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Second Language: A decade of pop music on TV

Second Language: A decade of pop music on TV


The third track on one of my favorite rock records of the last decade, Okkervil River’s The Stage Names, is called “A Hand to Take Hold of the Scene.” Without context, its lyric is a bit of a tough nut to crack. Will Sheff sings about events unfolding on a TV screen in the first verse, recaps a dream in the second, and seems to outline the narrator’s innermost wishes in the third. What’s not immediately apparent is that the first verse outlines scenes from two completely different TV shows – scenes that happened to be scored by Okkervil River songs. The first half of the verse refers to “It Ends With a Fall” (from Down the River of Golden Dreams) and its use on the reality series Breaking Bonaduce. (I don’t have that clip handy.) The second half, and probably the more illustrative of the two in any case, refers to “Black Sheep Boy IV” (from the Black Sheep Boy Appendix EP) and its prominent placement in an episode of Cold Case entitled “One Night”. Here’s the description of the scene from the song, followed by the actual scene in question:

I’m the band in a show ’bout a boy being buried alive
From his head to his toes by a criminal but with a sensitive soul, with a set of raccoon eyes
And there’s this scene in the show when a hustler knows he’s gonna die
The ground opens and he climbs inside.


By that description, the scene their song was used for sounds silly, especially thanks to Sheff’s comically grim delivery. Indeed, the scene itself, as written, is littered with only-on-TV clichés, most notably the tragic figure who solemnly acquiesces to a horrible death. (I’m fairly certain this is one of those ubiquitous story tropes that has never, ever occurred in reality.) Yet the use of “Black Sheep Boy IV” actually helps to lend the scene a gravity that wallpapers the silliness a bit, without too obviously mirroring the plot. As the second verse kicks in, a deeply nostalgic wurlitzer line begins while the doomed young man asks, “If I see my mom in heaven, do you think she’ll remember me?” These lyrics follow:

Burning black sheep boy,
dark denim phantom.
Face full of flames,
ears full of cheers that have fanned them.
I’d slice off the horns that sprung right from those temples
I was chased from my bedroom,
I was chased from my candles.
By fear of the numbers, paired off like lovers,
collided together so I can’t remember
my face or my station.
Pacing black sheep boy.

What’s remarkable about the use of the song on the show is its specificity. The shifts in instrumentation precisely match the emotional beats (without the track being edited, it should be noted; it seems more likely the scene was edited around the track), and the lyrics mirror what’s onscreen in a relatively understated fashion. It’s easy to imagine the show’s editors and music supervisor trying out dozens of possibilities before coming upon a “Eureka!” moment with this one. As the verse wraps, the young man asks, “can you hear the music?”, ensuring that we make note of the song’s appropriateness, before he tells Zeljko Ivanek (who, it must be said, does have “raccoon eyes”) that he’s ready to face his fate.  This is all the more fascinating, and a little troubling, when it’s taken into consideration that the song was directly inspired by late ’60s/’70s folk-pop songwriter Tim Hardin’s life and fatal struggle with heroin addiction. There it is, over the span of a couple of minutes: one man’s real-life troubles, mined for metaphorical import by indie rockers, then exhumed once more to a totally different end on formulaic network television. Here’s Hardin’s original song about the Black Sheep Boy figure, from four decades earlier:


This sort of cascading influence happens all the time in art and music, but we rarely think of the way we come to associate words and images, or how those associations impact how we view both halves of the equation. Does the song take hold of the scene, or does the scene take hold of the song?

As a former radio DJ and a voracious devourer of pop culture, there’s little I find more grating than a misused pop song on a film or TV soundtrack. That’s why the most traumatic moment of the last year or so of TV-watching for me had to be the end of The Newsroom‘s episode entitled “I’ll Try to Fix You”, which not only groaningly used the Coldplay song from which that lyric is taken to accompany a sequence in which the staffers learn of the Gabrielle Giffords shooting, but actually re-edited the song to sprawl out over seven hellish minutes, like a never-ending carnival of obviousness. (The show’s use of Radiohead’s “High and Dry” in an earlier episode was less offensive, but similarly dunderheaded.)

But let’s not get stuck on the lowlights.

A well-placed pre-existing song should either lyrically or musically (or ideally, both) suit the atmosphere and setting of the show in question, or provide an ironic counterpoint to same, while never sliding into the realm of head-smacking obviousness (see above). Songs or compositions specifically written for the show in question represent a different creative process, and therefore won’t be discussed here. (That leaves out some interesting contenders, like the wicked garage-rock opening of SyFy’s now-deceased Alphas, or the indie-rock “covers” of Westerosi folk songs on Game of Thrones.) It’s not enough just to deploy a great, obscure song; were that the case, Rectify would have made the list just for being cool enough to blast The Drones’ “Shark Fin Blues” over the last few minutes of its second episode. What interests me are instances where the union of sound and vision verges on honest-to-goodness profundity. Below are a few examples of recent shows getting the balance right, by one virtue or another.

Mad Men / Louie

The Beatles, “Tomorrow Never Knows”
The Who, “Who Are You?”

Vague Mad Men spoilers follow.

Of all the splendidly chosen ‘60s-and-earlier pop, jazz, folk, and rock tunes that have appeared over the course of Mad Men’s six seasons, none was more shocking or apropos than “Tomorrow Never Knows”. Shocking because it’s incredibly rare for any network to shell out for inclusive licensing on anything Beatles-related, let alone the original recording of a prominent album track. (Movies like The Royal Tenenbaums cushion the financial blow by relying on instrumental Beatles covers.) Apropos because of its placement and its novel use in the show itself: Don’s younger, hipper bride Megan brings home a copy of Revolver and Don decides to unwind for the night, sliding it onto the living room turntable.

The oddest detail of this sequence: “Tomorrow Never Knows” is the final track on Side 2 of the LP; Don has literally skipped right to the end, deliberately, on a record he’s never heard before. Maybe this suggests Don’s morbid fascination with endings; maybe he’s just tired and thinks he’ll only stay awake long enough for one tune. (Or maybe Weiner and company were stuck with Revolver thanks to the timeline, but decided Side 1 opener “Taxman” was too straightforward.) In any case, the sequence reminds us of how wild a track like “Tomorrow” would have sounded to the average, ten-album-a-year buying public; within the first few seconds, you’re hit with a sitar, seagulls, and looped percussion. (Now imagine how Don might have reacted to a Zappa record.) Those sounds will reverberate through the ages, but Don’s not impressed; he doesn’t even make it to the end of the track. It’s one of the show’s earliest signs that Don is beginning to lose the edge he so carefully cultivated over the years, a decline that has continued ever since.

The other notable recent use of a big British Invasion act couldn’t be more different in tone, but it’s at least as effective and features an even greater level of interactivity within the sequence. In the excellent Louie episode “Country Drive”, Louie is taking his daughters to go see his (as it turns out, horrifically racist) grandmother when The Who’s epic earworm “Who Are You?” comes on the car radio. In a virtuosic display of pure middle-aged dad-ness, Louie begins to not only sing along, but also plays air-drums, air-guitar, and even that rarest of non-corporeal instruments, air-bass. There is no more perfectly rendered moment of absolute, contented uncool than the balding CK belting “I staggered back to the underground / breeze blew back my hair!” while his daughters look on with a perfectly pitched mixture of terror, boredom, and bemusement. Besides being funny and endearing as hell, the sequence extols what should be the greatest pleasure of reaching middle age: the joy of occasionally letting go of any and all need to impress anyone, even your kids. Don has reached the very same point in his life, only thanks to his line of work and his relentlessly toxic disposition, that’s a liability, not a boon.

(Side note: AMC paid $250k to license “Tomorrow Never Knows”; that’s about the average production cost for an episode of Louie. CK, who wrote a personal appeal to Pete Townshend, wound up paying $15k for “Who Are You.” Remember that the next time someone dredges up the old Beatles vs. Who debate.)


John Boutté, “The Treme Song”
Fats Domino, “Blueberry Hill”

In an infamous New York Times editorial, Dan Kois coined the term “cultural vegetables”, denoting works that many claim to have great artistic merit but don’t necessarily yield for most viewers (Kois included) the sort of rapid-to-instant gratification we often associate with film and television. His two major examples: the new wave of “slow cinema” and David Simon and Eric Overmyer’s post-Katrina New Orleans-set Treme. The series revolves NOLA residents, including a few jazz musicians, and their struggles to keep the city’s culture alive while also attending to the important business of surviving and feeding their families.

Jazz might be the ultimate “cultural vegetable” of the 20th century, a musical form defined equally by tradition and the drive for innovation. Given that large sections of most Treme episodes are taken up by live jazz performances, characters playing recorded jazz directly to one another or over the radio, and characters discussing jazz performance technique, Treme might seem like a total non-starter to anyone not versed in the genre. This is not the case. I own precisely one jazz record (you can probably guess what it is), yet I find Treme to be consistently the most human, relatable series currently running. For its part, Treme, despite its seemingly daunting subject matter and presumably gloomy setting, does its best to be as inviting as possible thorough its use of John Boutté’s “The Treme Song”, a jaunty, infectiously upbeat number that celebrates the NOLA life without a trace of irony.

“The Treme Song” might seem like an odd fit for a series so focused on characters whose lives are, for the most part, in total disarray, but every time it makes an appearance in an episode’s opening minutes, it serves as a reminder that all of these people are fighting for something, not simply to stay alive or maintain a standard of living. Treme’s most plainspoken cultural champion, the one driven most purely by a love for New Orleans music and history, might well be Steve Zahn’s DJ Davis, whose Season 3 quest to assemble a jazz opera about Katrina mostly served as a vehicle for cameos and a few amusing numbers. That would qualify as a complaint in the context of any other series, but on Treme, it provides scenes like the one in which Davis gets the chance to visit Fats Domino, who doesn’t show much interest in Davis’s project but does break into an impromptu rendition of “Blueberry Hill”, a song he recorded 56 years earlier. As Fats sings, still in possession of a strong sense of cadence and tuning, we cut to Antoine Batiste (Wendell Pierce) discussing the importance of learning to read music – Antoine’s entire arc for Season 3 revolves around his struggles to break his patterns of musical complacency and try to keep up with the younger, nimbler players who surround him. There it is, presented in the span of just a couple of minutes: the co-existence of tradition and the strive towards innovation and progress. The beauty of Treme, and its use of music, is that it presents those forces both as oppositional and as peacefully co-existing.

The Walking Dead / Bunheads

Tom Waits, “Hold On” / “Picture In a Frame”

Two series with virtually nothing in common both pulled a similar soundtracking move over the past season, one to good results, the other to spectacular results. Tom Waits’s Mule Variations, from 1999, qualified as a certain kind of comeback record: the “greatest hits”-style career survey that samples every style the artist ever took on without committing to any one of them. It hosts a half-dozen or so of Waits’s best, most direct ballads. Of the two sampled here, “Hold On” is earthier and more rambling, deploying a slowpoke guitar shuffle that evokes a dry, dusty feel. That’s appropriate for The Walking Dead, which is essentially a Western with zombies. It’s a tender moment in a series not known for tender moments, but it’s not an inspired choice on the level of some of the other selections listed here. That’s partially because, instead of expanding or intensifying the sequence’s emotional heft, “Hold On” serves to underline part of what keeps The Walking Dead from TV’s upper echelon: what are these characters meant to be holding on to? At this point, it’s become clear that the only thing they can expect to keep for any period of time is the breath in their lungs, and even that may not last the night. The sheer fatalism of the enterprise necessarily limits just how touching – or bruising – the song’s steadfast sentiment can be. Points, though, for the way Emily Kinney’s a capella rendition segues gradually into the original Waits recording.

Meanwhile, on Bunheads, “Picture in a Frame” appears in a much more pivotal sequence. In the series premiere, Hubbell (the great Alan Ruck) dies in a car accident, only hours after marrying wayward dancer Michelle (Sutton Foster). The second episode finds Hubbell’s mother, ballet teacher Fanny (Kelly Bishop), reeling from the news, and the episode climaxes with this sequence, in which Michelle presents Franny with a dance piece created by her students to honor Hubbell’s memory:

The sequence is an important one in the greater context of Bunheads for a few reasons. It establishes that Hubbell, despite his untimely demise, will remain an integral character for the way his life and outlook continues to resonate in the lives of Franny and Michelle. It also introduces the series’ incredible ability to insert song-and-dance numbers that use music and choreography to comment on plot and character developments in a sensitive, astute manner while necessarily including the titular Bunheads (dance students) to do so. More broadly, it helps to establish early on that Bunheads is just as comfortable handling emotionally devastating material as it is with screwball dialogue and showbiz in-jokes. (Only complaint: while “Picture in a Frame” is a lovely choice, “Take It With Me” would have been practically seismic.)


GangstaGrass, “Long Hard Times to Come”
Darrell Scott / Brad Paisley, “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive”

There is no rap subgenre more maligned than hick-hop. (OK, maybe horrorcore. Or whatever this is.) Sure, every once in a blue moon, someone will make it respectable…actually, I’m fairly certain only Bubba Sparxxx accomplished that, and even then, only for a segment of his career. So on paper, the use of GangstaGrass’s “Long Hard Times to Come” as the theme song to one of the greatest dramas currently airing should be embarrassing. So why does it work for Justified so damned well? It helps that the arrangement and lyrics are a perfect fit for the show’s put-upon but relentless protagonist, Raylan Givens, whose insistence on wearing a cowboy hat to work manages to ward off corniness through his sheer badassery. “Long Hard Times to Come” emphasizes its central figure’s haunted, spiteful nature, while also finding a bit of room for his cocksure swagger, and those two forces might be the two most important aspects of Raylan’s character.

The “haunted” angle also anchors the show’s unofficial theme song, “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive”, which has appeared in three of its four season finales.  (Season Three’s finale was deemed not Raylan-centric enough to qualify.) Besides helping each respective finale land one final punch to the gut, “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive” works spendidly – every time – in its capacity to hone in on Raylan after another season spent with an ever-expanding assemblage of crooks, cops, cronies, feds, and frauds. Raylan might have brought down the latest Big Bad in time for a short respite, but the long shadow of his family history and personal failings always seems to at least partially obscure any sense of victory, no matter how hard-fought.

Rescue Me

The Von Bondies, “C’mon C’mon”

Whenever I hear “C’mon C’mon”, regardless of the context, I think of singer Jason Stollsteimer’s face, beaten bloody by a much more famous musician. In December of 2003, not long before the release of The Von Bondies’ most successful album, Pawn Shoppe Heart (from which “C’mon C’mon” was the first single), Stollsteimer got into a heated argument with Jack White of the White Stripes, who apparently delivered injuries worthy of a hospital stay. (White later plead guilty to assault.) In retaliation, Stollsteimer released a cover of the Stripes’ biggest hit, “Seven Nation Army.” On the single’s cover: Stollsteimer’s bruised, bloody face. About seven months later, Rescue Me premiered on FX, with a slightly shortened version of “C’mon C’mon” as its theme song.

Rescue Me was far from a great show – often, especially late in its run, it wasn’t even good – but if there’s one thing it succeeded in, it was conjuring a universe of hurt for its embattled firefighter protagonists. Sure, it often felt like a marathon ego trip for star (and, in the show’s latter half, producer) Denis Leary, whose Tommy Gavin got to bed female characters of all ages regardless of how loathsomely he acted. But the show’s most persistently winning trait was its underlying message of survival through thick and thin. Sure, Gavin and his crew were crowned heroes on 9/11, but what glory did it really afford them? For Tommy, it merely robbed him of a family member and exacerbated his drinking and other self-destructive tendencies.

“C’mon C’mon” is one of the most perfectly matched TV theme songs ever. Sonically, it evokes the adrenaline rush of rushing headlong into towering flames through its call-and-response hook and youthful fervor, but its lyrics are wracked with self-doubt, and thoughts stuck on things gone by:

As I make my way, c’mon, c’mon
Through these battered nights that seem too long
Now we grieve ’cause now it’s gone
Things were good when we were young

The Von Bondies came to semi-prominence not long after the Great Garage-Rock Sweepstakes of the early ’00s, which saw bands like The Strokes, The Hives, The Black Keys, and, yes, The White Stripes, (barely) update late-’70s rock n’ roll at a time when nostalgia for the analog days was at its highest. They missed becoming part of the zeitgeist properly, so it’s only fitting that they found the greatest success introducing a series for which disappointment and damage were just starting points.

Friday Night Lights

Various, “Devil Town”

Vague FNL spoilers follow.

There was a time when having your name and likeness appear on a T-shirt could mean that you were bound for an entirely new life. That’s what happened when Kurt Cobain shilled, however passively, for Austin singer-songwriter Daniel Johnston, an outsider-art idol whose struggles with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder both inform his songwriting and cause him to be (sometimes unknowingly) fetishized by culture addicts who prize weirdo cachet above all else. Signed to Atlantic Records in the great post-Nirvana gold rush, Johnston eventually settled back into being a cult phenomenon, albeit one with a host of famous fans.

“Devil Town” originally appeared as the a capella intro to Johnston’s 1990 (from the same year), a typically lo-fi collection featuring some of his starkest material. The original barely cracks a minute in length:

So how did this vocal fragment – more sketch than song – find its way to becoming the unofficial, recurring theme song to one of the most beloved TV series ever made? Pretty simply, actually. In 2004, Gammon Records released a compilation of Johnston covers entitled Discovered, Covered: The Late Great Daniel Johnston. (For the record, Johnston is currently alive and well.) On it, Omaha’s Bright Eyes, now better known as Conor Oberst, covered “Devil Town,” tripling its length and adding an unobtrusive alt-country musical backing.

Through the power of repetition and the addition of honest-to-goodness instrumentation, Oberst makes Johnston’s track sound more sweeping, more accessible; less like a man hectoring an empty room, more like a sad manifesto. It seems likely that Oberst’s version influenced the Tony Lucca recording that graces the first and last seasons of Friday Night Lights. Lucca’s version is structurally very similar to Oberst’s version, but his polished pipes smooth out most of the anguish evident in Johnston and Oberst’s versions.

What makes “Devil Town” the quintessential Friday Night Lights song is the way it establishes the insidious charms of home. At one point or another, most of the young people populating the series curse the fictional town of Dillon, swearing that one day they’ll escape its clutches. Some, in fact, do; others remain, having acquiesced to its strange gravitational pull. Yet even those who manage to leave, do so having left something behind – the body of an errant father laid to rest, a state championship trophy, ever-curious friends who think on their own fates had they made the trek out themselves. It’s not that Dillon is inherently bad or, as the song might seem to say, evil; it’s that its residents fear the way it may come to represent and preserve their failings for all to see.

Breaking Bad

TV on the Radio, “DLZ”
Apparat (ft. Soap&Skin), “Goodbye”
Alexander, “Truth”

Major Breaking Bad spoilers follow.

Breaking Bad is known and beloved for a lot of valid reasons, but its music supervision doesn’t get enough attention. Without too much introspection, three examples of songs that are both lyrically and sonically ideal, used at key junctures in the series’ history, come immediately to mind. TV on the Radio’s “DLZ”, which scores the sequence in which Walt intimidates would-be kingpins out of business in a hardware-store parking lot, is so lyrically apropos for Walt’s series-long arc that it’s almost eerie:

Never you mind
Death professor
Your shocks are fine
My struts are better
Your fiction flies so high
Y’all could use a doctor
Who’s sick, who’s next?

It also helps that “DLZ” is as tightly coiled and slickly arranged as your average Breaking Bad episode, all menace and mixed-in-the-red drums, doubly aided by an anxious-but-cocky lead vocal from Tunde Adebimpe. “Goodbye”, which accompanies Gus Fring’s final march, is a similarly on-the-nose choice if you’re paying strict attention, but Apparat’s expansive, Morricone-esque arrangement, complete with dulcimer, gives Fring (and Giancarlo Esposito) suitably majestic sendoff worthy of the character and performance, while the quiet but insistent kick drum adds to the fatalistic feel of the entire sequence. Soap&Skin’s solemn vocal turn is almost a sop to fans, allowing the scene to note the enormity of the loss we’re so clearly about to witness.

Alexander’s “Truth”, on the other hand, feels the most like it was written specifically to be played on an episode of Breaking Bad. For one, it boasts a windswept, ramshackle feel, evoking the dry desertscapes in which so many of the series’ characters carry out their misdeeds. More specifically, the track, which scores the closing scenes of the infamous fourth-season opener, “Box Cutter”, seems to underline Walt’s morbid thinking and sense of grandeur, replete as it is with grim imagery about throat-slitting and literal bloodbaths. Most telling of all: “All my enemies are turning into my teachers”, a line that seems to prefigure Gus’s grisly demise twelve episodes later.

The Venture Bros.

Pulp, “Like a Friend”

Spoilers follow.

It has David Bowie as a peripheral character, with Iggy Pop and Klaus Nomi as his henchmen. It had a character quite literally exclaim “Here the warm jets!“. It spent half an episode introducing a character to the joys of prog rockThe Venture Bros. is required viewing for a lot of reasons – not least among them, the incredible scoring by J.G. Thirlwell, aka Foetus – but what’s really remarkable about it is the way it matches the breadth of its geekiness with a similarly extensive range of genre tropes and surprising moments of emotional depth.

If you want proof of the show’s versatility, the montage that ends its most recent season provides more than enough. Set to a b-side by a band that made little to no headway garnering a US audience during its existence, the sequence  features the (apparent) death of two longstanding tertiary characters, a race against time, a prom, human-sized insects, and an implied bloodbath. Beneath it all, Jarvis Cocker croons about a friendship gone wrong, one whose one-sidedness had begun to grate on him.  Besides the obvious musical punch the song provides (the mid-song shift coincides nicely with Brock’s race to save Rusty and the boys, even if it takes a little clever audio editing to make the sync happen properly), the lyric’s take on frustration and renewal ties in quite nicely with the show’s major theme: disappointment. Rusty will never live up to his father’s glories, nor his days as a child star/boy adventurer, and his kids likely won’t, either.

“Like a Friend” is about knowing a friendship is fatally flawed, perhaps even exploitative in its one-sidedness, but soldiering on with it anyway. With its balance of spiteful discouragement and vague triumph, it’s a fitting accompaniment to a series that has managed to repeatedly mine its characters’ failure and resentment as a source of both stasis and growth. Heavy stuff for a satirical sci-fi pastiche cartoon, but then, Pulp weren’t always taken all that seriously, either.


Gridlink, “Orphan”

I can count on one hand the instances in which grindcore, the most extreme metal subgenre ever concocted, has made an appearance on mainstream television. On that one hand only one finger protrudes, denoting the scenes of torture set to the title track from Gridlink’s Orphan. For the uninitiated – which will include very nearly everyone – grindcore is a niche metal style that typically, though not always, denotes reliance on bass drums fitted with a double pedal, very brief track lengths (if there’s a “trademark” grindcore song, it’s Napalm Death’s “You Suffer” – all three seconds of it), and extreme lyrical content. At its best, it’s truly galvanizing music of surprising complexity and primal power. One of the genre’s most hallowed touchstones: Discordance Axis’s The Inalienable Dreamless, which crams 17 tracks of particularly intricate grindcore into 24 minutes. They split shortly afterwards, but vocalist Jon Change went on to join Gridlink, an extreme-music supergroup of sorts also featuring members of Burnt by the Sun and Noisear.

This is all to say: whoever was in charge of choosing “Orphan,” the title track to the group’s only full-length release to date, is either a serious metal fan or they really did their homework on this one.

In the real world, when music has been used in “enhanced” interrogation, it’s not of such an extreme variety.  At worst, in terms of aggressiveness, bands like Rage Against the Machine and Metallica have been deployed (Metallica approved of this development, once that came out in the press; RAtM, not so much), along with, of all things, Sesame Street music. “Orphan” and Gridlink in general are a canny choice for a couple of reasons. First, and most obviously, is their sheer noise attack, the likes of which we’re totally unaccustomed to hearing represented on television or even in film; it places the average viewer in a sonic context not all that different from Afsal Hamid, the man being tortured. To the unaccustomed ear, Gridlink is sonic terrorism.

Second, and this is truly obscure in context but still interesting to note: the lyrics, indecipherable as they are on the recording, are perfectly fitting for Homeland in general, and the torture sequence in particular:

Keep our cards close it’s how we wear our lies
Together but we are alone
Bridge of memories that ends in death cycling like cover flow
Why are we trapped where only shadows fall?
How do we belong?
Punching holes in myself when there’s no holes left to cut and regret does not absolve

Wracked with guilt and anguish, it’s equally fitting for Hamid, who slashes his wrists later in the episode, or for Carrie or Brody, whose entire lives have been structured around deception and lies, or for Saul, who tries and fails to reconcile with his wife Mira in this very episode. For those inclined towards such readings, it even works as an especially grim take on the War on Terror itself, a self-perpetuating farce that seems destined only to produce more lost, angry souls.