about ‘militarisation’ that I contributed to this discussion howeverlongitwas ago.

‘Militarisation’, as it appears in Cynthia Enloe’s work, is a foundational concept in feminist International Relations and very easy to bring into other disciplines that deal with war and everyday life. In her 1983 book Does Khaki Become You?, Enloe referred to militarisation as the set of material and ideological processes through which war and the military are made acceptable to the public: ‘In the material sense it encompasses the gradual encroachment of the military institution into the civilian arena’ (through civilian firms becoming dependent on defence contracts, or the armed forces becoming involved in providing public services), but material forms of militarisation are likely to go hand in hand with an ideological dimension in which these activities ‘become seen as “common sense” solutions to civil problems’ (Enloe 1983: 10).

The ideological side of ‘militarisation’ is what educationalists call a ‘threshold concept‘ – something you need to have understood in order to be able to grasp the next set of ideas in the field, but also something that probably needs you to change the way you think in order to be able to understand it (the thing with thresholds is that once you’ve gone over them you can’t really go back).

Enloe’s next books drew even more attention to aspects of militarisation in late 20th century/early 21st century everyday life, leading up to the perfectly framed question in the title of one chapter of her 2000 book Maneuvers: ‘How do they militarize a can of soup?

(The short answer: by cutting the pasta shapes into designs of Star Wars satellites. But go and read the chapter to think through Enloe’s interpretation of why.)

How could you use popular music to help students think about this concept, understand where Enloe was coming from, and ultimately become able to use it in their own analyses and relate it to their own intellectual frameworks?

I came up with several suggestions based on my own teaching, depending on how much time and space you want to give popular music in your pedagogy and how much active learning you’re aiming for your activity to involve.

One way is simply to highlight a point you want to make in a lecture by using a song, a music video, or a clip of a live performance – the same way that, for instance, Laura Shepherd uses a scene from The West Wing about the Mercator and Peters projections of the globe to illustrate the argument that the politics of representation need to be taken seriously in international relations:

The critical importance of how we represent our world(s) is attested to in this comedic scene, with Fallow, the spokesperson, going on to explain that ‘When Third World countries are misrepresented they’re likely to be valued less. When Mercator maps exaggerate the importance of Western civilisation, when the top of the map is given to the northern hemisphere and the bottom is given to the southern … then people will tend to adopt top and bottom attitudes’ (Shepherd 2013: 125-6).

When I taught a module on nationalism at UCL SSEES, I started each lecture with a ‘song of the week’ that connected to the theme of that week’s lecture and seminar, using songs from the regions studied at SSEES (Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union). I still want to refresh the song selection and reintroduce ‘song of the week’ to the differently-structured nationalism module that I teach now at Hull – despite the occasional hiccup with lecture-room technology, those few minutes at the beginning of the session for everyone to think about how what they’re watching expresses the question of the week felt like they worked well.

For instance, this rock song which the Slovenian football association used as its official song for the 2010 World Cup (Dviga Slovenija zastaveSlovenia is raising flags) was our song of the week for the lecture on ‘everyday nationalism’ and social construction – since a lot of the research on how nationalism is routinised into everyday life discusses sport.

At the beginning of the lecture on gender, sexualities and the nation, we watched what was then the previous year’s Eurovision Song Contest entry from Armenia, Apricot Stone, which helped to connect ideas about gender and nationalism to earlier discussions about national symbols and territory:

In these lectures I was using songs as an introduction and then moving on; the next level of interactivity would be to structure in time for students to critically discuss a song/performance/video themselves, either as a seminar activity or as an interactive break during the lecture – doing it this way, you would show the video and ask students to respond to a few questions that draw out the themes you want them to be able to discuss. (Here, it’s helpful to post the clips and lyrics on your VLE in advance so that students who might need longer to take in the content and make notes will be able to participate fully.)

The scope here is almost unlimited depending on the topics you want to explore. Anti-war protest songs? US post-9/11 country music? Cultures of Remembrance in contemporary British entertainment (where a perceptible ‘entertainment/military complex’ opened up, even taking in The X Factor, in the final years of the war in Afghanistan)? I’ve been able to use popular music from the Yugoslav wars this way not just in area studies classes but also in non-area-specific teaching.

It’s often possible to align musical examples with seminar readings remarkably well: for instance, if your class on humanitarian intervention had been reading Sherene Razack’s work on peacekeeping, racism and the ‘new imperialism’ (which focuses on Canada and the ‘Somalia Affair’) this celebration of Canadian peacekeeping from 1994 (Stompin’ Tom Connors’s Blue Berets – which begins with a minute of news footage from the siege of Sarajevo) could make an excellent counterpoint:

Or, going even further, music could be an entry point for encouraging students to apply ideas about militarisation and popular culture to their own cultural lives – ask students to each bring an example of a song or video that contributes to or resists militarisation to an upcoming class, and give a mini-presentation setting the song in that context. Alternatively, this could be the focus of a written assignment.

Most of my modules have an element where students need to choose a particular example or case to research or contextualise in some way; I haven’t used this particular activity yet, since I don’t have a module that it could currently go into, but even as I was sketching it out in the original conversation I was excited to think about the range of music that students might bring into an activity like this – just as I always enjoy seeing what students choose to focus on in their research essays for my existing Music, Politics and Violence module.

And, one way or another, maybe somebody will explain how this happened: