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A R T S    A N D    C U L T U R E
High-Minded or Right-Minded?
William Rogel • A review of Queensryche’s Operation: Mindcrime • October 2001

Just as television and cable news channels have replaced the speech with the sound-byte, so too has the truly unified album become an increasingly rare commodity.  Sadly, throughout its history, rock and roll has been more about entertainment than art—a fact increasingly clear in the world of prefab boy bands and the skin-deep political messages of Rage Against the Machine.  Indeed, there are perhaps a handful of albums which merit description as art, rather than as an amalgamation of four-minute singles.  It is all the more unfortunate, therefore, that Queensrÿche’s Operation: Mindcrime has been as forgotten and, when remembered, misunderstood.

A short search on the internet will reveal that about 90% of Mindcrime’s reviewers praise it for its anarchic message and its biting indictment of modern society.  Much of the rhetoric in the first few songs does seem like the Green Party platform on steroids.  But while the protagonist, Nikki, does join a bizarre left-wing revolutionary cult, the album is a rejection of that cult and the philosophy behind it.  Queensrÿche may have agreed with some of the Nader-esque ideology, but the deeper message is ultimately a conservative one.
The superficial plot of the album is basic.  A young man joins a left-wing cult as a hit man.  He falls in love with a nun.  Rather than kill the woman he loves, he resolves to leave the cult.  Ultimately, she turns up dead and he is arrested for her murder.  He spends the remainder of his days in a mental institution, legitimately mad. Upon closer inspection, there are many subtle psychological and philosophical points that are revealed.  The result is a profound account that rejects revolutionary idealism in favor of love and introspection.

It is the philosophical abstraction of man—and a hedonistic abstraction of the self—that leads Nikki to Doctor X, the man who heads the left-wing cult and who takes Nikki to eliminate those people who stand in his way.  This is not obvious, as Nikki hates the world in which everyone is used and in which money and power are the ends.  One need only look to the rhetoric he uses after he joins, however, to see that Nikki’s picture is quite abstract.  In the first track after he joins Doctor X, “Speak”, Nikki argues that “To reach some point of order/ Utopia in mind, you’ve got to learn/ To sacrifice, to leave what’s now behind.”  This is typical leftist idealism at its finest, and it demands the sacrifice of all that which is present and known in favor of a rational utopia.  Then, in “Spreading the Disease,” Nikki demonstrates the extent of this abstraction.  He speaks of the banks, the poor, the rich, and the “one percent.”  He has classified all of humanity based on economic factors.

The consequences for Nikki are tremendous.  He becomes painfully isolated and alone.  Some of this is the result of necessary precautions taken to avoid his capture, but that is only a possibility given his willingness to sacrifice interpersonal relationships for some abstract goal.  His isolation is so acute that he seems to go for days without speaking to anyone, and when he does they are only “shadows”.  He even begins thinking of himself as “a target for the new society.”  He is not empowered, but rather he is a meaningless cog.  Thus his philosophy has not simply abstracted away the humanity of others; it has taken his own humanity away.  The whole tone of “The Mission” stresses this loneliness.  Musically, it is a major departure from the heavy, sweeping sound of all prior tracks.  The movement has lost its majesty, as Nikki’s descriptions of changing the world and his role in the revolution become tangibly jaded and sarcastic.

It is at this point that Operation: Mindcrime really gets interesting.  Nikki’s only real human contact is with Mary, a prostitute-turned-nun who also works for Doctor X.  At first Mary only “feeds his skin.”  Nikki, however, falls in love with Mary, and this is his hope for redemption.  It is no coincidence that, with the entrance of Mary, Nikki becomes disillusioned with the revolution.  He begins using words like “sin” and becomes less concerned with the glory he will attain when the revolution succeeds.  This split is actually manifested in the plot, as Doctor X orders Nikki to kill Mary because “she’s a risk”.  Mary is a risk in that she presents to Nikki a real person as opposed to an abstract entity.  Love for Mary and revolutionary idealism cannot coexist.

Queensrÿche has rejected the rational abstraction of utopian political thought, and they have posited love as a positive alternative.  Nikki tries to get out from Doctor X’s control.  He is addicted to drugs and needs Doctor X to provide them, but still he resolves to resist the temptation to “bloody his hands forever.” He cannot simply escape and live happily ever after, however.  Such a thing would be painfully unrealistic and would scarcely make for a rejection of utopian thought.  It would also send a mixed message regarding Nikki’s responsibility.  Instead, he returns to the church to find Mary dead.  Now, he has rejected Doctor X and has lost Mary, leaving him nothing.  Ironically, he is arrested for Mary’s murder and is sent to a mental institution, his loss having sent him into madness.  This may seem to cast doubt upon the argument that love was redemptive.  It seems more probable, however, that love brought about a moral recognition that necessitated punishment.  Madness is a self-imposed punishment that represents the complete change in Nikki’s moral character.  He cannot bear to face the memories of his crimes, and so that is what he essentially sentences himself to do.

The last song of the album, “Eyes of a Stranger”, shows the complete change in Nikki.  He says, “All that I want is the same as everyone:/  Why am I here, and for how long?/  And I raise my head and stare/  into the eyes of a stranger.”  Nikki is no longer committed to an abstract notion of humanity.  Rather, he has come to recognize the fundamental difficulty of philosophy.  “Why am I here, and for how long?” represents more than Nikki’s institutionalization.  It is his admission that he did not and does not know all the answers.  It is a recognition that all humanity struggles with this same question.  It is a realization that others are in some meaningful sense like him, and yet that they are individuals seeking truth individually.  The “eyes of a stranger” are, of course, his own.  But it is more than just his own opacity that is at issue here.  Nikki is a stranger to himself, which demonstrates both alienation from himself and identification with others.  He cannot look into the eyes of another person, and thus of his victims, without seeing his own, and those of Mary.  And thus, despite his continued confusion, Nikki has firmly rejected the naiveté of his revolutionary youth.

William Rogel is a junior in Berkeley College

 

 
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