How Godspeed You! Black Emperor became a political tour-de-force

In Comment by Declan Roberts

Godspeed You! Black Emperor are a Canadian post-rock band that compose instrumental universes, eerie soundscapes, and everything in between. Arriving in 1994 they have gathered a cult following of post-rock fans fascinated with orchestrated instrumentation. From the very beginning of their existence, GYBE have possessed a radical ethos towards the music industry. They do not target a specific part of the industry, such as a label or conglomerate, but rather set their focus on the industry as a one cohesive establishment. The industry’s attitudes of commercialising independent artists and labels are modes of behaviours that GYBE struggled to adapt with and therefore began to reject in response. We can see this rejection frequently throughout their career progression as the political world shifts and as problems arise and grow. Most of GYBE’s focal scope is around their home nation and how the music industry within Canada functions whilst they also consider issues with the government and the decisions that give and take from multiple areas of society.

It is important to ascertain what is meant by political expression and the term ‘manifesto’. Speaking in party political terms, a manifesto is a document that provides an outline of what, if elected, the party will try to accomplish over the four years of governmental reign. Courtney Brown provides a definition for musical terms – ‘minimally, a political manifesto is a statement of political opinion or policy’. However, we must broadly focus on what the music is bringing to the people and its intended audience.

Returning to Brown’s discussion he notes ‘political manifestos are typically intended to be catalytic documents that help to create political change’. This is significant because GYBE do not present a form of obvious campaigning for change. Their political opinions are ambiguous, subtle and forbiddingly driven by all aspects of their musical career and are not simply the fact of writing songs to ‘say something’. Street suggests ‘resistance through music does not have to be given verbal form’ which is precisely what GYBE embody.

GYBE’s political expression and manifesto comes from several areas of their twenty-two-year career. Firstly, towards the press, they do not provide interviews and, to date, only three convincing interviews exist with the G2 supplement in The Guardian being one of them and the other two coming in separate editions of the NME in 1999 and 2000 respectively. This interview had to be transcribed from beginning to end by request of GYBE and the answers were given as a collective group simply ‘Godspeed’. Transcribing the interview meant that the band would not fall under attempts to be paraphrased and have their political views taken out of context.

Within the interview with The Guardian, GYBE discuss various political stances and historical events that shape their opinions.

‘Whatever politics we had were born out of living through a time when the dominant narrative was that everything was fine. Clearly this was a lie. But Clinton was president, the Berlin Wall was down, our economies were booming, and the internet was a shiny new thing that was going to liberate us all. The gatekeepers gazed upon their kingdom and declared that it was good. Meanwhile so many of us were locked out, staring at all that gold from the outside in.’

These anti-capitalist views are a direct understanding of why GYBE act as a ‘collective’. They articulate politics in form as well as content by providing said opinions in interview scenarios (form) and then throughout their music material and album artwork (content). GYBE being a ‘collective’ group gives them a platform to connect their opinions and music to a wider audience and ultimately allows for a continuous growth and engagement with the audience. From their political expression GYBE, can be argued to provide social practice from their music.

We must look at their music as not simply a piece of art but as a specific social activity. Tim Wall argues that ‘politics of popular music is linked to the relationships between individuals and groups in society’. They bring people together in ways that oppose the establishment and therefore give themselves a socio-political voice in the music diegesis. An example of this can be their album artwork and insert sleeve designs. On the inner sleeve cover of their 2012 long-player ‘Allejulah! Don’t Bend Ascend’, GYBE reference the diminishing communities and cities of Montreal and Quebec in Canada through capitalist metaphors. These ideas can come from the past struggles in the Canadian music industry in the late 1980s, discussed by Line Grenier in her 1993 journal article, a year before Godspeed formed.

Grenier writes about the crisis of the Quebec music industries shortly prior to the beginning of GYBE’s career this suggests that their dislike towards the conglomerates stems from the downfall of their native country’s failures and could be a contributing factor to their attitude towards the music industry and its overall functioning. Grenier continues to argue that the industry began to create a ‘new socio-economic mode of organisation of music, songs are considered to be discrete, relatively homogenous (3-5 minute pop song)’. GYBE’s song lengths range from ten to fifteen minutes which would not conform with radio airplay or this newly introduced industry model. Moreover, the commercialisation and globalisation of what was once functioning independent companies – whose sole aim was to distribute and produce local Quebecois music – lead to almost complete demolition of all traditionally built ideologies and therefore impacted socially and culturally on Quebecois’ for years to come. GYBE are innovatively providing awareness to their audience about these issues and are subtly asking them to stand up for what is right and fight back against the strengthening corporations and government. They continue their critique of the government in The Guardian interview:

‘It’s easier to find common cause than it was 10 or 20 years ago. Every day it gets a little harder to pretend that everything’s OK. The rich keep getting more and we keep getting less. Folks flee to our shores, running from the messes we’ve made in their countries, and we treat them like thieves. Turn on the radio and it’s a fucking horror show: the things our governments do in our name, just to fatten themselves on our steady decline.’

It is worth noting that the ‘collective’ can be perceived as auteurs of their genre. GYBE are an example of this for being in the foreground of their genre and their service to political expression right throughout their discography. Their unique anti-capitalist mind-sets and visual imagery portrays a lasting vision to their fan base and the meaning constructed from this is articulated between GYBE and the audience. This is shown through GYBE’s modes of distribution. Take for example their American tour in 2012 when GYBE surprise released ‘Allejulah! Don’t Bend Ascend’. The long-player randomly appeared on their merchandising desk at one of their shows the same year providing another rejection towards the industry’s practices. The fact that GYBE did not need to have a several month-long run up to release to publicise and promote the record shows that artists can survive and flourish without using commercialising factors.

GYBE’s Royal Festival Hall live show in London, 2000 was one of many shows that opened with a monologue which is read out before they performed. Its dystopian narrative symbolises the public as ‘prisoners of the world’ who are subjugated by the elite classes as well as referencing and dedicating their show to the lower-classes who they believe are forgotten about and mistreated. As the shows continue during performance GYBE’s stage backdrop features projections of singular words (synonyms of peace, hope, happiness, love, unity) which are sit atop grainy black-and-white archive footage of anti-war protests. This reinforces the idea that GYBE are representing a revolution to yield a utopian atmosphere to modern-day society.

GYBE’s anti-establishment attitude isn’t the first occurrence in popular music. GYBE feature predominantly under the post-rock epithet but as a meta-genre rock music culture in popular music discourse has always been argued as an opposing state of mind to the masses. Dick Bradley argued that the 1950’s youth culture of rock music was the ‘resistance of atomization and massification’ suggesting that the attitudes put forward by GYBE’s political motivations have been passed down the line of previous generations of rock discourse and rock musicians. Furthermore, the idea that ‘rock was an active political force’ reinforces the notion that GYBE are a ‘collective’ serving as a political entity to tackle issues through form and content. GYBE’s rejection towards the industry then is a significantly postmodernist point of view suggesting that commercial relationships are unavoidable and that the music industry is composing invalid and valueless music.

GYBE exhibited this when they were awarded the Polaris Music Prize – an award for best full-length album by a Canadian artist – whereby they refused to accept the award as the institution that it was rewarded from had key flaws regarding the ceremony they held that GYBE did not agree with. In a statement via their record label’s website – Constellation Records – in response to the award GYBE stated:

3 quick bullet-points that almost anybody could agree on maybe=

-holding a gala during a time of austerity and normalized decline is a weird thing to do.

-organizing a gala just so musicians can compete against each other for a novelty-sized cheque doesn’t serve the cause of righteous music at all.

-asking the toyota motor company to help cover the tab for that gala, during the summer where the melting northern ice caps are live-streaming on the internet, IS FUCKING INSANE, and comes across as tone-deaf to the current horrifying malaise.

Looking broadly at GYBE’s album titles and songs we can see political messages intertwined within the content. As I discussed earlier, the sleeve notes inside ‘Allejulah! Don’t Bend Ascend’ draw on capitalist metaphors and rhetoric but it is clear to see obvious references on most of the other parts of their discography. Some specific songs including ‘Mladic’ taken from ‘Allejulah!…’ features samples from the Iraq war of soldiers accosting enemy troops whilst being named after a former Bosnian-Serb general who was put on trial the same year for war crimes signifying their awareness of current political affairs. ‘We Drift Like Worried Fire’ – also
from the same record – contains audio from street protests in Quebec for raising student tuition fees. 2002’s ‘Yanqui U.X.O’ album artwork features atomic weapons being dropped over civilizations as well as the inside sleeve containing a sketched diagram linking music conglomerates (Sony, Vivendi Universal, BMG and AOL Time Warner) to conspiracy theories. 1999 extended-play ‘Slow Riot For New Zero Kanada’ features a ‘molotov cocktail’ recipe within the sleeve design representing a guideline to create rebellion and rioting for their followers. Employing such imagery and sound goes further than a lot of political expression in popular music discourse and begins to frame GYBE as music anarchists which we see through an in-depth discussion of their sound.

By addressing the wider scopes of GYBE’s political expression, we can start to analyse GYBE’s sound in greater detail. I have warily used the genre ‘post-rock’ as a definition for GYBE but it is argued that they delve into several music genres. This is a choice by GYBE to not be pinned down to one specific cause, whereby they act as anarchists to dismiss value-laden judgements of categorisation and definition. Therefore, then, their musical sound can be read as an anarchist form. The classical string instruments provide symbolic backdrops of peace, harmony, tranquillity and calm whilst the percussion and electric instruments (drums, bass, guitar) signify the disruption to the equilibrium or in other words represent the capitalists and the government.

GYBE are undoubtedly a politically orientated ‘collective’ – stemming right from the 1950’s youth rock culture – who are associated with far-left political stances that ultimately serve as the saviours from what prophesize as ‘a dooming apocalypse’.

By Declan Roberts (@declanmr)