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Lyrics and Life


By Caitlin Ward


The New Pollution
By Beck

She’s got a cigarette on each arm
She’s got the lily-white cavity crazes
She’s got a carburetor tied to the moon
Pink eyes looking to the food of the ages

She’s alone in the new pollution
She’s alone in the new pollution

She’s got a hand on a wheel of pain
She can talk to the mangling strangers
She can sleep in a fiery bog
Throwing troubles to the dying embers

She’s alone in the new pollution (x4)

She’s got a paradise camouflage
Like a whip-crack sending me shivers
She’s the boat in a strip mine ocean
Riding low on the drunken rivers

She’s alone in the new pollution
She’s alone in the new pollution

I don’t know if it would be possible to write about anything other than terrorist bombings this week. To speak about anything else would seem cavalier, I think, and it would feel dishonest. It’s the thing that’s been occupying just about every adult I’ve come into contact with since Paris was bombed late on Friday night. It’s been occupying me, too.

I was in transit when it happened, just returning home from visiting a friend, when I checked Facebook on my phone at the airport in Calgary and noticed a friend of mine who lives in Paris had marked herself “safe.” It seemed odd that people would need to mark themselves safe, so I started looking to see what had happened. It was a few hours on at that point, so there was a better sense of what was happening, though still not much idea of why. There were many suppositions, and farfetched comments that this was happening in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo shootings — farfetched to say it was in the wake of the shootings, I mean, given that they took place 10 months previous. It’s a way to imply a thing without actually saying it. It was extremists, CTV implied. It was Muslims, they did and didn’t say. As it turns out, it was Daesh (a terrorist group formerly known as ISIL, and before that, ISIS), and the more information that came out, the more bloody and terrifying it became. My heart caught in my throat when I read that the hostage standoff had taken place at the Bataclan, a music venue I once went to in order to see one of my favourite bands play one of their last shows.

Some of you may have thought, “but what about Beirut?” after reading that first paragraph. And it’s true, Beirut had been bombed the day before, on the Thursday, and the same group claimed responsibility for the deaths. Regardless of the chronology, though, I think for many of us the conversation started when parts of Paris were attacked. I’m not going to claim that I knew about the bombing in Lebanon before people started asking why no one was paying it so much mind as we were paying Paris. Then other questions emerged — what about Kenya in April, or the ongoing violence in Syria and Iraq? And apparently, for the first time, people noticed that we live in a broken world.

At the end of that second paragraph when I mentioned the Bataclan, you may have thought, “that’s her connection to Paris,” or, alternatively, “I too have a connection to Paris.” There does seem to be a need to connect ourselves physically to what has become something of a mental trauma. When an attack like this happens in a western European country, and not a more commonly wounded patch of the world, it makes those of us who generally live in more secure circumstances feel less safe in our homes, and in our lives.

And at the end of that third paragraph, some of you may have thought about the reason why the Paris attacks garnered so much more attention than any of the others mentioned: prejudice against Arabs, prejudice against Muslims, empathy fatigue for warzones, the news media’s tendency toward eurocentrism, short attention spans, a seeming unconscious obsession with Paris that has emerged in the wake of these attacks.

Now, at the beginning of this paragraph, many of you may be wondering why this line of thought is meandering so widely and unevenly, and what any of this has to do with Beck, or The New Pollution, a single off his 1996 album Odelay. The answer to both of these wonderings is the same.

I’ve been thinking about how things happen, and why. More specifically, I’ve been thinking about how we think about how things happen, and why. You might have to read that last line a few times. I had to rewrite it a few times, actually.

And now, we’ve lost the plot. But actually, that’s sort of the point. In all the discourse and the arguments, the articles and the social media commentary, the pundits and the news anchors, there’s been a need to understand why this happened, and who’s to blame. On one level, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but on another, the side effect is predominantly that we find a single cause, a single factor: a single thing at fault. It’s either Middle Eastern extremists, or American foreign policy. It’s all of Islam, or all of western culture. It’s Syrian refugees, or it’s French godlessness. I’m not too sure how anyone justifies those last two, but it seems to be working for them.

There’s this need to form a narrative around what’s happened these past weeks in Paris and Beirut and Syria and Iraq, and by extension the past years in some of these places, as well. It’s a very common, and very human practice: to take a series of events and turn them into a story we can understand. It’s how we explain the news, and how we talk about our lives.

It’s also how we write novels, though, and conceive of films. And overwhelmingly, those tend to be fiction. Real life is more complicated, and makes less sense. Things don’t happen for single reasons, and people rarely have singular motivations. I’d go so far as to say people only sometimes even have well-thought-out motivations. The world is a collage of stutters and broken pieces that cobble together. When you take it as a whole, be it the world or this particular song by Beck, there’s some coherence in its cacophony. If you just try to pull out threads, though, it’s a series of strange lines about cigarettes and mangling strangers and drunken rivers. You can’t make easy sense out of complex situations. It’s when we try that we make angels and demons out of ordinary people, and that does none of us any favours.

Ward is a Saskatoon-based freelance writer who spends her days (and most nights) working at a small Catholic college. Her less eloquent thoughts can be found at