by Dan Welch
I often hear a refrain that’s probably familiar to most of you: “Children today, younger generations, are not interested in the American Civil War.” However, if pop culture can teach us anything, it is that the blanket statement above is just not accurate. The biggest influencers of popular culture remain movies, music, and television.
If we look at just pop music, we see that the American Civil War is still very present in that media, primarily through its material culture. This is particularly found in album art and music videos of groups and solo acts of the twenty-first century. Thus, it is not that younger generations are not interested in the American Civil War, or are not exposed to it—they are consuming information about it differently than in past generations.
Jack Howard, in a presentation titled “Target Audience for Pop Music,” examines the demographics and psychographics of pop music consumers. He notes that pop music is targeted towards and thus consumed more by females aged 13-26 but can also be for males of the same age group. Looking at the psychographics of pop music, again it is targeted for a teenage audience, particularly those that worked either a part-time or full-time job in addition to being a student. Howard continues his exploration of the relationship between targeted audiences of pop music and its actual consumers by looking at the influence of fashion as it relates to these two groups. He argues that these two groups are very fashionable, with the pop soloists and groups promoting the latest trends.
Thus, with an injection of Civil War material culture into pop music, and in this case clothing and uniforms, younger generations are consuming that information about it by wearing it, seeing it, and associating to its history.
One of the earlier pop groups to include material culture from the American Civil War into album art and music videos was the group Gorillaz. This British group, a virtual band, was created in 1998 by Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett. Rising to international fame from the first EP release and rerelease, by the time of their second album Demon Days in May 2005, the group was poised to have an even bigger impact on the music industry and pop music market. Weaved throughout their animated characters and universe (virtual bands are not depicted as real life musicians) are several variations on Civil War soldier uniform parts.
This can be most notably seen on the album cover for Demon Days where one of the characters is wearing a Civil War kepi and jacket. The kepi was just one variety of headgear worn by soldiers in both armies during the war. Forage caps, regulation Hardee hats, slouch hats, and many more could be found on soldiers spread out through multiple war theaters and armies. Although this iteration has a skull and crossbones for hat brass (hat brass refers to the regimental number, company letter, or branch of service insignia) varying from originals, it does keep the same shape, appearance, strap with button, and a polished-in-appearance leather brim.
Further still, although we can not see the entirety of the jacket the character is wearing, its collar pays homage to a Civil War uniform item known as a shell jacket. This type of coat reaches the hips in overall length and was pretty common during the nineteenth century for military use. The Confederate government adopted its use in 1861 at the start of the war with them being produced in several different Confederate states throughout the conflict. This type of coat was most notably associated with the cavalry and artillery before and during the war, however, as long frock coats were not practical for mounted soldiers.
Another group that has been instrumental in bringing Civil War material culture into pop music and fashion is My Chemical Romance. Founded by Gerard Way in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks, the band became a way for frontman and founder Way to express his feelings and emotions after witnessing the collapse of the Twin Towers. Their 2004 release Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge and its rerelease with a DVD documentary, Life on the Murder Scene, brought the emo band into the pop spotlight.
In the spring of 2006, the group recorded their follow-up album The Black Parade. Wrapping up in the studio during the late summer of that year, the group headed to the studio lot to record several music videos to be released in support of the pending singles off the album. The first single to be released was a nod to the album’s title, “Welcome to the Black Parade.” The single was officially released on the fifth anniversary of the September 11 attacks in 2006, and, several weeks later, the music video hit MTV and VH1 along with other outlets.
In the music video, Way, as the lead singer, takes on the role of a leader of a marching band. The rest of the group follows his lead. Way’s costuming is where one can find another pop culture-material culture of the Civil War connection. Although his costume is cut like a modern marching band uniform, most notably the short-length jacket, the design on the jacket is purely from the 1860s era. Way’s leader-style jacket is based on the Federal army’s issued frock coat for musicians and bandsmen of the era. Although the military frock coat had long skirts (if you watch the video, Way’s does not), the placement of the striping and buttons is nearly identical to what Union soldiers enlisted as musicians would have worn and men in the field would have seen. Way’s jacket is the closest representation of Civil War material culture in the music video. Although the other members of the band wear marching band uniforms that have their roots in what was worn by musicians during the Civil War, each have a different design to establish and distinguish different members of the group.
Over the course of the subsequent tour the band made in support of their new album, they would often book concerts and perform under the name The Black Parade. When they did so, the band wore the same costumes as they did in the music video, further spreading their fashion influence into popular culture, and with it, a piece of Civil War material culture.
No other music group or solo artist has had a bigger impact on bringing American Civil War material culture into pop music and pop culture in the twenty-first century than the band Fun. (the period is part of the band’s name). Formed in the early months of 2008, the group grew to three members, all of which had been in other bands prior to coming together. By November of that year, the group embarked on their first tour. At the same time the band worked through their first tour, they also entered the studio to record their first album. Titled Aim and Ignite, the album received a lot of praise, as well as cementing into the pop rock and pop genres. Drew Beringer wrote on AbsolutePunk.net in 2009 that the band’s effort was “the most essential pop album of 2009.” Clearly the band’s influence on the genre and those that “tuned” in was growing.
Over the next two years Fun. continued to tour in support of their inaugural album. In the beginning of 2011, they started on their next project. Selecting the title early, they revealed to fans that their second album, Some Nights, would be released in the coming year. The album finally dropped in February 2012 with their lead-off single “We Are Young.” Several months later, in June, the band released their second single “Some Nights.” Although the single would later be considered to be a “sleeper hit,” the record label and band supported its release with a music video produced by Poonam Sehrawat and directed by Anthony Mandler. It was in this iteration of the song that the American Civil War was catapulted back into popular culture of younger generations.
During the music video, the band performs the song against the backdrop of a fictional battle set during the war. As the fighting begins, the lead singer of Fun. appears on the screen as the commanding officer of the Union soldiers that have assembled in the area, giving them a “speech” to encourage the troops who are about to enter combat. As the story continues, the narrative drills down to follow two particular soldiers from the ensuing battle, one Union and one Confederate. The soldier fighting for the Confederacy in the video brings along some of the same myths and tropes regarding men who served from the south. It depicts a middle-aged farmer, who now far removed from his prior life, yearns for his farm, his land, his animals, and above all else, his return home after this war. Concurrently we see the story of the Union soldier unfold. A young man, who was deeply in love, left his betrothed behind to go and fight for this cause. In the end, the writers and producers of the music video reveal that what these two soldiers loved is gone and that the cost of this individual battle and the war is far higher than they could have imagined. Despite retelling some of the same stereotypes of the Civil War from generations of history past, the music video provides a basic introduction to some of the themes that would be new and important for younger students just getting interested in this time period.
Today’s younger generations, and particularly students, are not accessing our yesteryear as we have in our lives. They may visit historic sites less frequently, or read a short article on social media about the war instead of an academic full-length work. But the very notion that it remains where their consciousness is spent the most, pop culture, gives me hope that the study of this turning point will continue on.