Written by: Sloan de Forest, Special to CC2K
The War Song, by Culture Club
Most of us associate antiwar activism with the 1960s – the era of peace marches and protests; of race riots and Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream. But in the 1980s, singer Boy George and video director Russell Mulcahy had a dream also. They had a dream that one day, young street urchins of mixed ethnicity would denounce war in various languages against a backdrop of battle ruins. A dream of a world in which limber fashion models – both male and female – would leap and pirouette down public catwalks to a bouncy pop refrain, sporting the latest camouflage suits, helmets and guns.
Then Boy George himself would appear. Bewigged with fire engine red ringlets and draped in an elegant black frock, his diamond drop earrings and matching broach would shimmer blindingly as he sang, “War, war is stupid … and people are stupid.” Fortunately for us, George and Mulcahy managed to capture this daring dream world on celluloid for future generations to experience. We know it today as Culture Club’s video for their 1984 single “The War Song”, and the street urchin/fashion show footage is only the beginning.
Following this bold introduction, the viewer is pelted with a slew of deliberately contrasting images such as nuclear bomb explosions amidst displays of increasingly flamboyant combat attire. Black and white footage of ragged children playing in war-torn streets is intercut with reenactments of glamorized World War II propaganda films and 1950’s atomic bomb paranoia reels, while recurring dancing skeletons remind us that death is the end result of war. Just in case we miss the subtly implied anti-war message, snappy slogans like “Shun the Gun” and “War What For?” (a paraphrase of the 1970 hit “War” by Edwin Starr) are scrolled across the screen so absolutely no guesswork is involved. Culture Club is against the concept of war.
The video’s grande finale features Boy George as a kind of cross-dressing angel of death leading a parade of children wearing skeleton costumes into the afterlife. Or maybe he’s just taking them trick-or-treating. It’s hard to say. Either scenario would be an appropriate ending to this bombastic, pretentious and wonderfully entertaining mini epic film.
For some reason, “The War Song” never caught on in the U.S. and it signaled the end of America’s love affair with George and the other boys in the Club. Although the song was criticized for being too simplistic and obvious, I think its lack of appeal may have had more to do with the fact that neither the United States nor Britain were actively involved in a war during the time. Although conservative 1980s America found “The War Song” controversial and leftist, liberals also failed to adopt it as their anthem. There just wasn’t a palpable anti-war movement to be found in the Reagan era atmosphere.
Another reason “The War Song” received a lukewarm reception could have had to do with the video’s flashy images. Though the children-affected-by-strife scenes are obviously designed to shock and provoke in a similar manner to the Sally Struthers ads to help starving children, the shots of Boy George condemning the horrors of war while slathered in enough cosmetics, wigs and jewels to sink a battleship must have struck the viewer as slightly hypocritical. Near the end of the video, George rests upon a golden throne like a beautiful, androgynous emperor surveying his subjects with an air of weary nobility. To his detractors he must have looked even more ineffective and out of touch with the masses than Queen Elizabeth at a gala jubilee.
To modern eyes, this video appears over the top in its bold grandeur, but that’s what makes it so enjoyable. In retrospect, perhaps America was a bit too harsh on Culture Club and their attempt to brazenly speak out in favor of peace and love. They wrote a catchy pop song about the stupidity of war and Russell Mulcahy crafted a dazzlingly entertaining video to promote it, so what was their crime? Extreme effeminacy? Intolerable pacifism? Egregiously showy choreography? In the end, I predict this video will stand alone as the single most important – and possibly the only – simple and sincere antiwar statement of the 1980s. And, considering the current mindset toward the daily horrors in the Middle East, it might just be the perfect time to revive this little gem. Come on everybody, on the count of three: “War, war is stupid … and people are stupid…”