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  • Writer's pictureJim Bessman

Nellie McKay turns pop standard 'Lazybones' into antinuke video

Nellie McKay has paired her songs with whimsical videos before, as she did for her cover of The Beatles’ “If I Fell,” from her 2015 album My Weekly Reader, which includes a portion of a Betty Boop cartoon along with Ethel Merman mouthing the lyrics to “Let Me Call You Sweetheart.”

McKay’s new video for her cover of the Johnny Mercer/Hoagy Carmichael standard “Lazybones,” from her latest album Sister Orchid, likewise uses vintage footage from found sources--but the clip is anything but whimsical.

It opens with a quote from Georgia O’Keeffe: “They were always there against the blue—that blue that will always be there as it is now after all man’s destruction is finished.” This is followed by O’Keeffe finding animal bones in a desert, then shifts to showing the construction of a nuclear bomb test site; a Pacific Ocean map centering on the post-World War II U.S. nuclear test site Bikini Atoll; indigenous islanders, children and soldiers; and actual nuclear testing.

The video ends with an onscreen tally of nuclear weapons held by the three big stockpilers (the U.S., 4,758; Russia, 4,300, and China, 250), and a somber tolling of a bell accompanying the horrific results of nuclear explosions on human beings within the vicinity.

“Enemies are so last year,” reads an onscreen statement, followed by “Towards friendship & peace with Russia & China,” the screen then populating with the names of other countries with less-than-friendly relations with the U.S. before cutting to a final view of a troubled, perhaps post-apocalyptic sea.

“I knew that Georgia O’Keeffe quote, and took it from there,” McKay says of her video concept. “I found the footage where I could, and cobbled it together. My mom said that they used to do that at rock concerts in the ’60s!”

Devoted fans of McKay know that in addition to her remarkably inclusive and creative cover choices and original music—including “musical biography” theatrical presentations like I Want to Live!, about Barbara Graham, the third woman executed in the gas chamber at San Quentin (also the title and story of the 1958 biopic starring Susan Hayward), she’s a devoted political and environmental activist, whose Silent Spring: It’s Not Nice to Fool Mother Nature musical biography explored the life of environmental pioneer Rachel Carson.

And while it may be unlikely that viewers would automatically connect an anti-nuclear message with a video for the leisurely “Lazybones,” McKay most definitely did--especially in regard to the designated countries.

“Russia is so demonized, and China is being so, too,” she says. “The rhetoric used toward Russia and Russians is not used toward other groups and is driven by phobia and bigotry. It can be quite grotesque: You see the ‘R’ put backwards--which isn’t even Cyrillic [the backwards ‘R’ letter in the Cyrillic alphabet represents the English pronunciation of ‘ya’ in ‘yard’], so it’s ignorant and offensive.

McKay further cites America’s “vast buildup of armament around China,” as detailed by journalist/filmmaker John Pilger’s 2016 documentary The Coming War on China (which begins with the Bikini Atoll tests and their collateral damage).

“Follow the money!” she says, noting that MSNBC was founded by General Electric, whose businesses also involved nuclear weapons production, and Microsoft, which is now manufacturing augmented reality goggles for combat.

“In order to maintain the military-industrial complex, it needs an enemy--and there’s always a new one,” says McKay, adding that “the new one” cuts across all media and perspective.

“People want an outlet for their anger, and put it on a country that’s full of people like us,” she continues, noting that “nationalism and racism share the same ideology and are based on an accident of birth--but nationalism is still considered to be okay, when it’s a mistake to think it’s any different.”

She recites a Noel Coward quote that she didn’t include in the “Lazybones” video, but resonates nonetheless: “We must all be very kind to one another.”

She adds: “It may seem good that we have nuclear weapons, but if a couple go off, it all ends right there.”

McKay is also a renowned animal rights activist, and included footage in the video of pigs, sheep and primates being forcefully restrained and tested to fully determine the deleterious effects of radiation on living beings.

“I wanted to add that the use of animals in experiments should never be disregarded or dismissed, or treated as a lesser consideration--as it sometimes is,” she explains.

“What we do to other creatures--how we diminish their pain and capacity for suffering--is not only unconscionable in itself, but lays the unethical foundation for how we treat our fellow humans--and the earth we all share.”

Nellie McKay's "Lazybones" video



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