Tuesday, September 2, 2008

"Games Without Frontiers" - Peter Gabriel, 1980 (rock)


Jeux sans frontieres
Jeux sans frontieres
Jeux sans frontieres

Hans plays with Lotte, Lotte plays with Jane
Jane plays with Willi, Willi is happy again
Suki plays with Leo, Sacha plays with Britt
Adolf builts a bonfire, Enrico plays with it

Whistling tunes - we hid in the dunes by the seaside
Whistling tunes - we're kissing baboons in the jungle
It's a knockout

If looks could kill, they probably will
In games without frontiers - war without tears
If looks could kill, they probably will
In games without frontiers - war without tears
Games without frontiers - war without tears

Jeux sans frontieres
Jeux sans frontieres
Jeux sans frontieres

Andre has a red flag, Chiang Ching's is blue
They all have hills to fly them on except for Lin Tai Yu
Dressing up in costumes, playing silly games
Hiding out in tree-tops shouting out rude names

Whistling tunes - we hide in the dunes by the seaside
Whistling tunes - we're kissing baboonsin the jungle
It's a knockout

If looks could kill, they probably will
In games without frontiers - war without tears
If looks could kill, they probably will
In games without frontiers - war without tears
Games without frontiers - war without tears

Jeux sans frontieres
Jeux sans frontieres...

This song is actually a song about the World Olympic Games and about how the countries act towards each other during them. That would explain why in the video (found below), the dinner table's video screen shows pole vaulters, and there are other sports clips. Betcha missed it, huh? (or you chalked it up to Gabriel's eccentricism and just good videography). The lyric repeated at the beginning and end is "Jeux Sans Frontieres," which is French for "Games Without Frontiers." It is frequently misheard as "She's So Popular." (which is incorrect, and if you watch Peter's mouth when he says those words, his lips don't make movements that look anything like "She's so popular.")

This is about the childish antics of adults, which is especially prevalent when their countries are competing in the Olympics. We have an Olympics every 2 years, so when they come around next year, watch and see (or get out that TiVo recording you haven't erased yet)! It's true!! The 2008 Summer Olympic Games were used as political leverage in an attempt to stop Russian troops from encroaching on independent province, Georgia. Even the events themselves are not safe! Consider the shocking story of Figure Skating Pairs in the 2002 Winter Games, David Pelletier and Jamie Sale. This politicism has been going on for as long as the games have been international.

Gabriel wrote this song before the US boycott of the Moscow Olympics in 1980. This reinforced the theme of adults acting like children over the Olympics. This was not the first time the Olympics had been boycotted by the US or by other countries because the location of the games had been in some country whose politics were objectionable. While President Bush attended the Opening Ceremonies and many athletic events during his trip to the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, his trip was in political harmony with the protests and demonstrations around the world, which focussed on the juxtaposition of the greatness of the games and the athletes and the oppression the host country inflicts on its citizens.

Gabriel got the idea for the title from a 1970s European game show of the same name where contestants dressed up in strange costumes to compete for prizes. A version of the show came out in England called "It's a knockout," giving him that lyric.

The video includes film clips of Olympic events and scenes from the 1950 educational film Duck and Cover, which used a cartoon turtle to instruct school kids on what to do in case of nuclear attack, as if to say that the countries and their athletes being in close proximity to each other during these 2 weeks was like "the end of the world.

Part of the song goes: "Andre has a red flag/ Chiang Ching's is blue/They all have hills to fly them on except for Lin Tai Yu..." Andre could refer to Andre Malraux (1901-1976) the French statesman and author of the book Man's Fate, about the 1920s communist regime in Shanghai. Red flag may refer to Malraux's leftist politics. Chiang Ching could refer to Chiang Kai-shek (1887-1975) Chinese leader of the Kuomintang who opposed the Communists - hence, the rightwing Blue Flag. Chiang's forces lost the civil war in 1949 and fled to Taiwan, where they set up a government in exile. Lin Tai Yu may be Nguyen Thieu (1923-2001), South Vietnamese president during the height of the Vietnam war. After the Communist victory of 1975, Thieu fled to Taiwan, England, and later to the United States where he died in exile. The lyric could refer to the fact that while leftist politicians like Andre Malraux had a secure position in France, and rightist leaders like Chiang Kai Shek had a secure country in Taiwan, those caught in the middle like Nguyen Thieu were pawns in the Cold war and had no secure country. This could also be a reproach to either Thieu or his United States backers, saying that he was now a nobody.

And of course "Adolf burns a bonfire..." refers to Adolf Hitler, who actually has dual meaning in the song as in the 1936 Olympic Games in Germany, Hitler desperately wanted to demonstrate the superiority of the Aryan race and refused to shake the hand of Jesse Owens, a black man, who set Olympic history in the presence of der Fuhrer, and who found himself more insulted by FDRs lack of White House invitation than the absense of Hitler's congratulatory handshake on the Games' winners' podium. And all of this ties in with the last of this line, "...Enrico plays with it." referring, of course, to Italian physicist Enrico Fermi, who is most famous for his work on the first nuclear reactor, winning the 1938 Nobel Prize for Physics for his work on induced radioactivity...that's quite a bonefire to play with.

Having said all of that, it now makes sense:

"Games without frontiers" - an international competition of games, "War without tears" - countries competing to be the best of the best while not actually using any military force to prove themselves as such. Using athletes to "fight" for them on the game field.


(information compiled from various sources)

1 comment:

Artie said...

Great explanation. I knew about the It's a Knockout game but wondered about some of the names in the song.

That whole album with Phil Collin's trend-setting gated drum sound and Robert Fripp's modern, sharp sonic riffs added to Levin's propulsive bass and Gabriel at his most paranoid and inventive - well it's a masterpiece.