Pop History: The Monitor (Part 1)

In Titus Andronicus’s 2010 sophomore release, The Monitor, singer and lyricist Patrick Stickles takes a particularly ambitious tack in crafting a fully-realized concept album centered on a historical metaphor. As the first part of what will hopefully be a short series of posts, I’ll look at the album and consider its utilization of history for dramatic and thematic importance.

Unsurprisingly, a group named after a Shakespeare play tends to be rather lyrically dense. As such, the opening song of the album, “A More Perfect Union,” is laced with references both contemporary and historical. The first verse references Simon and Garfunkel’s “America,” twists lyrics from Billy Bragg, and finishes by inverting Bruce Springsteen: “Tramps like us, baby we were born to die.” A later biblical allusion places the singer as a Christ-figure: “If I come in on a donkey, let me go out on a gurney.” Yet the most consistent thread begins in this song with the heavy usage of lyrics from the “Battle Cry of Freedom” and continues throughout the rest of the album: the metaphor of the Civil War.

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Pop History: Yeasayer’s “Ambling Alp”

Experimental rock group Yeasayer released its second album, Odd Blood, in 2010 to a generally favorable reception. As compared to the band’s previous work, critics appreciated the foray into much more accessible pop sensibilities. But beneath the catchy hooks and upbeat affirmation of the album’s first single, “Ambling Alp,” lies a kernel of historical inspiration. Unlike the mysterious and somewhat impressionistic vocals of their other songs, the lyrical allusions of “Ambling Alp” reference a particularly notable figure in sports history: the great boxer Joe Louis, the “Brown Bomber,” heavyweight champion of the world from 1937-1949.


Oh, Max Schmeling was a formidable foe.
The Ambling Alp was too, at least that’s what I’m told

Primo Carnera, left, gasps as Joe Louis reaches his stomach with a stiff left in the third round of their fight at Yankee Stadium, New York, June 25, 1935. (AP Photo)
Primo Carnera, left, gasps as Joe Louis reaches his stomach with a stiff left in the third round of their fight at Yankee Stadium, New York, June 25, 1935. (AP Photo)

Joe Louis fought Primo Carnera in 1935, the Italian boxer whose nickname, “The Ambling Alp,” provides the song its title. He knocked out the massive Italian in six rounds, with the powerful victory setting off his career. At that time he was still on his way to the heavyweight title, a road that would hit an unexpected bump in his first fight with German boxer Max Schmeling in 1936. Though few expected Louis to have any trouble, Schmeling handed Louis his first professional loss with a knockout in the twelfth round. Louis had underestimated his opponent, and Schmeling had carefully prepared. But the importance of the fight extended beyond the ring: Max Schmeling fought under the flag of the Nazi regime, and his victory made for excellent material in the Nazi propaganda machine. Though not a Nazi himself, Schmeling’s victory over Louis, a black American, was twisted into further justification for German theories of Aryan racial superiority.

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