On 12 April 1980, “Another Brick in the Wall” by Pink Floyd peaked at #1
There are few counter-culture anthems from the 80s as powerful or as instantly recognizable as Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall, Pt. 2“. As a song, it has a visceral quality that’s undeniable: it’s got a stark, danceable beat, an urgent but subdued delivery, and a message that goes far beyond the standard fodder for pop music. But its message leaves me torn, all the more so because of the bleak political turn the world has taken as my generation has come to be the main economic and political actor on the world stage.
Actually, there are two messages in the song that bother me. First is the bitter misogyny. A lot of pop songs written by harbor casual misogyny, from “Shake, Rattle, and Roll“, which implies that all a woman is good for is cooking food for her hungry man, to pretty much anything by Rick James, who wants his women to be available to him for whatever purpose at whatever time he chooses. But, “Another Brick in the Wall” — and the film The Wall — is full of outright hostile misogyny. The villains are male authority figures, in this case school teachers, who delight in beating and demeaning their charges because, being routinely “thrashed within an inch of their lives” by their “fat and psychopathic wives,” they have to exert their masculinity on innocent children. I didn’t go to a British boarding school — and there are a lot of cultural artifacts out there excoriating the British educational system of the 50s, 60s, and 70s (like the brilliantly odd film If… ) — but it’s hard for me to believe that the main source of the problem was sadistic housewives.
The second problem I have with the messaging in the song is its anti-intellectual bent. I get that schools are difficult places with sometimes arbitrary rules governing discipline, and that that can feel stifling to a kid. But the answer to that problem is not to reject education like the chorus of the song suggests. Being another brick in the wall isn’t about being educated, it’s about letting an unimaginative education system make you the victim of thought control. Thought control only works on the stupid and uneducated — Jabba the Hutt told us that in The Return of the Jedi — and if you can’t survive school because some henpecked geometry professor is sarcastic at you and won’t let you have your pudding if you didn’t eat your meat, well, you’re not going to do particularly well when evil-minded politicians offer you simple answers to complicated problems and then take your services and freedoms away. You’ve got to be smart enough to see through them, and that means sitting through science, math, and civics classes.
I don’t know if Pink Floyd thought their message was about more than one kid in a story they wrote or if they thought it was a universal truism that women and schools are evil. I’d like to think not, but the guys in Pink Floyd are pretty weird anti-establishment people, so who knows? What I do know is that too many of my classmates in high school who loved this song either dropped out or ended up in dead-end jobs, and probably somehow think they beat the system, not realizing that they’re helping to perpetuate it. Which is a sad end to think about when you’re out under the blacklights dancing to “We don’t need no education.”