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Depeche Mode’s Spirit And The Music Of Resistance

Can synth-pop be a tool to fight fascism?

Nazi soldiers fell in love with the song “Lili Marleen” in 1941, after a German officer who doubled as a DJ borrowed some records from the Third Reich’s official radio station in Vienna and brought them along to the occupation of Belgrade. The original 1939 recording of the song, performed by cabaret singer Lale Andersen, had not been a huge hit on its initial release. But it was played constantly on the German-occupied Radio Belgrade, mostly for lack of more German records, and it became a sentimental favorite among the troops because it reminded them of home.

The words to “Lili Marleen” came from a poem, “The Song of a Young Sentry," written by Hamburg schoolteacher Hans Leip after he was conscripted into the German army in World War I. The song got its melody from Norbert Schultze, who wrote such hits for the Nazi Party as “Bomben auf Engeland” (“Bombs on England”) and “Panzer Rollen In Afrika Vor” (“Tanks Roll into Africa”). Leip took the names “Lili” from a girlfriend and “Marleen” from a nurse friend, and, listening to “Lili Marleen” on the front, any soldier could imagine their composite idealized dream girl. Soldiers began writing letters requesting the song they'd heard as each night's sign-off from Radio Belgrade. Eventually it became just as popular with the Allies as the Axis powers — its sentimentality was equally appealing to soldiers on both sides, and like any well-made propaganda, its ceaseless repetition eventually seared it into the hearts and minds of all who heard it.

Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels was not a fan of “Lili Marleen.” He wanted the troops’ wartime song to be a march — something scary and violent they could goose-step to. He had the Leip/Shultze song banned from the airwaves for its “portentous character,” perhaps fearing that nostalgia for cabaret songs might lead Germans back to their memories of the relatively less-cruel Weimar Republic of the 1920s.

The Nazis had already attempted to stomp out the existence of music from Jewish classical composers like Felix Mendelssohn and Gustav Mahler, as well as modernists like Kurt Weill and Austrian Jew Arnold Schoenberg. Jazz, too, was denounced by the Nazis, who saw this distinctly black American art form as a degenerate attempt to corrupt Germany's so-called traditional culture. The Third Reich was based on an obsessive yearning for a nonexistent past, and jazz, with its musical emphasis on the constant present, ran directly counter to its ideals. A set of strict rules and regulations for jazz during the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, semi-apocryphally recounted from memory by the author Josef Škvorecký, included a ban on all vocal improvisation and/or scatting, along with supposed admonishments against “Jewishly gloomy lyrics” and “Negroid excesses in tempo (so-called hot jazz).”

"Lili Marleen" aside, Goebbels was at times able to see jazz's value as a tool of propaganda. The Nazi-sponsored swing act Charlie and his Orchestra, also known as Bruno and His Swinging Tigers, played music intended to sway Brits and Americans toward the Nazi cause. At first they played popular jazz standards rewritten with pro-Nazi lyrics, then they began composing songs in-house. They fared better, at least, than the cosmopolitan German teens of the '30s who adopted swing music and slang as a way of defying the rising Nazi movement, only to be sent to concentration camps when the Reich came to power.

The U.S., meanwhile, used the popularity of “Lili Marleen” across Axis and Allied lines as a way of destabilizing the Nazis’ campaign with a counter-propaganda response. In 1944, a branch of America's Office of Strategic Services called Morale Operations recruited Marlene Dietrich to record her own cover, with the spelling changed to “Lili Marlene.” The Berlin-born, bisexual cabaret singer had become a breakout star of the screen after playing seductive chanteuse Lola Lola in Josef von Sternberg’s 1930 film The Blue Angel, based on a play by anti-fascist German author Heinrich Mann.

“Lili Marlene” took on an entirely new context in the Marlene Dietrich recording, subverting the song’s Nazi-propaganda intent with her own more soulful, beautiful voice. And exactly as Goebbels feared, even over all of their expensive, stupid, beautiful, choreographed Nazi-propaganda-machine machinations, the sound of Germany’s progressive recent past could still be heard.

I thought about the saga of “Lili Marleen” recently, when Depeche Mode vividly rebuked white nationalist Richard Spencer after he claimed to be a superfan of the British synth-pop act. While the lyrics of “Lili Marleen” are a politically neutral tale about meeting a girl under a lamplight — something that soldiers on both sides of World War II could enjoy — there is no mistaking the intent of Depeche Mode’s 1984 classic “People Are People,” an explicit statement against racialized hate: “I can’t understand what makes a man hate another man.”

"I mean, has he ever listened to 'Strangelove' or 'People Are People'?" lead singer Dave Gahan said in USA Today after the Spencer story broke. He also told the New York Post, "I saw the video of [Spencer] getting punched; he deserved it.”

The racist alt-right's clumsy embrace of Depeche Mode follows its recent efforts to make an awful subgenre called “fashwave” happen. Just as Goebbels loved a march, the alt-right presumably heard strict '80s drum machines as an irresistible fascist vision of control. Overt displays of fascism are often arousing to those for whom extreme order is an aphrodisiac, and vice versa. (This aesthetic-political fallacy reminds me of the way that Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will and Olympia were reclaimed in the 1970s by clueless film-theory feminists who painted Riefenstahl’s contributions to the cinematic arts as undervalued due to her gender — when, in truth, she was just another monstrous opportunist who was fine with Nazism if it meant more power for her. Personally, I've always found her films technically impressive but utterly devoid of soul.)

But there is no misinterpreting Depeche Mode, except by willful ignorance. For decades, they have fully embraced the mantle of positive propagandism, using inescapably catchy music to draw attention to social issues and inequalities — starting with 1983's "Everything Counts," a vicious paean against capitalistic greed: “The grabbing hands / Grab all they can / All for themselves.” The following year, they released “People Are People,” which became a staple at gay clubs as well as the theme song of West Germany’s TV coverage of the 1984 Olympics. Through radio play, the group gained a foothold in the burgeoning goth subculture in America, and the release of 1990's Violator made them one of the biggest bands in the world. “Personal Jesus,” a song written in part about the unhealthy power dynamics in Elvis and Priscilla Presley's marriage, became at the time the best-selling 12-inch single in the history of Warner Bros. Records.

Depeche Mode were among several electronic pop acts in the '80s whose music can be read as a response to the technological horrors of the 20th century. They were recording only a few short decades after IBM provided technical assistance to the Nazi genocide, after all. But it wasn’t only the mechanized death machines that killed so many people in the Holocaust — it was human beings. Machines were an essentially neutral form, like “Lili Marleen,” and Depeche Mode and their peers helped prove that machines could just as easily be used as a force against fascism and xenophobia as one in their service.

This year, the public beatdown of would-be fanboy Richard Spencer was accidentally well-timed to the release of Depeche Mode’s 14th album, Spirit. Produced by James Ford of Simian Mobile Disco, it feels extremely attuned to our cultural moment, often playing as a direct response to the rise of extreme right-wing movements worldwide — and it lands as satisfyingly as a punch to a Nazi’s face. If Depeche Mode was the sound of counter-Thatcher England, they reemerge ready to tackle Brexit.

First single “Where’s the Revolution” has a video directed by longtime collaborator Anton Corbijn that depicts a fascist march and a uniformed female flag guard performing in the dystopian parking lot of an abandoned-looking factory with broken windows, and Dave Gahan as a preacher or politician figure at a wooden pulpit. The band also wear huge fake beards reminiscent of those of Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, and Fidel Castro.

“Where’s the Revolution” features sinister bleeps and a searing guitar part, and the lyrics indict authoritarianism — “You’ve been pissed on for too long / Your rights abused / Your views refused / They manipulate and threaten / With terror as a weapon / Scare you till you’re stupefied / Wear you down until you’re on their side” — before imploring that people not stand idly by: “Where’s the revolution? / Come on people / You’re letting me down.” Gahan's tone echoes the gobsmacked national mood of those in England who opposed the disastrous EU vote, and the Americans horrified by Trump’s win. The bridge repeats: “The train is coming / So get on board,” allowing some vagueness as to whether the train is one that leads to freedom or to internment camps.

Spirit is a clear-eyed look at the sins of the people and particularly their leaders. As they always have, Depeche Mode are focused on how imbalanced power dynamics operate, whether they're between lovers or bosses and workers. The song “The Worst Crime” opens with the frightening lyric “There’s a lynching in the square / You will have to join us / Everyone’s going to be there,” invoking America's history of racist violence and the terror of ignorant mob rule. The lyrics say “Blame misinformation, misguided leaders, apathetic hesitation, uneducated readers.”

Other songs that sound extremely of the cultural minute are “Going Backwards” — where Gahan provocatively sings “We’re going backwards / Armed with new technology” — and “Scum,” a brutal song about the shallow, unempathetic souls who “wouldn’t even offer up their crumbs to the dying.” There’s also “Poorman,” with its chorus that accuses the larger systems at work: “Corporations get the breaks / Keeping almost everything they make / And tell us just how long it’s going to take for it to trickle down / When will it trickle down?”

The pointed reference to the farce that was trickle-down economics hammers home the appeal of bands that survived the Reagan/Thatcher years now that we're facing the Trump years. Depeche Mode have always been unfailing advocates of the underdogs crushed by systems much larger than themselves, whether those structures be racism, capitalism, or Elvis.