This spring brings exciting news for those of us who study America’s role in the world: U2 is on tour. I like the band’s music reasonably well, but that’s not why this tour grabs me. U2 is named after an American spy plane that was at the center of a major Cold War confrontation. That means it belongs on my life list.
I follow bands whose names evoke the history of American foreign policy. This hobby gives me a window into modern music, assuring that my tastes don’t stagnate. When I attend a concert by one of these bands, I rarely know whether I’m going to hear reggae, folk-rock, or something frightfully new. It doesn’t matter. Staring at my ticket, I reflect on the band’s name and what it means. After the concert, I add that band to my life list
America’s 120-year adventure in the wider world is a fascinating narrative, but few Americans know it. Reminders of our past conflicts crop up in odd places. Bands that name themselves after historic events keep those events in our consciousness. They summon us to reflect in ways that mass media rarely does. It is a wonderful example — intentional or not — of pop culture evolving to fill a political void.
The United States set out on its long century of imperial expansion following the Spanish-American War of 1898. Not only is there a band that takes its name from that conflict, but the name comes from the “fake news” triumph that started it. The USS Maine exploded in Havana Harbor on Feb. 15, 1898, killing 260 Americans. Warmongering politicians and circulation-hungry newspaper publishers falsely portrayed it as an enemy attack, which led in turn to outrage, war, and the birth of American empire. The band The Maine is touring this summer. On my way to the concert, I’ll reflect on how easy it is to whip Americans into war fever.
Two years after the bogus “sinking” of the USS Maine, the United States sent troops to fight in a foreign civil war for the first time. Their job was to suppress the Boxer Rebellion, a nationalist uprising in China. A couple of years ago I saw a British indie band called The Boxer Rebellion. The music was energizing, and I also picked up a handsome red T-shirt that says “The Boxer Rebellion.” It raises eyebrows among East Asia scholars.
After World War II, the United States sought a global empire, a process amply documented in the names of bands on my life list.
One of the founding episodes of the Cold War was Stalin’s decision in 1948 to blockade Berlin, which led to a massive US airlift of food and other supplies. I can’t help thinking about it when I recall nights listening to the band Berlin Airlift. It is said to have been named for its founding member, Rick Berlin, but to all who study the Cold War, Berlin Airlift means US-Soviet confrontation.
During that period, the Cold War narrative — Communist terror threatening to destroy a peace-loving West — took hold of American minds. We raised a generation of Cold War kids. That’s why I had to attend a concert by a California rock band called Cold War Kids. They will be touring again this summer, like U2, but the two bands have not scheduled any gigs together. That’s a shame, because one of the quintessential Cold War kids was Francis Gary Powers, pilot of the U2 plane that was shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960.
A main feature of the Cold War was the long US campaign to undermine or overthrow governments we considered threatening. One band whose name recalls this campaign is La Sandinista — an indirect reference to the Sandinista National Liberation Front, whose leftist revolution in Nicaragua led the United States to sponsor a guerrilla war there. What a quadruple bill this would be: Berlin Airlift, U2, Cold War Kids, and La Sandinista.
A special sub-concert could feature bands whose names refer to the Vietnam War, arguably the most murderously destructive episode of our modern history. Topping the bill would be the B-52s, since American B-52 bombers dropped most of the 7 million tons of bombs we expended in Vietnam during that war. I enjoy the quirky girl-driven pop that drives the B-52s’ music, but I can’t say the same for Napalm Death, another band that would have to be on the bill even though its music sounds to me like distorted sounds and shrieks. American forces dropped or sprayed 388,000 tons of napalm, a burning gel, on Vietnamese soldiers and civilians.
The other chemical that became a notorious weapon in Vietnam was Agent Orange, a defoliant that has left lasting health effects on millions of Vietnamese and thousands of American veterans. The California-based punk band Agent Orange is too hard-edged for my taste, but I appreciate its contribution to keeping Vietnam War history in our minds. If the B-52s, Napalm Death, and Agent Orange ever perform together, I want to help design the poster.
Lamentably, this summer’s tour by Desaparecidos has been canceled. I had been looking forward to adding this band to my life list because its name, which means “disappeared,” evokes the tens of thousands of civilians who were abducted and killed by US-backed regimes in Latin America during the 1970s. The good news is that I’ll be able to see War on Drugs, named after the ill-conceived US policy that has helped to corrupt and destabilize key Latin American countries.
For that concert, maybe I’ll wear the T-shirt I have from a Missouri-based band whose music and name both appeal to me: Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin. That shirt always draws quizzical looks, sometimes followed by a poignant question: “Who’s Boris Yeltsin?”
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University. Follow him on Twitter @stephenkinzer.