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Ragged Edges & Pretty Lies

My latest song is about propaganda posters, which I’ve been mulling on since I noticed a number of oddly specific public health posters still hanging all over my college, years after the swine flu outbreak. My morbid side took to wondering how eerie those posters would be if H1N1 had actually become the global pandemic people feared, the influenza of our age. I extended the idea to propaganda posters of all kinds, inspired by this great book on American WWII posters. Imagine discovering an uninhabited post-apocalyptic world plastered in enigmatic posters calling for action against some mysterious threat. Seriously, how terrifying would that be?

For me, this chilling scenario embodies the heart of how wartime propaganda functions. The true essence of these posters, which can be hard to remember in looking at these well-worn images, is that their peppy tone is really just the packaging for gut-wrenching, heart-breaking fear. These posters are now taken as nostalgic emblems of that Greatest Generation, who scrimped and sacrificed and won that war with the certainty that We Can Do It! But stripped of our presumptuous winners’ hindsight, the not-so-silent “Or Else” coursing through the ink speaks volumes about the uncertainty, anxiety, and terror of times of crisis.

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And propagandists seem to channel that uncertainty into blame. Whether glorifying carpooling, effective rationing, and gardening or vilifying gossip and bathroom breaks, these posters’ central conceit is viewer culpability, even in the most mundane domestic activities. The aggressive and consistent use of second person points the finger at the viewer, should the worst occur...