Skip navigation

Category Archives: Popular Music


In his book Mourning Becomes the Law, the philosopher Gillian Rose used the term ‘Holocaust piety’ to describe the quasi-religious rhetorics of Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993) as well as the sentimental and sanctimonious tones of its reception. Matthew Boswell, researcher in Memory Studies at the University of Salford (UK), addresses in his study the less explored field of ‘Holocaust impiety’, term by which he characterises the “works that reject redemptory interpretations of genocide and the claims of historical ineffability”:

These representations are often irreverent and profane, characterised by the use of the swastika, Nazi kitsch and elements that Sue Vice links to Holocaust fiction: ‘crude narration, irony, black humor, appropriation, sensationalism, even characters who mouth anti-semitic slogans’.

The book is divided into three sections. The first one, ‘Poetry’, is dedicated to the Holocaust theme in the work of Sylvia Plath and W.D. Snodgrass. The second part, ‘Popular Music’, is by far the most stimulating and original, provided that the topic has been seldom addressed in Holocaust Studies (see, for example, Jon Stratton’s article on The Velvet Underground and the Ramones). Boswell explores the Holocaust theme and symbolism through the songs of bands such as Ramones, Sex Pistols, Joy Division and Manic Street Preachers. As the author observes,

Punk was an historical phenomenon, and the impact of the Holocaust on punk was total: it influenced punk clothes, punk lyrics and punk band names. It was central to the formation of the abrasive, disenchanted punk world-view (…).

The third and final section is dedicated to film. Four Holocaust films are here addressed: two of them are classics (Alain Resnais’ Night and Fog and Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah) and have generated, during the decades, a huge amount of critical literature; the same cannot be said of the other two, Tim Blake Nelson’s The Gray Zone and Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds, which fit more properly in the category of ‘impiety’.

I suggest that the piety/impiety divide would benefit from a comparison with the distinction introduced by Roger Caillois between a ‘sacred of respect’ and a ‘sacred of transgression’ (see Man and the Sacred). Sometimes the impiety is not mere desecration, but rather an acknowledgement ex negativo of sacredness.

Overall, Matthew Boswell’s Holocaust Impiety is a great contribution to Holocaust Studies and especially to the neglected field of pop culture and the Holocaust. (G.V.)

The book is published by Palgrave Macmillan and can be purchased here.


Source: Matt Patches, Watch Lou Reed’s Directorial Debut, the Holocaust Documentary ‘Red Shirley’, The Hollywood Reporter, October 28, 2013.

The death of music icon Lou Reed this past Sunday had pop-culturalists of every breed sifting through the musician’s vast body of work. For good reason: His time with Velvet Underground and his later work as a solo performer is an essential slice of rock ‘n’ roll history. But Reed’s creativity extended beyond music. Before his death, Reed made appearances in a number of films and directed one of his own, Red Shirley, a documentary portrait of his cousin, Shirley Novick.

In the film, available to view through up-and-coming streaming service SnagFilms, Reed interviews the 99-year-old Novick about living through WWI, fleeing Poland during WWII, settling down as a seamstress and eventually marching in Washington in support of the civil rights movement.

Reed co-directed Red Shirley with art photographer Ralph Gibson. The film debuted at the 2010 Vienna International Film Festival before appearing stateside at the 2011 New York Jewish Film Festival.

Along with his foray into documentary directing, Reed also appeared in a number of films, including Wim Wenders’ Faraway, So Close! and Wayne Wang’s Blue in the Face. His songs were used in The Royal Tenenbaums, Trainspotting and Velvet Goldmine among other films.

In 2011, Reed told The Wall Street Journal that Red Shirley was a labor of love and that he only intended to make films on subjects he felt demanded his attention. “I realized if I didn’t do this, a connection to a lot of things would be lost forever. So there was great impetus to do this. The only other thing I would like to do is make a movie about martial arts. Like, travel around to different teachers and tournaments, compare techniques and training.”



A short excerpt from Jon Stratton, Jews, Punk and the Holocaust: From the Velvet Underground to the Ramones: The Jewish-American Story, Popular Music, vol. 24, n. 1, Jan. 2005, pp. 79-105:

The penultimate track on The Velvet Underground and Nico is ‘The Black Angel’s Death Song’ in which the lyric is intoned through John Cale’s screeching viola. It was the discordant howl of this song that got the Velvets fired from their residency in Manhattan’s Cafe Bizarre. Reed has only ever played the song once in his solo career and that was in 1972 when he, Cale and Nico performed together in Paris. (…) The lyrics begin by alluding to ‘his fate’. They go on to describe what, apparently, this man cannot lose:

Not a ghost bloodied country
All covered with sleep
Where the black angel did weep
Not an old city street in the east
Gone to choose

This dense web of imagery suggests a country in the east where the people have been destroyed; Poland perhaps, the Jewish population of the cities and shtetls destroyed by the Nazis. We can compare this with Sylvia Plath’s 1962 poem, ‘Mary’s Song’:

The same fire
Melting the tallow heretics,
Ousting the Jews.
Their thick palls float
Over the cicatrix of Poland, burnt out
They do not die.

As ‘The Black Angel’s Death Song’ unfolds so we have a reference to a rally man, perhaps Hitler’s rallies, and to ‘the cosy brown snow of the east’, possibly Poland again. One line tells us that ‘Sacrificial remains make it hard to forget’. In its original Greek, ‘holocaust’ refers to a burnt sacrifice. Plath makes the same connection in ‘Mary’s Song’ where she makes the startling connection between the lamb Sunday roast and sacrifice. At this point in the 1960s, Jews were the main bearers of the memory of the Judeocide. It was yet to surface as a general Western cultural trauma. It is probably not worth continuing to try to elucidate the lyric of ‘Black Angel’s Death Song’ in terms of the Judeocide. I do not want to suggest that this track is ‘about’ the Judeocide but, rather, that, as an apocalyptic lyric it draws on Reed’s inchoate and unconscious reaction to the extermination. In this sense it is the closest Reed has come to confronting this trauma.