U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Neoliberalism, the Culture Wars, and Oingo Boingo.

Recently, the shuffle on my computer’s playlist scrounged up a track from one of my favorite bands, Oingo Boingo. Endearingly titled “Wild Sex in the Working Class,” the song proceeds from the point of view of an industrial worker who endures their work day by focusing on the sweet sweet love they are going to make to their partner once their shift is finally over.

And I may be greasing the wheels of a noisy factory

And I may be hunched over metal machines

Watching the gears as they move

Just reminds me of bodies in motion

The sweat and the sound

As I listened, I wondered what such a song, from the viewpoint of the average “working class” employee, might read like today. Certainly any lyrics about the grit and grime of a factory would sound nostalgic at best. To have any ring of authenticity, it would have to read something more like this:

And I may be forcing a smile at every customer

And I may be sneaking a chance to sit while the manager’s away

Trying to sleep during my 20 minute break

Just reminds me of you

When you get back from your second job shift

And yet, perhaps this was already nostalgic when Danny Elfman wrote it? The track is from their second album, released in 1982, early enough in the Reagan years for factory jobs to still be a reality for some and certainly a memory for many. The production of industrial nostalgia, then, began before that industry entirely disappeared. At the time, it likely felt more like a strategy of preservation than pity, although it is fair to criticize such working class imagery as misplacing its affection – as Ben Casselman recently argued, what Americans miss are the benefits of strong unions, not the jobs themselves.

Elsewhere in Boingo’s ouerve, however, you can find more substantial critique. On their very first full album, the whole economic system is the subject, in a track succinctly called “Capitalism.” Once again Elfman sings from the point of view of a protagonist, except here his tone is clearly sarcastic and satirical. (A strategy he also uses elsewhere in some of his songs, most notably and creepily in “Little Girls.”) It is worth quoting the entire song:

There’s nothing wrong with Capitalism

There’s nothing wrong with free enterprise

Don’t try to make me feel guilty

I’m so tired of hearing you cry

There’s nothing wrong with making some profit

If you ask me I’ll say it’s just fine

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to live nice

I’m so tired of hearing you whine

About the revolution

Bringin’ down the rich

When was the last time you dug a ditch, baby!

If it ain’t one thing

Then it’s the other

Any cause that crosses your path

Your heart bleeds for anyone’s brother

I’ve got to tell you you’re a pain in the ass

You criticize with plenty of vigor

You rationalize everything that you do

With catchy phrases and heavy quotations

And everybody is crazy but you

You’re just a middle class, socialist brat

From a suburban family and you never really had to work

And you tell me that we’ve got to get back

To the struggling masses (whoever they are)

You talk, talk, talk about suffering and pain

Your mouth is bigger than your entire brain

What the hell do you know about suffering and pain . . .

There’s nothing wrong with Capitalism

There’s nothing wrong with Capitalism

There’s nothing wrong with Capitalism

There’s nothing wrong with Capitalism

Elfman’s tone here is pitch perfect – channeling the hippie hating politics of 1960s backlash, he reproduces this line of thinking so well that were it not for the grandiose and buffoonish tone of voice he uses, you could even be forgiven for mistakingly thinking he was sincere. Yet the opening line and its insistent repetition at the end of the track makes sure the impression stays on point: the narrator, having hurled as many ad hominem attacks at his target as he can, exhausts his options and can only reassure himself by repeating, over and over, “There’s nothing wrong with Capitalism.”

Yet Elfman’s politics aren’t so easy to pin down as the track would suggest. “Only A Lad,” a track on the same album (and the album title as well) appears to warn against the dangers of too much sympathy and excuse making, the sort of bleeding-heart-liberal criticism you could easily find today on Fox News.

It is interesting, then, that Elfman’s most straightforward and sincere track of social criticism (at least that I know of; I’m a long time fan but not an expert) focuses not on class politics but the culture wars. Released in 1994 and the opening single for the band’s last album, “Insanity” differs drastically from the other songs we’ve discussed. As soon as it begins it becomes evident that this is not a song to listen to if you’re in either a lighthearted or a cheery mood; from the hypnotizing rhythm to the eerie background chorus of children, it’s deliciously dark stuff. It’s a long song (and well worth the listen), so I’ll just quote a portion of the most straightforward prose:

Christian nation, make us alright

Put us through the filter and make us pure and white cause

My mind has wandered away from me

And the flock has wandered, away from me….

Let’s talk of family values while we sit and watch the slaughter

Hypothetical abortions on imaginary daughters

The white folks think they’re at the top, ask any proud white male

A million years of evolution, we get Danny Quayle!

Unlike “Wild Sex,” or “Capitalism,” “Insanity,” is sung at its topic, rather than through it. Despite the fact that the narrator indulges in fantasies of murder by the end (seeming to suggest the violent impulses that lay beneath the rhetoric of the Christian Right), the song sounds like a much more straightforward, unambiguous attack on conservative politics than anything Elfman wrote before. In all honesty, I’m not sure what to make of this. It’s pretty tempting to plug it into a critique of American liberalism: always afraid of the bugaboo of conformity and enamored with the individualism of the Enlightenment, of course bands like Boingo would go after the Religious Right but back away from anything clearly embracing solidarity. But then again, when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail, and Elfman’s awareness of racial politics goes beyond the usual anti-Christian Right spiel.

Either way – and I’ve hardly exhausted the possibilities here, so feel encouraged to contribute in the comments – the most interesting analyses would have to go beyond the intent of Elfman and consider the historical developments that shaped the way he responded to the rise of Reagan’s America. As we know too well, there wasn’t exactly a vibrant left – or even a Democratic Party really worth of the name – actively offering alternatives that went beyond criticism and pushed for radical solidarity. And that level of commitment is what, other than in rap and hip-hop, has been starkly missing in popular music since the 1960s. May we hope to see its reemergence soon.

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Provocative, as usual, Robin! And thanks for making review some Oingo Boingo on Spotify. They remind me of Devo, in a certain techno way.

    Being unfamiliar with Oingo Boingo’s general ouevre, I can’t make any larger comments. Otherwise, I love your point about nostalgia for industrialism’s labor protections, meaning unions. I also appreciated your distinction about singing at versus through a topic. …Thanks! – TL

    • Thanks Tim! Oingo Boingo is not generally well known; if you ever heard them before, you likely listened to “Dead Man’s Party,” which was their biggest hit. Danny Elfman went on to compose almost all the soundtracks for Tim Rice films and then some, so you’ve likely heard a lot of his post-Boingo work!

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