Thursday, March 8, 2018

The human touch of VNV Nation - Victory Not Vengeance

Photo Credit: https://twitter.com/vnv_nation

Last night, I was listening to In Defiance, one of my many favourite songs from VNV Nation's Of Faith, Power and Glory album.

Other personal favourites are  Illusion,  PerpetualGratitudeBeloved and Arena.

Within a moment, I was transported back to my days at University, where I took an intro music course. We listened and analyzed music from the tin pan alley era, all the way to electrifying sounds of Led Zeppelin. Our final assignment was to choose any artist/band from any era, and explain why/why not we would consider them a hegemonic force in the music industry. Many students chose icons like Elvis, Madonna or The Beatles. Of course, I chose something rather different; VNV Nation.

I kept this piece of work that I wrote around 2007 and wanted to share on my blog because I was really proud of it. You can see how outdated it is, as I mention "MySpace" but at the time, it was a very powerful media tool.  I also sent a personal note, as well as this enclosed essay to Ronan Harris (lead of VNV Nation) and his partner at the time, Mark Jackson, eons ago, in hopes they may have read it. I'm not sure if it ever reached either of their hands, or it was stacked in the PR bunch.  I'm sure like most artists are sent thousands of e-mails, letters, essays, photos, and more notes of appreciation and gratitude that they could even sift through. However, you know me, i'm that letter-writing kind of muse, so I like to express myself through words and without getting into all the gory details of my battles an traumas, Ronan left a rather large imprint in my heart, in you know.... that life-altering way.

I could blabber on, but I think I will end this here. Below you can read my essay, if you wish to! PS. I got an A from my prof at the time. ;)


A hegemonic force: VNV Nation 

VNV Nation may not be a well-known mainstream band, but they have taken a path on which many other groups have been afraid to travel given the competitive nature of the music business.  They have gone their own way by structuring innovative approaches to success.  For this reason, I have chosen them as my essay subject.

Antonio Gramsci’s argument about hegemonic forces states that “new technologies and structures of control by the state and entertainment industries also generate new forms of cultural and political opposition.”  Using his concept, VNV Nation would be considered a hegemonic force.  While they were a part of the entertainment empire at the beginning of their career, they rebelled and are trying to create a new form of musical leadership.

In my analysis, I will look at a number of factors that support my position.  The group name itself has become their signifier of change. I will discuss the creation of their own record label and the musical genre known as Futurepop.   The polysemic nature of their lyrics has allowed powerful messages to be included in their songs that can reach audiences directly through advances in the use of Internet technology in distribution.

VNV Nation is comprised of Irish born-Ronan Harris who is the lead vocalist, composer and lyricist while English born-Mark Jackson played live drums.

VNV Nation's motto itself is their mission statement. The initials of the band stand for “Victory Not Vengeance.” According to their official website, the phrase demands that “one should strive to achieve, not sit in bitter regret.”  The use of the word “victory” is very significant.  It brings forward the image of a war-like battle in which they are empowered to change the music business using their new ideology.  They are casting aside the traditional recording industry approach to end the dominance of the cultural industry.

Like other musical artists and groups, VNV Nation relied at the beginning of their career on record companies to distribute their music. It is very difficult for an artist to develop a unique identity other than the prevailing one or to maintain a high quality level because of the structure of the music business and the necessity to conform. “Major labels work like a stock company to deliver a product which means you're not there to be creative, you're there to produce hits that sell and unless you sell over a certain amount, they dump you.”

The industry is a business after all and there is a need to generate profit by minimizing risk. As their career progressed, VNV Nation became unwilling to conform to mainstream beliefs, values and aesthetics or to be under the control of the musical “gatekeepers” who were interested in a manufactured sound and image. They felt restricted in their ability to express their musical talent.

Over time, VNV Nation developed a different philosophy. “Our aim was to reach people in our own way, not by compromising or selling out.”   Previously, they signed on to record labels such as a German label, Off Beat, and subsequently to Dependent Records. The irony in that Label’s name is obvious.  Dependency was something that VNV Nation wished to avoid.

 In 2002, VNV Nation reached a climactic point in their career when the contract with Dependent ended.  In 2003, they formed their own label called Anarchron Sounds where they gained creative control of their music and accomplished their goal of becoming independent.   They could now determine for themselves how the music would sound, what the lyrics said and what would be shown on album covers.   They could become trend-setters instead of followers as their producers and the record companies wanted them to be.

The conflict between the old regime and the new is pointed out dramatically once again, by the use of language by VNV Nation. Their old record label explained the breakup by saying that they elected “to place the professional and personal integrity of the label and management first.”  VNV Nation entitled one of the songs with their new label, Honour.  Ronan wrote in the lyrics:

“The way was clear to rebuild this land
Shall I call on you to guide me well?
To see our hopes and dreams fulfilled?”

VNV Nation have been influenced by many bands such as Kraftwerk, Depeche Mode, Human League as well as classical music and Irish folk songs which are part of Ronan's heritage. The earlier sounds of synth pop and electronic incorporated synthesizers and technology to enhance a new quality of vocals and replace the traditional instruments that were once used.  The sound of electronic music had “opened the minds to the possibility that supposedly dehumanizing machine might actually make us more human.”  Initially, VNV was categorized as part of the popular genre EBM – Electronic Body Music. But that did not satisfy them.  As the new sound evolved, Ronan wanted “to call this music something else than EBM.”   He wanted to create for VNV Nation a futuristic sound. With this idea in mind, he coined the term “Futurepop” which brought a new following and genre to the music scene.

Lyrics need to move people in emotional ways.  “Musical instruments are merely tools used to produce sounds. It is up to the artist to do something musical with these instruments.”  The interpretation and powerful messages in VNV Nation’s lyrics signify spiritual personal growth and social empowerment for those who are tired of being dominated by mainstream society.

There is great debate about what the lyrics of VNV Nation represent.  Some people believe that the common thread in their music is issues about war, politics and social justice. That would be too simplistic and superficial a view. “Hardship is always going to be the best stimulus for great music.” Ronan goes beyond the surface with symbolism and spirituality, which are woven through each song.  A common theme is to find one’s way without losing one’s own sense of self. This can be accomplished through internal change or rejecting the forces in society that seems to have a hold on one’s happiness.

The lyrics in their song “Fearless” are a prime example:
“I am not alone. I am not afraid. I am not unhappy
Such a stupid ritual to have to say to myself everyday
I'm not alone but I found my answer and set myself free.”

This language conveys the thought of being forced to adopt an ideology that one does not believe in but is forced to accept on consent.  Finally, the individual breaks free.  This can be viewed as an analogy for VNV Nation's struggle with their record label and being unable to express themselves in the manner they wished. They found their answer by forming their own label.

In another song,  “Nemesis” from the album Judgement, released in 2007, the lyrics represent the way the world is seen through someone's eyes, and the idealism of the way that individual would like it to be.

“I want justice for a voice that can't be heard
Vindication for every suffering and hurt.”

VNV Nation has a strong message for people to speak up and follow their hearts instead of being afraid of making changes that and conforming to what is expected of them as members of society. Finally, in order to promote their music to fans commercially yet to maintain their independence and avoid being part of the multi-national music corporation distribution networks, VNV Nation also uses a different approach to get their name out and their music heard. VNV Nation promotes their music using Internet technology.

Reaching their fans in this innovative digital manner, called the information age, is a  low-cost and cost-effective way to do so.  Like other artists and bands, their fan-base and even new comers, can be provided with up-to-date information on upcoming concerts, new releases and media events instantaneously through the promotional tools of mass emails, newsletters, and their official website which is maintained on a regular basis.   VNV Nation has taken it a step further.  They use social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace. The posting of their videos on YouTube by their fans is the essence of viral marketing.  It is taking word-of-mouth marketing to a higher level.  In effect, fans become their Marketing and Public Relations departments to assist in the distribution of their music.  People who otherwise might never hear a band like VNV Nation on a Top 40 radio station since many of the songs would exceed the limit for air time play can now be exposed to their music 7 days a week and 24 hours a day.

In conclusion, there is a powerful aura that surrounds VNV Nation that has allowed them to become successful without a big prestigious label attached to their name.  They have been able to create a new music genre that has gained a respect for them in the electronic industry.  The ability to create beautiful digitally enhanced songs with meaningful lyrics that provoke people to seek change and embrace their individuality requires a hegemonic force like VNV Nation. Lastly, they have demonstrated the ability to display a unity with their fans,  “We are at the end of the day human and that is what we're here to remind people.”

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Balliger, Robin.  “Politics,” in Key Terms In Popular Music And Culture, edited by
Bruce Horner and Thomas Swiss, 57-70.  Malden: Blackwell Publishing
Ltd., 2006

Carlsson, Johan. “Spotlight: The Story of VNV Nation.”  Release Music
Magazine.  http://www.releasemagazine.net/. (accessed July 18, 2007)

Dependent Records.  “News [01.02.02].”  Dependent Records.
http:www.dependent.de/en/vnvnation/news.php (accessed July 18, 2007)

Horn, Delton T. Digital Electronic Music Synthesizers. Blue Ridge: Tab Books
Inc. 1988

Jo. “VNV Nation.” Hard Wired.
http://www.zen70353.zen.co.uk/HARD_WIRED/VNVNationInt.htm (accessed July 18, 2007)

Shapiro, Peter. Modulations; A History Of Electronic Music: Throbbing Words On
Sound.  Edited by Peter Shapiro.  New York, Caipirinha Productions, Inc,
2000.

VNV Nation.  “Propaganda.”  VNV Nation.  http://www.vnvnation.com/ (accessed July 18, 2007)

Update 2018:


Talking about life, Ronan's words of wisdom: