Don’t Fight “It”

Phil Ford

One of our ethnomusicology graduate students at UT, Dan Sharp, has recently graduated and decamped to Bowdoin, the start of what I have no doubt will be a brilliant career. Dan's a smart dude whose work on Brazilian popular music will be well worth watching as it makes its way into the journals. In the meantime, you can enjoy his parody of a certain kind of pop-music-studies paper, which is the best piece of academic satire I've read in a while. Dan somehow managed to cram in almost every cultural-studies cliche into the length of a paper abstract. The return of the repressed body? Check. The reference to "ambiguously political acts"? Check. Overwrought metaphors ("a harmless steam valve to the pressure cooker of oppression")? Check. All these things contained within the dialectics of containment/subversion. My favorite thing was the cogitation on the "inchoate 'it'" that was to be fought.

In conclusion, I am arguing that the backdrop of Reaganism and New Wave together cast the song in a new light. This contextualization of "Don't Fight It"'s 1982 production suggests that its meaning rises above and beyond merely exhorting us not to fight the urge to drink, fall in love, dance, and assert our independence from our parents' wish to place us in dancing- and drinking-free arranged marriages. The song's visceral "1-2 punch"-like guitar stabs serve as the 'response' to the 'call' of the vocal lines, foregrounding a working, sweating muscular body that stands in opposition to the effete, robotic humanoid depicted in New Wave (imagine Ric Ocasek's svelte body and deadpan delivery as counterpoint to this meaty heartland celebration). At a certain surface level, it appears that Loggins and Perry are attempting to recuperate the vanishing body of the worker by eschewing irony, skepticism and lockstep drum machines, basing the song's repeated rhythmic cell on the gesture of fist pumping, and adopting an approach of hypermasculine chant/yell/singing.

But before engaging in a close reading of these elements and speculating on Loggins' and Perry's motives, we must pin down the moment of the song's production in terms of U.S. labor history. "Don't Fight it" was released in 1982, but producing a record takes time, and the song was actually recorded in September, 1981. This date stands less than a month after the stinging August 5th defeat of the PATCO strike, in which Reagan summarily fired striking Air Traffic Controllers. With this act, Reagan struck a body blow (so to speak) to the ailing labor movement, and to this day, the event indexes the significant decline of union influence in the United States. Seen in this light, the relentless command "don't fight it," combined with ample signifiers of working-class bodies swept up into the effervescent abandon of mass recreation, appears to take a sinister turn as a Reaganite call to acquiesce to the unionbusting New World Order — a reactionary call to channel the political passion that inspires pumping fists and chanted slogans away from militancy in an effort to provide a harmless steam valve to the pressure cooker of oppression.

But that sealed-up, pessimistic interpretation is predicated on the assumption that the music and the lyrics are contributing to the same message. In contrast, what if the music and lyrics are deliberately crossing wires and producing mixed messages when taken together? That's where things get more interesting. While the lyrics drive home a "don't fight – dance, drink, love, have sex" message, the underlying musical drive of the song can be heard as actually psyching up the listener to fight, driving him to action. The propulsion of the electric guitar accompaniment evokes sparring, or hitting a punching bag, which in itself is an ambiguously political act. Is the boxer blowing off steam, or gearing up to whoop some ass? So if the lyrics are saying (over and over and over) "don't fight" an inchoate "it" while the music is saying "pump your adrenaline up and fight," it could conceivably be argued that Loggins and Perry are wily, indirect Marxists. At a time when more self-reflexive, technophile New Wave pop had invaded the mainstream airwaves, they insist on reminding us that are bodies are still bags of meat, even in the digital age. But that's not all. They even use an apparently innocuous pop song as an allegory of Marx's conception of the base (relations of production) and epiphenomenal superstructure (the ideologies that surge forth from these relations of production), a conception of power that had been temporarily obscured, but not fully erased, during this media-saturated postmodern early 1980s moment. While the words "don't fight it" ring out loud and clear on the level of discourse, conflict, rage, and sublimated violence – class war – seethe below, compelling us to fight "it" after all.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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