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Cultural Memory and Collectivity in Music from the 1991 Persian Gulf War

Creative Commons 'BY-NC-ND' version 4.0 license

Although scholars have thoroughly documented the music associated with the Vietnam War and the post-9/11 wars, virtually no musicological study has been conducted on the 1991 Persian Gulf War. The present work attempts to fill this lacuna by investigating American music stimulated by this war and placing it into the context of the culture from which it emerged. In addition to its value as a reflection on the Middle Eastern crisis and US-Iraq relations, this music served as a vehicle for cultural memories of World War II and the Vietnam War. The demonization of Saddam Hussein blatantly evoked Hitler, making an emotional case for a just war; the ubiquitous “support our troops” campaign not-so-subtly elicited Vietnam.

A brief historical overview offers background to the conflict and a discussion of US memories of Vietnam and World War II. Collective remembering, revising, and forgetting bolstered support for the war, support for the soldiers, and antiwar sentiments. Commercial popular music responses reflected these memories through a combination of communality and sentimentality, while also circumventing the more difficult aspects of the war. Other less mainstream musicians, such as Fugazi and Ani Difranco, responded with scathing lyrics against war, government, and society. A virtually unknown Persian Gulf War Song Collection at the Library of Congress contains more than 140 unpublished or self-published cassettes and 78s. Although of little commercial worth, the songs provide important insight into the way some Americans processed US involvement in the Gulf. Composers Lou Harrison, Jerome Kitzke, Laurie Anderson, and Aaron Jay Kernis also created musical responses to the conflict. Their expression of collective remembering relies on inclusive concepts of humanity, suffering, and empathy.

Gulf War music—whether mainstream or homegrown—reflected a widespread urge for solidarity, both for and against the war. Additionally, songwriters who addressed hostilities in the Middle East confronted the nation’s past, with cultural memories that adhered to and resisted dominant narratives. The findings of this study hold particular importance for adequate consideration of the Gulf War not only as a reaction to the Vietnam War, but also as a precursor for post-9/11 politically engaged music.

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