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Punk Writes

Lies They Tell Our Children (review/analysis)

Political Context

A lot has happened since Anti-Flag released their last album. We didn't know then that we were on the cusp of a pandemic that would go on the kill 6.7 million people and counting. We hoped Donald Trump would lose his reelection bid. George Floyd was just a middle aged man living his life, not a victim of egregious police brutality that kicked off a summer of protests and violence, culminating in a 17-year-old playing cop and killing protestors. Trump was still at 1 impeachment and the country at 0 insurrections. We get it, an entire decade managed to happen in 2020.

January 6th, 2023: the release date for Anti-Flag's 13th studio album Lies They Tell Our Children. It was the second anniversary of the storming of the capitol. Republicans have a narrow majority in the House and have succeeded in: embarrassing Kevin McCarthy, appointing "9/11 was an inside job" Q Anon nutcase Margorie Taylor Greene to the Homeland Security Committee; placing mythomaniac, veteran's dog GoFundMe defrauder, my grandparents totally survived the Holocaust and my mom was in the South Tower on 9/11 George Santos on the Small Business and Science, Space, and Technology committees. As it turns out, he may have had a very good reason for completing inventing a new life for the transphobic and homophobic Republican party: allegedly, he was a drag performer in his native Brazil. New restrictive voting laws in Ohio, state legislatures banning women's...shoulders. *checks calendar* Nope, still 2023. So, that is the context this album is birthed from and in to.

Putting my AP English to work

The opening song, "Sold Everything" can be viewed as a thesis statement with the rest of the album as the enumerating paragraphs and the information provided in the lyric booklet as the supporting evidence. It begins with just guitar for the first 10 seconds or so. "Well, they sold all our bodies, collected our names/ sold all our fears, stole all our birthdates/ Every thought we have exchanged for windfall/If they gave you nothing, you'd have nothing at all". The lyrics here take center stage over the relatively slow and subdued guitar and drums. It's capitalism in a nutshell: commodify everything and sell the end product back to us.

The second song is "Modern Meta Medicine". $10 if you can guess what this one's about! "How will we pay, we're the commodity/ We can never help ourselves/We want it all and nothing else" expertly captures how the private healthcare industry works in the United States. We spend the most per capita and yet have some of the worst health outcomes of the developed world. This is because we don't have healthcare, we have sickcare. We don't have holistic approaches, we have Big Pharma throwing pills wherever they'll stick, which turns out to be everywhere. "We're all bogged down with dread/fill us with medicine/undertreat the pain, deny dignity"--the solution is no solution at all. Patients who cannot function without narcotic painkillers are now being denied after decades of OxyContin being passed out like candy. The point here is that healthcare is a human right and should never be a profit driven industry.

The album title appears in the lead single, and third track, "Laugh. Cry. Smile. Die", but it's actually from a Mobil "advertorial" that appeared in the New York Times in 1984. The "lies" being, of course, that climate change was being fueled by the oil and gas industry. The primary focus of the song is the climate crisis, specifically how the major oil companies knew the damage they were doing and baldly lied about it. The irony here is just how accurately Exxon's scientists predicted the effects of climate change.

Yet it can be easily applied to many other contexts, with the lyrics "the lies they tell our children shaping everything they know/turning fact into fiction streamed on every single show". There's an onslaught of misinformation out there, and conservatives have been in full "save our children" mode since Trump first descended that golden escalator (and really since the Satanic Panic). They've actually convinced themselves schools are providing litter boxes for children who identify as cats. Or that drag queens reading stories to children is "grooming", but child beauty pageants and bringing your single-digit male children to Hooters is wholesome family fun. Or apparently forgot about on the most famous albums in past half century and think it's part of the "gay agenda". Let's not forget that Ron DeSantis just banned having AP African American studies in Florida high schools, claiming it "lacks educational value and is contrary to Florida law". They're the ones that want to teach outright lies or egregious half-truths but have convinced themselves they're in the right. (Careful, they might get offended by that pronoun usage).

Whoo, take a breath. Good? Okay, track four, and I'll try to talk about the actual music too, just words are my strong suit, as I can hardly tell lead guitar and baselines apart! "The Fight of Our Lives" happens to feature one of my other favorite musicians/activists, Tim McIlrath of Rise Against. I love his voice because it's got built-in arena quality, just always sounds very expansive. Anyway, this is when the album really kicks into high gear. The music is hard and fast, the music video is various protests. This song was specifically focused on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which was just kicking off when they started recording the album. "There's a dark cloud growing at the end of the road/there's a crowd of people left with nowhere to go/and I got so sick of the sight, it keeps me up at night/there's a headline telling you that this is the end/there's no conversation it's still us vs them" is absolutely a call to arms (which is a requirement of every Anti-Flag album).

The fifth song is one of my favorites, and definitely the most fun to sing along to. "Imperialism" features vocals from Ashrita Kumar of Pinkshift, which is absolutely perfect. It's narrated tongue-in-cheek from the perspective of the imperialist, and the chorus is just *chef's kiss*, "Did things my own/made up my own rules/took of a Sunday and stole all your jewels/moved into your house, you said can you move/I said I'm goin, I'm going, nowhere". It's short and snappy, as the best punk is.

"Victory or Death (We Gave 'Em Hell)" is my other favorite sing-along on this album. It's anthemic, reminiscent of a church choir. It begins quietly, the first 25 seconds with no guitar or drums, just bells (I'm assuming here). It's actually about the Lincoln Battalion, a group of American volunteers who fought for the Republic in the Spanish Civil War (yes, Spain had a civil war that the fascists one and had a 40 year dictatorship, it's okay, I never learned about it either). It's a hopeful song about fighting an enemy, where even if you end up losing, at least you went down swinging. It actually reminds me a lot of "Brandenburg Gate" from the 2015 album American Spring (how has it been seven years already...), which was a love song to socialism; the music video is even set in a church, which I totally forgot. They're both about conflicts (or lackthereof with the Cold War) that didn't happen in America but very much had their impact

Where are we? Song numero seven? "The Hazardous". Okay, I didn't actually know what this one was about, so thank you CD insert with the mini 'zine! "Locked out, locked up/ they've got the gun to our heads/same war, same chains/same house always wins/the bottom line defines, the hazardous redline" goes the chorus. Apparently, in the 1930s the federal government created maps of cities and labeled different neighborhoods based upon their perceived (by white people) riskiness, and the worst ranking was "hazardous", because, ya know, racism. Not really much else to say on that one, it's pretty self-evident.

"Shallow Graves" is about how the United States is built upon stolen land. "Manifest destiny to fill our shame/ where they bury you in a shallow grave". We've historically never been kind to the Indigenous peoples, nor any non-white immigrants (or all the white ones either, just ask the Irish). But it's also hopeful at the end, "We are the warmth of the other suns/ 500 years of violence undone/ we are the sins that you will not forget/ the broken promise of the innocent".

"Work & Struggle" reminds me of "A Nation Sleeps" from their previous album, and even harkens back to "Rotten Future", from their very first album Die for the Government 30 years ago. It's this albums "capitalism fucking sucks" song (they have themes and they're sticking to them). The lyrics are pretty great, though, "Work and struggle and be grateful for it/ work and struggle and death/ work and struggle and be grateful for it/ work and struggle for less". It's an ode to the working class, which you're probably part of even if you think you aren't. A working class that has been decimated with stagnant wages, labor suppression, and pitting us against each other by using racism to divide (remember, MLK was assassinated when he started including poverty as a main issue). For context, lyrics from "A Nation Sleeps" include, "The success we seek/ Trickles down to a gutter where the prison bars meet" and the chorus is "We are cultured/ Commute, work/ Commute, sleep". "Rotten Future" has the chorus "Impatience with society/ Be what they want you to be/ Impatience "there is No Future here"/ "I'm not lazy I just don't care".

The penultimate song is titled " NVREVR" (pronounced "never ever") is also the struggle of living in a capitalist society, and how they will "never ever" give their lives over to work and "productivity" as measured by output that doesn't even benefit the worker themselves.

The final song, "Only in My Head", is about how Mario Cuomo's solution to the drug problem in 1980s New York City was, instead of repealing the draconian Rockefeller drug laws that had imposed mandatory minimums, he decided to build more prisons. Now, of course he would have rather repealed the laws, but the national War on Drugs had just started and the CIA was busy pushing crack into the inner cities. "The house created by the greed is not the goddamn home that we need...ban all the books/padlock the schools/ Never knowing our reality/ When everything's a conspiracy". The bill for new prison construction was funded by the Urban Development Corporation, a publica agency established after the assassination of MLK meant to provide housing for the poor. So the point of the song is that people of color were robbed of stable housing, which is a major risk factor for criminal development, so that they could be incarcerated instead. If that doesn't scream "America" to you...I don't know what does.

So there you have it, entirely too many words about a like, 35 minute album lmao. Honestly though, it really is fantastic. I don't actually have a favorite because they've been so consistent in quality, message, and musicality. The songs have gotten crisper over the years as audio technology has improved and they've had the money for a proper studio, instead of recording in empty houses and basements.

A Quick Comment on the Artwork

The cover image for this post is not the official album artwork. Instead, I uploaded the actual artwork to Dall-e-2, and then wrote the description "children standing on an upside down American flag, graffiti, dystopia" (or something close to that effect). The actual artwork is fantastic though. The artist is Doug Dean, and he wrote the album title with his own blood. My favorite image is the illuminati eye surrounded by four Jesuses on the cross with bullets between the crosses (this happens to be the art specifically for "Imperialism", so that's neat!). I actually have a friend that I'd been wanting to commission a pencil drawing from, but I'd been struggling to think of anything. Then this album came out, I saw the artwork, and got immediate vibes because my friend does very similar surreal, context flipping designs.

For More Reading

Alternative Press did a great writeup on the oral history of Anti-Flag, as told by them and some of their oldest friends. Again, this album really is fantastic, they're officially my favorite band now and I'm finally listening to their entire discography in order.

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