TER­RELL’S TUNE- UP

Pasatiempo - - IN OTHER WORDS - Steve Ter­rell

Gods and other mon­sters A cou­ple of months ago, when I first got my copy of It’s All in Your Head, the lat­est of­fer­ing by that “cul­ture jamming” au­dio prankster col­lec­tive known as Nega­tiv­land, I re­al­ized that this work, pack­aged in a copy of the Bi­ble, could of­fend a lot of peo­ple. (A col­lec­tor’s edi­tion of the al­bum comes in a Ko­ran.) But I didn’t sus­pect that it could lit­er­ally be danger­ous. How­ever, the mur­ders in Paris of Char­lie Hebdo staff mem­bers by Is­lamic ex­trem­ists out­raged by ir­rev­er­ent car­toons re­minded me that we live in a world in which satire can get you killed. This makes It’s All in Your Head far more rel­e­vant than it was the day I opened it.

The project is a ram­bling ex­plo­ration of faith, God, or­ga­nized re­li­gions, and how pre­vail­ing at­ti­tudes to­ward mat­ters of the spirit af­fect us all. The first disc bites into Chris­tian­ity, while the sec­ond mostly takes on Is­lam.

Us­ing clips bor­rowed from tele­vi­sion; ra­dio; movies; chil­dren’s records; ser­mons; sci­en­tific lec­tures; com­edy rou­tines; the group’s trade­mark elec­tronic blips, bloops, and squalls; and even a few songs you might rec­og­nize (among them the Talk­ing Heads’ “Heaven,” Jef­fer­son Star­ship’s “Mir­a­cles,” and “I’ve Gotta Be Me” by Sammy Davis Jr.), Nega­tiv­land con­structs an au­ral theme-park ride that’s funny, hor­ri­fy­ing, ed­u­ca­tional, emo­tional, and mys­ti­fy­ing — some­times all at once.

“There is no God!” a man in­sanely shouts at var­i­ous points through­out this two-disc ex­tended sound col­lage. I’m not sure whether this sound clip is from a movie (it re­minds me a lit­tle of Charl­ton He­ston bel­low­ing “It’s a mad­house!” in the orig­i­nal Planet of the Apes) or if it’s one of the Nega­tivlads yelling. It doesn’t mat­ter. The mes­sage is clear. How­ever, a coun­ter­part to that is an­other sound clip, fre­quently re­peated through­out It’s All in Your Head, in which a dif­fer­ent man solemnly says, “Let us have faith.” The voice sounds familiar. I think it might be Richard Nixon.

Any­one who has fol­lowed Nega­tiv­land knows where the group stands. In 1987 the band be­came no­to­ri­ous for a hi­lar­i­ous track called “Chris­tian­ity Is Stupid,” in which the words of the ti­tle are re­peated in an out-of-con­text sound clip by some blus­tery preacher.

This al­bum delves deeper. It could be subti­tled All Re­li­gions Are Stupid. It’s built around a ra­dio sta­tion, It’s All in Your Head FM (“Monothe­ism, but in stereo”), on the Uni­ver­sal Me­dia Netweb.

For most of the first disc, you hear dif­fer­ent voices, some­times in­ter­rupted by the imag­i­nary ra­dio staff, pre­sent­ing re­li­gious ar­gu­ments. On one side are Chris­tian preach­ers, coun­try singers, and oth­ers argu- ing against athe­ism, evo­lu­tion, same-sex mar­riage, and so on. On the other side there are an­thro­pol­o­gists, sci­en­tists, and other crit­ics of reli­gion, ba­si­cally ar­gu­ing that Chris­tian­ity is, well, stupid.

The track ti­tled “Alone With Just a Story” fea­tures the voice of a man with a Bri­tish ac­cent (is this the late Christo­pher Hitchens?) ques­tion­ing the en­tire idea of faith. “It teaches peo­ple, es­pe­cially teaches chil­dren, that to be­lieve in some­thing with­out ev­i­dence is a virtue,” he says. “I think chil­dren should be taught to seek ev­i­dence. … You’re taught if you start to have doubts, then you must pray to over­come those doubts. You’re taught that if some­body comes to you with plau­si­ble ar­gu­ments to the con­trary, then that’s prob­a­bly the devil speak­ing.” Af­ter this, a woman says, “This is re­ally fun be­cause you can make a Jello mold that looks like a brain.” God bless Nega­tiv­land! But in ad­di­tion to mock­ing anti-evo­lu­tion preach­ers, Nega­tiv­land also lam­poons pro-evo­lu­tion sci­en­tists in what is prob­a­bly the fun­ni­est part of the al­bum: a Fire­sign Theatre-like track called “Wildlife Tonight.” This is an orig­i­nal piece — not some­thing sam­pled from ra­dio or TV — in which goofy sci­en­tists shave a chimp to prove that apes are re­lated to hu­mans. (“Don’t worry about Cherry, folks, we have a lit­tle skirt and sweater for her.”)

The first disc tends to be light­hearted. Pok­ing fun at preach­ers is a time-hon­ored Amer­i­can com­edy tra­di­tion, go­ing back be­fore Mark Twain. Even the se­ri­ous parts seem like overly earnest dorm-room dis­cus­sions. Nega­tiv­land is on safe ground here. But at the very end of the disc, there is a blar­ing tone fol­lowed by an an­nounce­ment of an attack on the United States and a blast of sonic dis­cor­dance.

At the out­set of the next disc, the host an­nounces that the sta­tion is un­der new man­age­ment. Mid­dle Eastern mu­sic and peo­ple speak­ing in Ara­bic fol­low. The an­nouncer, in his generic ra­dio voice, says, “You’re lis­ten­ing to It’s All in Your Head FM. We’re all Mo­ham­mads now.” And now there are ghostly voices say­ing “God is per­fect” and re­peat­ing the word Is­lam. This is fol­lowed by a se­ries of clips of schol­arly lec­tures on the his­tory of Is­lam, ter­ror­ism, and the Cru­sades. In a track called “Holy War,” we hear the voice of Ge­orge W. Bush an­nounc­ing the bomb­ing of Bagh­dad and the in­va­sion of Iraq and hear some Amer­i­can berserker call­ing for the bomb­ing of Mecca and other holy places. “This is a holy war,” he says.

The most chill­ing mo­ment of the en­tire al­bum comes in the mid­dle of a lengthy track called “Push the But­ton.” Here a woman, pur­port­edly a ji­hadist (her ac­cent sounds Bri­tish), ex­plains, “I don’t tar­get women and chil­dren in par­tic­u­lar. … The way I see it is that the Jews weren’t mer­ci­ful with my na­tion. I don’t have any­thing against Is­raeli chil­dren. But I know there is the pos­si­bil­ity that an Is­raeli child could grow up and one day come to kill my son or my neigh­bor’s son. There­fore I feel he should be dead now.”

And while she is jus­ti­fy­ing th­ese un­speak­able acts, in the back­ground you hear a group of school­child­ren singing a sweet ver­sion of the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” (from the Lan­g­ley Schools Mu­sic Project, 1970s record­ings of popular songs per­formed by kids).

The ma­jor theme of It’s All in Your Head is that blind faith in the god of what­ever cul­ture you come from, in con­junc­tion with un­blink­ing obe­di­ence to po­lit­i­cal lead­ers (a by-prod­uct of that un­ques­tion­ing faith), can only lead to ha­tred and vi­o­lence against those who be­lieve oth­er­wise. Not a ter­ri­bly orig­i­nal thought, though a valid one.

The al­bum ends with a mes­sage from the ra­dio sta­tion, which seems to have re­turned to its old man­age­ment. The an­nouncer puts forth the ques­tion: “God, nat­u­ral fact or un­nat­u­ral fic­tion? This de­ci­sion is your head’s to de­cide. And the next step will be yours to re­move your blind­fold and take this All in Your Head mes­sage out of this build­ing to all of those un­able to at­tend this broad­cast.”

With “Awe­some God,” Rich Mullins’ slick 1988 con­tem­po­rary gospel song swelling in the back­ground, a lis­tener might en­vi­sion a right­eous, god­less army of determined ra­tion­al­ists march­ing forth with the ter­ri­ble swift sword of in­tel­lect to van­quish the blind and hate­ful forces of re­li­gious fa­nati­cism.

What could pos­si­bly go wrong? Save your soul at www.nega­tiv­land.com.

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