This is the fantastic new video for “Whistleblowers,” the first track of Laibach’s forthcoming album Spectre.
Laibach is an industrial dance band from the Central European state of Slovenia (although when they first formed in 1980, Slovenia was still a part of communist Yugoslavia). Many people I know find it difficult to “enjoy” Laibach’s music; quite often the real enjoyment comes from piecing together the social, cultural, and political critique underlying it.
Laibach are masters of what philosopher Slavoj Žižek calls the “hidden reverse”: criticizing political authority and domination by ironically embracing it. Instead of condemning authoritarianism, racism, and political radicalism, the members of Laibach put on uniforms, perform Euro disco hits as fascist war marches, and proclaim to their followers: “We dance with Totalitarianism. We dance with Democracy. We dance with whomever. We dance to Baghdad.” When the Temptations asked during the Vietnam war: “War, what is it good for?” the baby boomers cried out “NOTHING.” Recognizing such a response as smug hypocrisy, Laibach asks instead: “War, what is it good for?” and immediately answer their own question: “Science, religion, technology, industry, communications.”
The new Laibach video “Whistleblowers” is produced by Norwegian director Morten Traavik, who produced the 2012 video of the North Korean orchestra performing “Take on Me” by A-Ha. Like any Laibach song, it took me a while to “get it.” Laibach has claimed that for its new album they have cast aside their decades-old irony to embrace an authentic call to arms: The world is under siege and now is the time to act: inequality between wealthy and poor has never been greater, fascism is returning to Europe, revolutions are breaking out around the world. To this end, “Whistleblowers” is a celebration of Chelsea (Bradley) Manning, Julian Assange, and Edward Snowden—the heroes of our generation who stood up to unfettered governmental power.
However, I know enough about Laibach to not take anything they say at face value. On the surface, this video fits the above description: Young children are training to become whistle-blowers by practicing gymnastics, tests of physical endurance, military drumming, and (most importantly) whistling until pots explode like they have been shot by a rifle. All the while they are surrounded by militant phrases (taken from the song lyrics) and giant framed portraits of Laibach’s lead singer. The message seems clear: Our music will train you to become the revolutionaries of tomorrow.
But I’m not so sure the message is this clean cut. Laibach belies and subverts mimesis, and I’m not so convinced their “post-ironic” stance is quite what it appears to be. What draws me to Laibach as a band is how they function as a political and ideological mirror to contemporary events, especially as they unfold in Europe. From this perspective, taken less literally, the video depicts militancy, unification in purpose, and loyalty to a cause—the necessary ingredients for any true revolutionary since the days of the Italian Carbonari. But it also seems to suggest that these qualities are deciding lacking in contemporary society, despite our growing beliefs to the contrary (fueled by the ever-present media).
Ultimately, these are not revolutionaries in “Whistleblowers”; they are children. And as they exercise and train, their movements are being tracked by a second group of children with surveillance equipment. One could read this as a study of youth learning how to radicalize on both sides of the spectrum, but at another level it could be read as a critique of our childishness, whether it comes from governments on one side, or Anonymous and other hacker groups on the other. We still have a lot of “growing up” to do before we are truly “at war.”
It is also interesting that the music borrows heavily from early twentieth century military marches, while our “whistleblowers” train in a camp that is reminiscent of what one might find somewhere in the mountains of the Austrian Empire in the late nineteenth century. Is this an attempt to draw a positive parallel? Or again, is Laibach subversively suggesting that contemporary protest movements are still a long way away from the anarchist, radical socialist, and communist groups that threatened to topple European governments in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries?
Ultimately, I do not think there is a single answer to any of these questions. Laibach is meant to be read at multiple levels—no single message is the “correct” message. And either way, this video is worth watching even if you don’t like the music.