With "Buzzer," upstate New York songwriter Dar Williams takes one of the most famous psychology experiments of the last half-century and turns it on its head, pulling away its oversimplified conclusions and exploring the people behind it. In the '60s, Yale psychology professor Dr. Stanley Milgram tested people's obedience to authority by asking them to administer ever increasing (actually fake) shocks to a volunteer (actually an actor who's in on the experiment), who shrieks in pain and begs for the experiment to end. In the trials, which were likened to the situation of those who carried out the genocide of the Jews in Nazi Germany, more than 80 percent of the participants administered the top level of shock at the bequest of the experiment's overseer, despite the pleas of the victims.
Williams imagines a working mother scraping by who participated in the experiment to put food on the table. Despite the anguish, she tries to "play it just like a game" as she hits the buzzer. When the woman is called back to be debriefed, she dresses up only to find herself upbraided "like I failed a quiz/ the man said do you know what a fascist is?"
A subtle jab at the folks who brought us the atomic bomb, the character concludes, "I'm the face, I'm the cause of war/ You don't have to blame white-coated men anymore."
A bustling folk-rock jangle churns beneath Williams' pretty croon, driving the song forward into each verse, situated in the song's anxious churn like a reflective moment in a reality TV show's confessional. It's a catchy track beyond the lyrical poignancy, as the racing choral pulse mimes an undertow of tension beneath the layered vocal tracks. "I pressed the buzzer," Williams repeats over a chorus of "ahs" swathed in swirling washes of keyboard, like a haunted elegy to human nature.
We caught up with Williams the morning after a show in Charlottesville, Va.
INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: What are your feelings about the Milgram experiment?
DAR WILLIAMS: When I read about it in college, to me it was about obedience and how obedient we are or are not. More recently, I started to look at the experiment itself, and I started to look at a person who lives in New Haven going into those big gates—a person that's feeding a family, who is trying to stay off welfare, who wants to be a good citizen, and is told if she doesn't send an electric shock into a so-called student, who is actually an actor, that they will ruin the test. And it hit me differently.
First of all, I've a lot of friends who have done what they realize is the wrong thing, and I'm much more interested in what they do with the information than in never messing up to begin with. Everyone messes up. So it's really how do you either find redemption or move forward? That became more interesting, and also, frankly, the hubris of the institution—this person who might not have a college education that feels intimidated by the institution and who is used as a lab rat basically by the institution. People are paid to do tests at universities all the time. I suddenly didn't see it as a bunch of people that were obedient. I saw it as citizens who are making a lot of difficult choices all the time. And I had more empathy for the people who were administering these so-called electric shocks.
The other thing that was interesting that I really loved is that to a person, from what I read, their lives were changed by it. Nobody said thanks for making a fool out of me. Everybody said, "I'm very glad to know this about myself and the world." And they changed their lives. I think in college one tends to see those people as ignorant and see the situation as sort of a Lord of the Flies thing. The fact that everybody was really changed by it and all of us had to wonder that about ourselves is a good antidote to our fears of being in a big Lord of the Flies situation. That outcome was more interesting to me in later years, too. [Laughs.] It wasn't just "What a bunch of idiots."
It wasn't so long ago that the Nuremburg trials happened, and there's really a question of the nature of power in our society, and how it's wielded. What are your thoughts on that and the nature of government waving the carrot in front of the horse?
It's actually more a question about Yale to me. It was not lost on me that Yale has the Skull & Bones Society. Many presidential candidates or presidents themselves have belonged to this secret society. It's not lost on me that an institution that has a very power-wielding society called Skull & Bones was testing the citizens of New Haven for their fascism. And I think that some of that subtlety is lost on you when you're in college and you say, "Oh my god, these people, for all they knew, were administering electric shocks until this person fainted. Even though the person begged them to stop. Even though the person, apparently as part of the experiment, would say, 'I have a little heart problem. Do you think that's going to interfere with this experiment?'"
That Yale University is testing New Haven for its humanity, it's a double-edged sword. Both of my sisters [who went to Yale] do a lot of good things in the world and they had excellent, very humane and enlightened professors who opened their eyes wider to making the world a more just place. So there are plenty of ways to get that Yale education, but these institutions don't pay taxes, and New Haven is notorious for being one of the cities that has not necessarily improved because of its relationship with Yale. Cambridge is pretty happening and North Hampton and a lot of these very bucolic college campuses have bucolic towns or idyllic little cities and Yale doesn't. I was really relieved because I think a person saying "People can be such fascists. At least I'm not one of them" is a young perspective.
I really love the line "We don't have to blame white-coated men anymore," and its subtle inference to the atom bomb. There certainly is that kind of ivory tower elitism.
It exists as much as it wants to exist at a certain level. I don't mind an ivory tower that feels guilty and comes down and tries to improve water quality with its education. I don't mind ivory towers with people who isolate themselves and create a language for what is in the world and who talk about why we do things and not just what we do. I'm OK with that idea. There are a lot of studies, coincidentally, that show the way there's accumulative power that's very self-protecting coming out of private schools into private universities. A friend of mine wrote a thesis where she was pointing to language, where in public school you call something a field and in private school you call it a green. And in public school you call it a principal and in private school you call it a headmaster. And there's all these sort of subtle separations from the start. That sort of intensifies, and then you're getting into different camps of language. The fear is that you get very protective of your camp.
And this is the camp that gets the money, the opportunities, the orthodontics, the health care. Suddenly it's like an ivory iceberg floating away from everything else, and that was on my mind when I wrote the song. That's on my mind when I go to New Haven, and I've thought, "Why hasn't this city gotten safer? Why hasn't it gotten better?" In a lot of ways it has. There's many signs of that. But once I thought, "Maybe because they don't care. Maybe it's because they came to this college to become rich and powerful, not to make the world a better place."
It seems as a Gen X'er like yourself that there was this kind of promise with all these communication-enabling technologies: We're evolving, and we're going to make this a better place. Certainly that was the Baby Boomer rhetoric, and yet that seems rather unfulfilled, especially during a period featuring greater income inequality than any time since The Great Depression. What are your thoughts on the difference between the rhetoric and the reality?
I'm a musician performing music that's off the beaten track. The people who support that music are off the beaten track as well, or support alternative paths within their own towns and cities. So I don't see that. I see the fruits of labors. I see people who put a lot of time and effort into their community gardens, their libraries, their health programs for kids and art outreach programs for the community. I see where people made a commitment to something and dug in—and dug in over a 30-40 year period. And there are institutions that flourished because of the efforts of small groups. So I luckily get to see the opposite.
And I think it's actually too much power got into the hands of too few people. There was a town that I lived near in upstate New York, and people were so proud of their relationship to the school. They were so proud of their public schools, and they used to jeer at the town next door. But people with summer homes had gotten themselves elected to the school board so they could vote down all sorts of improvements to the schools so they wouldn't have higher taxes. And so you have people who want to protect their wealth affecting the education of thousands of people.
You sound hopeful. Maybe you could speak to the new album's title, Promised Land.
I can. The promised land, if someone tells you it's promised to you and you just claim it, then all you're going to do is fight wars to protect it. But if you actually come to a place gratefully and put in the work and make sure you have neighbors, suddenly you wake up and say, "I didn't know it could be this good." And that's what I have in my town. We're pretty dug in. At first I was traveling—well, I still travel so much—but it's like, "I love this town, let me do a fundraiser." But when you have a kid it gets much more nitty-gritty than that. Four people we know have chickens. Some people are doing the maple syrup. We have a great garden. When we go away, we have people staying at our house, and we try to keep the door open metaphorically. We try to do right by everybody. And in this recession if someone needs a job, we try to help. My husband's found sort of odd jobs for people to do, and in turn we find little straw-covered chicken egg cartons on our porch. And my son will wander down and play with kids. I don't need a baby sitter. You don't feel like it's yours, but you work to make it feel like a better place and suddenly it is—heaven on earth.
So you've discovered the community that we all in some sense seek?
Yeah, and somebody actually pointed that out. He comes from Queens and he said, "We put the time into our neighborhood and suddenly we had community." Community is something a lot of people talk about, but it's an awkward thing because socially it's an awkward thing to out of the blue say to a stranger, "I want to be in community with you." But, lo and behold, one giant leap and a bathroom later where you have to seek refuge in your friend's house for a night, and one small crisis later you've got neighbors, and you make sure that you're open to that. And the food thing: One neighbor is starting a delivered bread company and another called to ask us if we wanted milk delivered, so it's becoming very post-industrial. [Laughs.]
Here in Charlottesville a lot of things like that are happening as well. It's interesting oftentimes where I see a lot of good things going on with art, I see a lot of good things going on with food and a lot of good things going on with music. And I see a lot of towns like that, whether it's towns on the outskirts of Baltimore or ... I see it all over the Triangle cities. You might not know this, but there's a beautiful little festival called Festival for the Eno, which is a small river in the middle of the Triangle, and it's just awesome. It leans toward sustainability stuff, local artisans and great music. The Weaver Street Co-op in Carrboro is one of the best co-ops in the country. Everywhere I go, I can point to examples.
It seems there's a changing sense of self and musical purpose. You started out sort of as a folkie for want of a better label, but it seems that you've evolved, and I wondered what you saw yourself as musically and how you perceived where you're going?
Well, someone pointed out that folk music is defined by its audience. It's the way people listen to music more than the music that they listen to. Almost everything from Pete Seeger to Ani DiFranco to even Michael Franti has been labeled singer/ songwriter. But people listen to music in a certain way, with a goal towards being uplifted, toward some sort of enlightenment. They go for the poetry of the music or the words. They go for an experience. Someone pointed that out to me and I thought, "Oh, that's true. The music itself is really eclectic." So I have a lot to thank the folk audiences for: the people who brought me to their venues once upon a time, and still in a lot of places volunteer in real labors of love; festivals that have a lot of tables and booths that had to do with social justice and sustainable energy; things like that. They were using music as a way to strengthen their communities.
That's mostly in the folk tradition and that is—all of that collective effort—it seems very almost quaint, and certainly small, but it's added up to radio formats—the Americana radio format and even this non-com AAA format. I'll never turn my back on that world of lawyers who used to work at bars and know how to work a soundsystem. There's a lot more of that in a lot more towns these days. For some reason, it's really growing these days. I'll attribute that to the folk tradition. And then what I also love about the folk tradition is that there is generally truly no irony. It's open-minded listeners. And they like to rock. A lot of people who like lyrics like Bruce Springsteen, they don't begrudge him his arrangements. So luckily I can just point to my audience—and, I shouldn't say that they're really a folk audience—but I can point to a tradition of presenting music, and I can say that's what it is. Then I'm off the hook and can do whatever I want. People really respect that. So long as they know it's on my terms and it's my choice, they're very supportive. They know to ask me not to do what I want to do makes them slightly fascist.
Now that you've brought fascism back into the conversation, I feel more empowered to ask if you feel we've lost sight of things when people are conflating Obama's policies with socialism and fascism with little regard for the difference between the two.
I really feel like we have to stick by a very brave language. Democracy and capitalism are not synonymous. We keep saying capitalism is what makes democracy work, but it's democracy—which means deciding which elements of capitalism are truly for the people and truly are essential. Again, I feel like it's a really small number of fearmongers who, in the dark of night, turned the equation around and said, "If it's good for capitalism, it's good for democracy." Actually, I believe if something is good for democracy, it's good for capitalism. Capitalism, not what my friend calls "cannibalism."
We have to be very stringent for the sake of ourselves and the sake of our neighbors who are afraid—older folks who are told that they're going to die without dignity and lower-income people who are told they're going to have even less. I understand exactly what's being stoked. It's actually up to us to really get out there, be neighborly and clear, and help alleviate the fear and stand by democracy, at the prow of the ship. I'm very optimistic about it.
Dar Williams plays The ArtsCenter in Carrboro with Stephen Kellogg Friday, Aug. 14, at 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $25.