The illusion of a world without borders

Twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the discourse of security has replaced dreams of dem

The fall of the Berlin Wall 20 years ago is rightly taken as a symbol, not just of the ending of an oppressive regime, but of the dismantling of a monstrous barrier between families, communities and societies. It also marked the moment when a new, more "borderless" world seemed upon us.

It is good that we can celebrate the demise of that ugly institution this week. But we should bear in mind as we do so that, around the world, there remain many walls that still keep loved ones apart, workers from their places of work, and communities from joining together.

In the early 1990s, it was widely felt in academic and policymaking circles that, after communism, the "end of history" was upon us. As the internet hooked up those with access to computers, as air travel became ever cheaper, and as the increasing liquidity of capital saw more wealth moved around the globe than ever before, this became -- through the dogma of globalisation -- the prevailing view in the west.

But, for many, the idea of a borderless world was never much more than a convenient phrase, used to justify an increasingly aggressive capitalism. And post-9/11, it has certainly become much harder to maintain the view that we live in a hyper-globalised world where international movement is as easy as waving a passport at the border.

Even for those with the luxury of travelling wherever and whenever they want, the lengthening queues at the airport and increasingly intrusive identity checks are emblematic of the constraints that have been set on this freedom. More importantly, for others, the post-9/11 world has brought the introduction of new borders and divides every bit as unbridgeable as the Berlin Wall.

This is obvious in places where today's Berlin Walls take an equally physical and imperious form (as in the case of the Israel-West Bank barrier, for example). There the border is every bit as ideologically invested as the East-West German border was, and the sufferance caused every bit as stark. It is less obvious, but no less important, however, where the borders between people are enforced by more subtle, insinuating forms.

The plethora of biometric profiling techniques and border-tightening measures that nation states have erected over recent years in the name of national security is a case in point. On the US-Canadian border, for example, where the NEXUS system is used to keep perfectly legitimate but economically less desirable migrants out of a country in order to cherry-pick the workforce. Or as in the UK, where the idea of "hardening" the border was last week floated by the chairman of the parliamentary intelligence and security committee, Kim Howells, as an alternative to stepping up the war in Afghanistan. These border controls may be raised in the name of national security, but one only needs to stand in line at customs to appreciate how their operation is so readily inflected by class, race and ethnicity.

Such developments are the product not of a borderless world, but of what some call "gated globalism": a world of borders policed in the name of underexamined aims (such as "security"), where freedom of movement for some comes at the price of greater restrictions for others. These are the actually existing freedoms of today's neoliberalised boundaries, their effects far less visible than those of a wall, but their implications for many no less damaging.

So perhaps less has changed in the course of two decades than we might like to think. The idea of a borderless world was an illusion of the excessive western triumphalism of the 1990s. Today it remains an illusion, but because of excessive western anxiety. The figure of the terrorist has replaced the communist "other" and the discourse of security replaces the dogma of one-size-fits-all democracy. The only difference, in fact, is that those technological developments that promised the death of geography in the 1990s now herald its return. For those whose ability to move is restricted on account of where they come from, or beccause of what they believe, today's borders are indeed every bit as impregnable as the Berlin Wall.

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Women don’t make concept albums: how BBC Four’s When Pop Went Epic erases popular music’s diverse history

Why are the only albums blessed with the grandiose description of “conceptual” the ones made by white men?

Tonight, BBC Four airs a documentary exploring the history of the concept album called When Pop Went Epic: The Crazy World of the Concept Album. Presented by prog rock veteran Rick Wakeman, the programme set out to “examine the roots of the concept album in its various forms”, as well as cycling through the greatest examples of the musical phenomenon.

“Tracing the story of the concept album is like going through a maze,” says dear old Rick incredulously, while ambling round a literal maze on screen, just so we fully get the symbolism. But if the history of concept albums is a labyrinth, Wakeman has chosen a gymnastic route through it, one filled with diversions and shortcuts that studiously avoid the diversity of the format’s history. He imagines the concept album to begin with Woody Guthrie’s 1940s record about poverty and class struggle in America, Dust Bowl Ballads, following on with Frank Sinatra’s Only the Lonely (1958) and The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds (1966), before moving on to big hitters like Sgt Pepper and Tommy. It quickly seems apparent that the first albums blessed with the grandiose description “conceptual” are the ones made by white men, and Wakeman’s history credits them with inventing the form.

What about Duke Ellington’s Black, Brown and Beige (1943-58), a history of American blackness? Miles Davis’s Milestones, a 1958 LP-length experiment with modal harmonies? Sun Ra’s particular blend of science fiction and Egyptian mythology on albums like The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra (1961)? When Wakeman reaches what he considers to be the first from a black artist, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On , he notes that it “comes from a musical culture where the concept album was quite alien”.

Certainly, Motown was a towering monument to the power of the single, not the album, but we know that one of Gaye’s greatest inflences was Nat King Cole: why not mention his 1960 concept album, centring  on a protagonist’s varied attempts to find The One, Wild Is Love? Wakeman does recognise the importance of black concept albums, from Parliament’s Mothership Connection to Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, but his history suggest black concept albums begin with Gaye, who is building on the work of his white predecessors.

It takes rather longer for Wakeman to pay his respects to any conceptual woman. 53 minutes into this 59 minute documentary, we discover our first concept album by a woman: Lady Gaga’s The Fame. The only other female artist discussed is Laura Marling, who, perhaps not coincidentally, is also a talking head on the documentary. That’s two albums by women out of the 25 discussed, given cursory attention in the last five minutes of the programme. It feels like a brief footnote in the epic history of conceptual albums.

Jean Shepherd’s Songs of a Love Affair is perhaps the earliest example of a female-led concept album that springs to my mind. A chronological narrative work exploring the breakdown of a marriage following an affair, it was released in 1956: Shepherd has a whole two years on Sinatra. Perhaps this is a little obscure, but far more mainstream and influential works are equally passed over: from themed covers albums like Mavis Staples’ duet record Boy Meets Girl to more conventionally conceptual works.

The Seventies was a decade that did not solely belong to pasty men rambling about fantasy worlds. Female-fronted concept albums flourished, from Manhole by Grace Slick, conceived as a soundtrack to a non-existent movie of the same name (1974) and Joni Mitchell’s mediations on travel in Hejira (1976), to Bjork’s debut, an Icelandic covers album (1977), and Heart’s Dog & Butterfly (1978).

The Eighties were no different, featuring gems like Grace Jones’ Slave to the Rhythm (1985), which pulled a single track into a wild variety of different songs; the Japanese distorted vocal experiment Fushigi by Akina Nakamori (1986), and Kate Bush’s playful faithfulness to A and B sides of a record, producing “The Ninth Wave” as a kind of mini concept album on Hounds of Love (1985).

Wakeman skips over the Nineties in his programme, arguing that conceptual works felt hackneyed and uncool at this time; but the decade is peppered with women making thematically unified works from Madonna’s Erotica (1992) to Hole’s mediations on physical beauty and trauma, Live Through This (1994) and The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998).

Since then, women arguably led the field of conceptual albums, whether through the creation of alter egos in works like Marina and the Diamonds’ Electra Heart, Beyoncé’s I Am… Sasha Fierce or through focusing on a very specific theme, like Kate Bush’s 50 Words for Snow or in their storytelling, like Anaïs Mitchell’s Hadestown and Aimee Mann’s The Forgotten Arm. Wakeman includes no black women artists in his programme, but today, black women are making the most experimental and influential conceptual records in modern pop, from Janelle Monáe and Kelis to Erykah Badu, and, of course, Beyoncé. It’s no coincidence that Lemonade, which would have been considered an abstract conceptual album from a male artist, was immediately regarded as a confessional piece by most tabloids. This issue extends far beyond one documentary, embedded in the fabric of music writing even today.

Of course, concept album is a slippery term that is largely subjective and impossible to strictly define: many will not agree that all my examples count as truly conceptual. But in his programme, Wakeman laments that the phrase should be so narrowly defined, saddened that “the dreaded words ‘the concept album’ probably conjure up visions of straggly-haired rockers jabbering on about unicorns, goblins and the end of the world”. Unfortunately, he only confirms this narrative with a self-serving programme that celebrates his musical peers and friends, and ignores the pioneers who would bring variety and colour to his limited classification. 

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.