Back in August, Brow Beat noted that Nicholson Baker, the virtuoso novelist and critic, had recorded a protest song about the construction of a military base on an island in South Korea. A gentle, understated tune, “Jeju Island Song” mourned the possible destruction of “a beautiful place I’ve never been,” as Baker sang.
Over the last couple weeks, Baker has returned to the medium, and brought it to bear on what, in the U.S. at least, are more controversial topics. “Whistleblower Song,” for instance, is about Bradley Manning, the U.S. Army soldier who gave classified materials to WikiLeaks, whom Baker describes as a hero who “deserves our thanks and respect.” The song’s lyrics are taken from a cockpit video allegedly provided by Manning, in which a pilot says of people below, “When you get on them, just open them up,” and from a text message that Manning wrote to the man who turned him in, which mentioned “awful things that belong in the public domain.”
Another song, “When You Intervene,” is about American military involvement in Libya, and includes the lines, “You weaponized the Arab Spring / And that changed everything.”
The third, “Nine Women Gathering Firewood,” is about the killing of innocent women by a NATO warplane in Afghanistan.
Apart from “some tunes for lines of old poetry” described in his novel The Anthologist, these recent forays into music are the first songs Baker has written, he told me in an email today. “I haven’t been this besotten, if that’s the word, with music since I was in high school listening to Sibelius’s second symphony with JVC headphones clamped to my head. It’s absorbing to start with a broken melodic motif and add layers under and over it.” He added, “I’m no singer, though.”
Baker has recorded most of the music in his barn, though “Nine Women Gathering Firewood,” the most recent, he “wrote on a plane to Texas using a tiny portable keyboard,” later singing it “into a green and gold Chinese-made microphone at my kitchen table while the crows called outside.” He has been helped, he explained, “by software manuals and how-to videos.” He cited another YouTube video, by a user named Kirobaito, as an example of “what protest songs are all about.” Kirobaito sings “The Green Fields of France” by Eric Bogles “in his room, into a jittery webcam, leaning over his guitar, with the flag of Scotland behind his head… I defy anyone to listen to this performance and not be moved,” he said.
I asked Baker why he chose to respond to recent events with song rather than by writing something about them. “Part of it,” he told me, “is that it feels less like carping than an essay. The other part is that you can be truer to the grief you feel.”
Baker has more to say on the subject in a short piece posted today on The New Yorker website.