The late Layne Redmond, musician and scholar, put together the study When the Drummers were Women to explore the ancient connection with the instrument often seen as the embodiment of masculinity. In the clay and carvings, friezes and frescoes she discovered an ancient bond mostly overlooked or mislabeled by male curators (women with cake?!). In essence, the drum is an echo of our heartbeat, as Laurie Anderson literalized in ‘Sharkey’s Day’ and ‘Sharkey’s Night’ but with the rise of the regimented army, the drum was co-opted and romanticized as an instrument of the war machine.
The first thing I said at the end of my belated viewing of Mad Max: Fury Road was ‘I have to have this soundtrack!’ Immortan Joe’s citadel runs to the beat of the drum. Quite literally in the case of his war machines, with added guitar shredding. But drums are a huge part of the bigger ritual that keeps his massively unequal society running. They signal the release of flood that means life itself. Their pounding also intimidates an thoughts of rebellion amongst the thirsting masses. The sheer assault of sound reflects the power of the leader as it rumbles through the rocks (and the theatre as well). The society’s inequalities certainly lie in the few wielding great power over the many, as Joe controls the scarce resources most notably water. He also controls the afterlife, constructing the depiction of Valhalla and offering himself as the psychopomp who ferries the dead between this world and the next.
In words that perhaps echo the cynical pronouncements of Nestlé CEO Peter Brabeck, Immortan Joe warns the raggedy masses, “Do not become addicted to water; it will take hold of you and you will resent its absence.” Ridiculous as it sounds, it’s exactly the kind of puritanical pronouncements we hear every day, excoriating us for our hungers. The thirsty crowds far outnumber Joe’s elite, but they’re kept on the edge of collapse yet sustained by the power of ritual: the water will come and they will survive just long enough to thirst again and wait.
We tend to overlook the power of ritual in the modern world, often dismissing it as a remnant of the past and fading religious nonsense (all evidence to the contrary on that front). But the power of ritual permeates our lives from the simple (such as making your morning coffee or tea) to the grandly profound like state funerals, royal weddings and the Olympics. Britain prides itself on being largely secular in contrast to America’s rabid religious madness, but the power of ritual remains. When 90,000 people gather in Wembley to watch the FA Cup Finals and see Arsenal trounce Aston Villa [cough, so much for journalistic objectivity], it may not be a religious ritual even though it includes singing a hymn, but it provides the same thing: cohesion.
Anyone who’s ever been to a stadium concert and felt the surge of energy that accompanies thousands of voices singing as one can understand how fascism takes hold. It maintains that hold by giving an explanatory narrative to that bodily experience of . Like Valhalla: Nux and the War Boys dream of achieving glory in the afterlife in Fury Road. The drums recreate the hammering of their hearts as they fling themselves into battle in dreams of success and of pleasing papa Joe.
Leah Schnelbach has already written a fantastic piece for Tor called We All Agree that Mad Max: Fury Road is Great. Here’s Why It’s Also Important. It hits most of the points that were popping into my head as we sipped our pints afterward and dissected the film’s feminism and healing tropes, apart from its glaring whiteness. It strikes me too, perhaps because I’m old enough, that there’s a hint of 2nd wave feminist utopian separatism in the Vuvalini desire to head across the salt flats, when women were so immersed in the patriarchy they needed that isolation like the desert mothers to shake off the old ways of thought. That it’s Max who persuades them to return and heal what’s broken shows the power of working in concert to achieve greater equality.
One thing I thought worth adding to Schnelbach’s fine analysis is how the dismembered corpse of the patriarchy finally feeds the masses in a sort of raggedy ritual of communion. The moment serves as an apt demonstration of how the power concentrated in the hands of the few can be more equitably distributed (and a warning that if you deny water to your people, they may become addicted to blood instead). We’re in the midst of that now as the 1% dismantles our access to all that gives us power. There’s a heady perfume of possibility enticing the people who felt powerless when they were separated. As people find their tribes, the traditional power centers grow nervous. The revolution is being televised (and tweeted) but we might not notice over the drumbeats.