Oingo Boingo – “War Again” (1994): Protest Song Analysis

This post is part of my ongoing Political and Protest Music research project (database). These are my personal thoughts on the individual song and are subject to other interpretations. Feel free to offer your own thoughts in the comments.

Some of this text might be reused in a future manuscript.

Intro

Danny Elfman is my favorite musician ever. Between his work scoring some of my favorite movies and the treasure trove of Oingo Boingo albums he gifted us between 1981 and 1994, there is no shortage of things I love about Danny Elfman. My crush on the red-haired, somewhat demonic crooner aside, this essay focuses on a song that lay almost hidden on an often-overlooked album at the end of Oingo Boingo’s career.

The track is called “War Again,” the eighth song on the band’s final album, Boingo (1994).

Band/ArtistSongAlbumYearGenreMovementCountryPeak Billboard
Hot 100 Position
Oingo BoingoWar AgainBoingo1994RockAnti-WarUSAN/A

Initial Thoughts

Instantly striking me about “War Again” is the utter lack of wars during the years surrounding the song’s release. The lyrics are presumably written from a US perspective, considering Elfman is American, and the lyrics mention a US television station. Yet the most recent full-scale war in which the US was involved was the 1990-’91 Gulf War. Numerous wars occurred globally between the Gulf War and 1994, but none directly involved the United States military. This fact adds a level of absurdity to the song right out the gate.

The second thing striking me is the satirical nature of the lyrics. While America fought no wars at the time, Elfman plays a pro-war pundit who can’t wait to drop “smart bombs” on “bad people.” He sings with the same pro-war comedic fervor with which the entire cast of Hot Shots Part Deux (1993) acted when they dropped a bomb directly on Saddam Hussein’s lap.

The Verses

Below, I discuss a sampling of the verses.

Don’t you know we got smart bombs?
It’s a good thing that our bombs are clever
Don’t ya know that the smart bombs are so clever?
They only kill bad people now

Elfman opens by jabbing at the character he plays with the satirical line, “Don’t ya know that the smart bombs are so clever? / They only kill bad people now.” Smart bombs do not do what their makers claim. For example, in subsequent wars, the US, acting within NATO, used guided munitions to bomb the Yugoslav Federal Directorate for Supply and Procurement. But instead of hitting the intended target, they hit the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade.

During the same war, US forces fired a precision-guided munition at a passenger train bridge at the precise moment the passenger train crossed it, killing dozens. The train, destroyed, shielded the bridge from the US’s intended damage, so the pilot circled around and lobbed a second smart bomb, despite the injured civilians attempting to escape the carnage.

“Smart” bombs are only as intelligent as the most inept user and only as “good” as its least “bad” lobber. Although the above incidents happened five years after “War Again” was released, they perfectly illustrate Elfman’s point.

Don’t you know, though our kids are dumb
We got smart bombs? What a joyous thing, now
Here we go, so let’s drink a toast
To those clever bombs and the men who built them

In the second verse, he reveals a military-industrial complex’s hidden cost he perceives—the American children whose educations are truncated as funding for K-12 is cut to beef up the war machine.

There they go now; there go all my friends
There they go now, marching off to war again
Smiling proudly with their heads in the clouds

He next argues that the soldiers being sent to war don’t see what’s happening. The soldiers march proudly despite being used as federal property.

Don’t you know that this is better than
Any video, friend? It’s an action movie
Here we go, watch the bad guys get their butts kicked
Really makes me feel good

These lyrics discuss the socialization process that indoctrinates people into viewing others as bad people. Once the other is created, it is only a short-order process to convince people to happily kill them. One of my favorite books on this topic is David Campbell’s Writing Security (1998), which demonstrates how US political leaders often construct the dangers of others (e.g., people with identities not contemporary to the United States’ character) to assemble a long-lasting foreign policy.

Here we go, watching CNN
The adrenaline rushes through my veins
Don’t you know it’s a feel-good show; electronic bliss
It’s a video, a video….

The media’s job, having once been strictly to inform the public, has, for several decades, morphed into that of infotainment. In today’s milieu, this translates into the click-prodding machine.

Don’t you know it’s Nintendo?
Really gets the blood flowing through my veins now
Don’t you know it’s a feel-good show; electronic bliss
It’s a video, a video….

This verse is interesting. War is invariably the product of states and, to a much lesser but not inconsequential degree, guerilla-type groups. War is violence, plain and simple. On the other hand, in the 1980s and 1990s, both American conservative and liberal groups pushed the assumption that children play or watch video games and movies for cues on behavioral norms. These groups posited that children who consume violent media will become violent.

Elfman purposely conflates the reaction over violent games with real-world violent actors. He takes the rulebook from ill-informed (but well-meaning) parents and politicians and uses it as a spear aimed squarely at the American war machine’s heart. It is a poetic and calculated accusation, which makes this protest song remarkable to me, even if it didn’t exactly burn up the Billboard charts.

Conclusion

Oingo Boingo’s “War Again” is clever and perfectly aimed at a target that, in 1994, didn’t exist. The Clinton Administration, viewing itself as the administration of peace, didn’t fight wars the same way its predecessors or successors did and have. Still, the song is intelligent enough that it might’ve caught on during the War in Iraq, at least among those already initiated into the anti-war movement (Elfman might’ve suffered tremendously had he tried to popularize a song critical of the American military during the post-9/11 era, much like the Dixie Chicks).

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