And Parable on Populism

twoo+dispersive prism=dark side of the rainbow 2.0

The Dark Side of the Rainbow (aka: The Dark Side of Oz)

For those who haven't already heard, Pink Floyd's DSotM (The Dark Side of the Moon) can be used as an alternative soundtrack for the classic 1939 MGM motion picture The Wizard of Oz, in a phenomenon often referred to as DSotR (Dark Side of the Rainbow)). The question for examination today is, assuming that this synchronization was done intentionally by the band Pink Floyd, what was the band trying to say by linking an album about mental illness to a movie about a little girl's adventures over the rainbow? One possible connection between the movie and Pink Floyd's album is the 1964 article by Henry M. Littlefield: The Wizard of Oz: Parable on Populism

Clues from the Album Cover

Members of the band have long denied any attempt was being made to synchronize their album to The Wizard of Oz, and instead have dismissed the phenomenon as coincidence. However, if we want evidence to prove the contrary, one of the things we must do is find a meaningful theme from the movie that is somehow reiterated in the album. One of the first places we should look to is the album cover -center image at top of page.

poster and sticker included in original DSotM packaging

The album cover shows a refracting beam of light passing through a prism and exiting it as the colors of the rainbow. The rainbow, of course, is an important symbol for fans of The Wizard of Oz. No rainbow is ever seen in the movie; nevertheless, in the scene with Dorothy as the witch's prisoner, we see the witch's crystal ball acting as a huge refracting prism. The association between rainbows and this movie, however, comes from the Oscar winning song Over the Rainbow, which has since become one of the most popular movie songs of all time. The beam of light passing through the prism and coming out as colors is also suggestive of Dorothy's passage from black & white Kansas to the Technicolor Land of Oz.

Now contrast the album cover to the picture on the right of your screen. The original DSotM package included a sticker (top) and a poster of the pyramids of Giza shot on infrared film. Comparing the album cover to the poster, I think the first association many of us would make is the discovery of infrared light by Herschel, using a dispersive prism. Note that on the sticker, each vantage point of the pyramid is taken in relation to the sun at sunrise /sunset. The album cover, by itself, makes little sense, but when contrasted against this poster and sticker, we see a theme of light and dark. The transparent prism, which allows light to pass freely, would represent understanding. The opaque pyramids, with all their secrets, would represent mystery. The dispersive prism contrasted against a black background is the perfect depiction of this theme of understanding vs. mystery. This theme of understanding vs. mystery, of course, is the highlight of Baum's story, when the man behind the curtain is revealed to Dorothy and her three companions.

Littlefield's Parable on Populism

When Richard Nixon took office, a popular rumor had begun to circulate that L.Frank Baum had written The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as an allegory about the Populist political movement to add silver to the gold standard. According to the 1964 American Quarterly article The Wizard of Oz: Parable on Populism, by Henry M. Littlefield, the great and powerful Oz represented the turn of the century American presidency. Dorothy represented the average person, while Dorothy's magic silver slippers on a yellow brick road represented the great potential which adding silver to the gold standard offered. (Note that in the movie, her silver slippers got turned into ruby slippers.) Cowardly lion's journey with Dorothy to see the great Oz, who turns out to be just a man behind a curtain, represents the failed political aspirations of William Jennings Bryant, leader of the Populist movement.

Littlefield writes:

"The Wizard, a little bumbling old man, hiding behind a facade of paper mache and noise, might be any president from Grant to McKinley. He comes straight from the fairgrounds on Omaha, Nebraska, and he symbolizes the American criterion for leadership -- he is able to be everything to everybody."

If there is a connection between Dark Side of the Rainbow and Littlefield's Parable on Populism, then it is unlikely that Pink Floyd had intended their album to be some kind of commentary on late Nineteenth Century American politics. Instead, they might have been trying to draw a comparison between the political climate of the day and the political climate of Bryant's day, using Littlefield's article as a reference point.

Littlefield's description of the wizard (as a turn of the century US president) could equally apply to Richard Nixon, who often has been compared to the Wizard of Oz. Nixon was the moderate at a time when America was deeply divided on many issues. Nixon also seemed to be a magician: His administration was able to finance a major war overseas, while sending men to the moon; all this while managing to keep the American economy afloat. Part of Nixon's "magic" was in going even further than what the Populists had been campaigning for: Instead of adding silver to the gold standard, Nixon dropped the gold standard entirely in favor of fiat money. The system had actually been experiencing many difficulties throughout the Twentieth Century. In the post-war era, the United States had pegged the price of gold at $35 per Troy ounce, while all major world currencies were in a fixed ratio to the US dollar. In 1971, the Nixon administration announced that the American currency would no longer be directly convertible to gold.

If we are going to look for connections between Dark Side of the Moon (DSotM) and Littlefield's "Parable on Populism", it's best to skip right over the Kansas scenes up to the point where Dorothy lands in Oz, as the long Kansas sequence in the movie was largely an MGM invention. (Littlefield was writing concerning the book, not the movie.) As it turns out, In Dark Side of the Rainbow, when Dorothy steps out of her house into the Land of Oz, this corresponds to the beginning of Side B of DSotM (For when music was sold on vinyl), and the beginning of Track 5 -"Money". Money, of course, was of particular interest to the turn of the century populists.

It should be noted that The Dark Side of the Rainbow phenomenon can be repeated by restarting the CD later in the movie, when we first meet the cowardly lion (see PinkSyncsWithOz: Set-up). When this is done, Money starts to play as the four pilgrims enter the hallway to the throne room of the wizard. Now the wizard is the symbol for the American presidency, and just as money was of particular interest to the populists, so too the presidency was of particular interest in achieving their objective of adding silver to the gold standard. Of particular interest here is the lyrics we hear as Dorothy is presenting their petitions to the Wizard. Before Dorothy even has a chance to make a request, the Wizard interrupts her. As the Wizard interrupts Dorothy, we hear the lyrics Don't give me that do goody good bullshit." This is interesting in that this allegory is supposed to represent the failed political aspirations of Bryant.

The next track of the album is the song "Us and Them", and it seems to be a song about conflict. The album was written when the Vietnam War was winding down, and the Vietnam War, of course, on the larger international scale, was a clash of ideologies, or a difference of opinion about how economies should be managed. The lyrics of the song suggest that it is money that people are fighting over:

Down and out
It can't be helped but there's a lot of it about
With, without
And who'll deny it's what the fighting's all about

When we do Dark Side of the Rainbow, we'll hear the lyrics With, without /And who'll deny it's what the fighting's all about" as Dorothy is beginning her journey down the Yellow Brick Road. This is interesting, since the Populist political movement was really a class struggle, while the base of the Populists' political support would have come from farmers, represented in this allegory by the Scarecrow, who found themselves at odds with big city bankers, who held the mortgages on their farms. These bankers would be represented by the witch of the east, although Littlefield defined the witch in more general terms, suggesting she symbolized "evil eastern influences", which could also include Washington politicians. Adding silver to the gold standard, in a nutshell, had the potential of devaluing the currency, thus artificially decreasing the amount of money these farmers owed to these bankers. That we should hear these lyrics just as Dorothy's ruby slippers are hitting those yellow cobblestones is significant, considering what this represents, at that this was a central issue of the Populists.

The next track from the album is the song "Any Color You Like". In Dark Side of the Rainbow this song begins, interestingly enough, as Dorothy is leaving Munchkinland to begin her journey down the Yellow Brick road. According to Littlefield, Baum had used the silver slippers on a Yellow Brick Road to symbolize the populists' campaign to add silver to the gold standard. MGM, of course, opted for ruby red slippers, rather than Baum's undazzling silver slippers. If we wanted to symbolize the Nixon administration's decision to drop the gold standard altogether in favor of fiat money, then we could have given Dorothy green slippers, as in "green -the color of paper money." Of course, if it's paper money you want, then they can make that "any color you like."

The Watergate Scandal which ruined Nixon hadn't gone public, and the OPEC oil crisis hadn't hit before DSotM was recorded, but this was the very sort of thing that the album seemed to be anticipating. By the early 1970s, the counterculture movement of the earlier decade was taking on a distinct cynicism among members of the movement. The Populists' dream of adding silver to the gold standard was, more or less, realized with Nixon's complete abandonment of the gold standard. But this Populist dream, coming over seventy years too late, didn't have the same effect in 1971, it might have had in 1896. In 1896, a lot more Americans were farmers, and were, in effect, self-employed. Adding silver to the gold standard would have reduced the money they owed to the banks, by devaluing the currency. In 1971, the abandonment of the gold standard did indeed lead to a period of rapid inflation, as the Populists presumed would happen. But by 1971, a lot of Americans were not self-employed, but wage earners, and the devaluation of the purchasing power of the dollar equated with a decrease in their real wages.

In the original Baum novel, the Wizard's fabulous city of emeralds was all an illusion, created by the citizens of the city having to wear green tinted glasses. Nixon's abandonment of the gold standard in favor of fiat money effectively unbridled the fractional reserve banking system, but the fabulous increase in wealth this seemed to offer was, like the "Emerald City", all an illusion. Nixon had essentially given the banks a license to print money, but all this new money being issued was in the form of debt. Borrowers, unfortunately, did not have a concomitant power to print money to pay back the interest on the principal, so the money needed to pay back the interest would have to come from existing wealth. The amount of money in the system seems to grow exponentially, but it is all money owed to the banks: see Money as Debt /Youtube video. There is considerable doubt as to whether the system is sustainable in the long run, without major reforms. A more prudent approach perhaps would have been to add silver to the gold standard, as the Populists had suggested.

The kind of cynicism found in DSotM isn't like the kind of cyncism Littlefield imagined he saw in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Littlefield thought Baum was telling us what colors we needed to deliver us from evil: silver shoes on a yellow brick road. Pink Floyd sang, "Black and blue /And who knows which is which and who is who?" When Pink Floyd produced DSotM, the trouble was everybody was telling everybody else what to do. DSotM was Pink Floyd's first concept album, and the "official" version of what this concept concerned had to do with mental illness, and how the stresses of modern living can cause a person to "crack". I think the madness of modern living experienced by the individual can be compared to the political climate of the 1970s. All these themes we see in DSotM which were said to concern the pressure on the individual in society, and how the individual misadapts to that pressure, can be looked at in reverse, as how the political system misadapts itself to meet the needs of the electorate. Baum's great and powerful Oz was the epitome of this dysfunctional political system that pretends that it has all the answers and can work miracles, but, in reality, its political leaders are only interested in staying in power, while catering more to the interests of bankers and big business than in performing miracles for the common folk.

The Wizard Casts Another Spell

If we want to use The Wizard of Oz as an allegory on 1970s politics, rather than the politics of Baum's day, it may actually work better with Nixon as our Wizard, for a couple of reasons. The first is that the Populists were not victorious in their efforts to have silver added to the gold standard, and so Dorothy's silver slippers on the Yellow Brick Road has to be thought of as, at best, just wishful thinking. The second reason is that the American presidency of Bryant's day did not suffer a scandal like Watergate, which is why hardly anyone imagines seeing President Mckinley, when the curtain gets pulled back on the Wizard. (McKinley's presidency ended with his assassination.) With Nixon as our Wizard, this would make Cowardly Lion George McGovern, Nixon's rival in the 1972 US presidential election. And although McGovern ran on a platform of immediately ending the Vietnam War, this is not why we might compare him to a cowardly lion, as this was a hugely unpopular war in the US, which everybody wanted to see a quick end to. More relevant to McGovern being Lion is when our pilgrims appear before the Wizard to ask of him their favors; in the movie, the Wizard promptly announces that he already knows why they have come. Would this suggest that the Wizard, like Nixon, was involved in spying on his opponents?

Another reason Nixon might make a better comparison to our Wizard is the Wizard's little bag of tricks, he offers our pilgrims, when they come for their heart, brains, courage and a trip back to Kansas. We've already seen that we have Nixon to thank /blame for the basic monetary system in place today, with his abandonment of the gold standard in 1971. Another important legacy of Nixon, which we can either thank him or blame him for, is the very diet we subsist on, here in the Twenty-First century.

According to Littlefield, Scarecrow represented the farmer of Baum's day. But if ever there was a time when the American presidency worked its "wizardry" for the American farmer, it was certainly under Richard Nixon. Even more important than bringing us wads of money that eventually turned out to be worth not much more than the paper it was printed on, Nixon offered us a solution to end world hunger. It was under Nixon where we saw a major shift in American agricultural policy, which, in turn, is largely responsible for the modern American diet. But like the Wizard's bag of tricks, Nixon's solution to world hunger wasn't the "pie in the sky" it appeared to be. See Is corn making us fat? Michael Pollan argues that U.S. farm policy promoting overproduction of corn has made America overweight--and made big food companies very happy.

See also: Seven Theories on what The Wizard of Oz is Really About by Bilge Ebiri

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