There Will Be Mixed Blood: TV On the Radio, Werewolves Like Us

, by Grégory Pierrot

Blood is a strong marker in American politics, and TV On the Radio tap into this vein in their lyrics and videos. Blood in TVOTR is systematically connected to notions of political engagement, community and love in reflections on the intersection of race, love, entertainment and politics. So are monsters, specifically of the lycanthropic kind.

But remember this... The werewolf instinctively seeks to kill the thing it loves best.
— The Werewolf of London, 1935.

I was a lover before this war

Blood is intrinsically related to notions of racial identity, especially in the USA, where even now Native Americans’ ethnic identity has to be proven through blood ratio. Inseparable from race is the idea of racial purity, and the fear of race-mixing. Race politics, of course, are also inseparable from American history. In that regard, it is telling that the term miscegenation, “the mixing of genes,” was invented by American journalists David Goodman Croly and George Wakeman for the eponymous 1863 hoax pamphlet meant to discredit the abolitionist movement and the Republican Party.

Allegedly taking on the position of abolitionists, Croly and Wakeman presented miscegenation as the way to make Americans “the finest race on Earth” by including African genes in the American genepool. They proceeded to send the pamphlet to a variety of anti-slavery politicians and prominent figures in order to get responses that might discredit them in public opinion as negrophiles. The document became a central issue of the 1864 elections and was used by the pro-slavery Northern Democrats—also known as "Copperheads"—against Lincoln and his radical Republican supporters. It also set the terms for the cultural expressions of post-Civil War racist phobias. The forced race-mixing covered by the slave system was alright; law-sanctioned race-mixing between consenting parties was terrible, horrific.

Miscegenation,” says Donna Haraway, is “the bloodsucking monster at the heart of racist and misogynistic terror." [1] Miscegenation has been embodied in popular cultures under the regime of terror; the threat of race-mixing took the form of literal monsters in popular culture throughout the West. Haraway thus introduces the figure of the vampire as a trope for politics of race and identity:

A figure that both promises and threatens racial and sexual mixing, the vampire feeds off the normalized human, and the monster finds such contaminated food to be nutritious. The vampire also insists on the nightmare of racial violence behind the fantasy of purity in the rituals of kinship… the vampires are the immigrants, the dislocated ones, accused of sucking the blood of the rightful possessors of the land and of raping the virgin who must embody the purity of race and culture. [2]

Vampires, of course, but also, and maybe more crucially, werewolves. The vampire is an aristocrat, the nobility of horror, “the marauding figure of unnaturally breeding capital," [3] a complex, problematic figure in whom racist fears of miscegenation meet a certain hostility to capitalism. Yet, as the poet Cecil Giscombe shows in “Natural Abilities and Natural Writing,” [4] many of the classic horror movie characters serve a function similar to that of the vampire when one reads through their racial implications. Both vampire and werewolf have in common the dark gift, a curse communicated through blood, the one-drop rule of horror: mixing blood with either of them makes you one of them, it taints your blood forever. Although werewolves are present in European and Caribbean folklore, they have a special presence in the US as movie creatures. As such they are thinly veiled racial allegories: movie werewolves do not turn into wolves so much as they turn into caricatural and horrific black men. As Giscombe notes, discussing the 1941 classic film The Wolf Man, “the main character… looked like a normal-enough white guy but oh what he turned into by night: his hair would kink up and his skin would darken and that big Chaney nose would flatten right out... Real wolves don’t look a thing like what Larry Talbot turned into: their fur is very straight, their snouts are aquiline…” Giscombe asserts that being black in America is to acknowledge the racial mix of your ancestry, while being white is to deny it. The werewolf is terrifying for what it implies: blackness could happen to you too. Worse yet: you might be black and not even know it. This knowledge is terrifying for defenders of purity; but self-aware werewolves have an altogether different agenda.

A Curse I cannot lift

The video for TV On the Radio’s song “Wolf Like Me” refers visually to silent horror movies, complete with intertitles and stop-motion scenes of transformation. The main character seeks to find a young woman he’s met the night before. He follows her and her group of friends to Club Lupus, a non-descript rock venue, where TVOTR is apparently giving a concert. He meets her and starts dancing with her, before meeting her gigantic (boy)friend. Boyfriend knocks out hero, young woman walks over to hero and in the process of comforting him as the moonlight bursts through dark clouds, starts transforming into a wolf and bites him. Multiple transformations occur, and the werewolves go after the dancers in Club Lupus. Soon enough, a pack of white wolves can be seen running down ill-lit streets in syncopated moves. Later on as the day breaks, a pack of naked people can be seen tramping through the woods. Our hero is found against a tree, holding his love interest in his arms, under the merry watchful eye of her former boyfriend.

Sure, this is about sex, and if the video is to be trusted, possibly group sex. Pack sex, possibly: these are wolves we’re talking about. But then sex also is political, and the video provides clues that can help us further unpack the meaning of the lyrics. Who could be a “wolf like me”? The audience and target for our pack of werewolves is seemingly whoever might make up the band’s audience, whoever might be caught dancing at their concerts. TVOTR’s werewolves are aware of their existence beyond traditional racial, ethnic and political divisions. Aware of the implications of race, aware of their appearance as racial creatures, they also know that as mixed bloods, they exist “between camps,” to borrow the expression from Paul Gilroy.

Say say my playmate

won’t you lay hands on me

mirror my malady

transfer my tragedy

starts the song, and if it evokes the thaumaturgy of bodily contact, it also sounds like a riff on the tragic mulatto, the quaint literary treatment of mixed blood as cause for suicide. But the werewolf’s curse, inscribed on his skin (it shines when the sunset shifts), is not that much of a problem for him. “My mind has changed my body’s frame, and God I like it,” he says, before encouraging his playmate to come share his fate.

Race as threat is always eminently sexualized: “I’ll teach you tricks that’ll blow your mongrel mind,” he insists, and makes clear what this dark gift is all about. Let’s miscegenate, shall we? The passing of the dark gift is compared in no confusing terms to a political action against Ku Klux Kan types: in having sex the werewolf and his playmate have “burned down their hanging trees,” and the song ends on a somewhat ironic note:

now that we got gone for good

writhing under your riding hood

tell your gra’ma and your mama too

it’s true.

Little Red Riding Hood has found out the “truth” about the big bad black wolf, that truth her grandma and mama had shivers about. Would you let your daughter marry a black man? TVOTR is playing in mined territory here, treading the old line between the black man and the rapist. This black man is literally a beast in the sack. He suffers from an uncommon condition, a curse that can only be slaked by "busting box," or "gutting fish," expressions as unrelated to werewolves as they crudely evoke genitalia. His mind is aflame, alright. When that need hits, it turns him into a wolf, everybody ends on all fours. Yet the predatory aspect toyed with throughout the song is also defused at the very beginning of the song: our werewolf is talking to a consenting playmate, not a victim. This is a game for he and his love interest, in which they play parts from an old tale told by their parents and grandparents, in which they put very little stock. This is an old tale of constantly renewed currency: Frantz Fanon explains that in Western culture "the black man symbolizes the biological...the black man is genital... the black man is the symbol of evil and ugliness," [5]. The werewolf is almost always a man [6], and as such echoes the old type of the predatory black man. Guess who’s coming to dinner? The Big Bad Black Wolf.

And then what? Babies, is what. Offspring. The Big Bad Wolf will force miscegenation on your daughters, bring a new generation under his curse. The problem with sex is that it is productive. It creates mixed blood monsters, and they are a political threat, if only because their very existence packs the potential to neutralize expressions of what Gilroy calls “camp mentality.” The tragedy of the mulatto/werewolf, portrayed again and again in horror movies, is that he cannot choose a side, he cannot participate in a fight in terms her/his existence proves to be skewed. He is both the animal-like predator and the self-aware human. In classic tragic mulatto fashion, he dies of not being able to be classified. But there is no tragedy in TVOTR’s lycanthropy. Calling on all werewolves in their audience, TVOTR also suggest that there are tangible political fights to be fought out there, once you have realized that we’re in this together.

TVOTR leaves it wide open, this self-aware lycanthropy, inclusive by default and vigorously undefined. As the song suggests and the video makes clear, this party is no sausage fest. All can be werewolves; all that is needed is one big bleeding heart, worn on the sleeve if possible. The image is double, of course; mixing blood is messy business. And rather obviously but importantly, it starts at a most organic level. It starts with anger of the heart, and with community of feeling, at a subpolitical level. The politics, maybe, might come afterwards, the way the wolves come after the music itself has started to bite the audience in the butt. The dark gift sneaks up on you, it is, after all, a malady, a political virus. And as such, it spreads.

The idea that audience makes for at least half of the meaning of any cultural production is of course not new, but it takes singular importance when we are dealing with a rock group, which through their records address a collection of individuals, but in their constant touring mean to address crowds. TVOTR show a deep awareness of their relation to crowds, mass culture, on that comes through in their lyrics. In the lyrics of “The Wrong Way,” author Kyp Malone [7] mulls over the effects of the treatment of race and war through entertainment in times of mass media coverage. Waking up in a “magic nigger movie,” bright lights shining on him, he wonders whether he will play the role expected of him as an African-American entertainer, “show off my soft shoe/Maybe teach ’em a boogaloo/Busy playing the whore,” or instead “stand up and testify/fist up signify,” a clear visual and linguistic reference to times of Black American activism in 1960s USA. These figures have been replaced by entertainers “hungry for those diamonds served on little severed brown hands,” apostles of bling paying no mind to the origin of their jewelry (so, not Lupe Fiasco nor Kanye West, arguably). But his is no attempt at becoming the “new negro politician,” just another individual clown figure in the media circus he denounces here. “No,” says Malone,

there’s nothing inside me

But an angry heart beat

Can you feel this heartbeat?

The song ends in a roundabout call to arms:

Hey, desperate youth!

Oh, blood thirsty babes!

Oh your guns are pointed

Your guns are pointed the wrong way.

Starting with a personal, individual assessment of his position on the entertainment scene, Malone dissolves himself in his audience. While he refuses to play the part of the mindless black entertainer, he does not so much have a political program as a call to a vaguely defined community, one made up of “desperate youth” and “bloodthirsty babes,” the very targets of the propaganda machine, but also his potential audience. Malone’s anger is defined in strictly organic terms: he asks the audience not so much to identify with a clear political message but to “feel his angry heartbeat,” suggesting a community of organic reaction and resistance to the status quo. This organic community of “bloodthirsty babes,” is, arguably, one that knows in its veins the importance and implications of blood in American surroundings, and has embraced the lifestyle of the werewolf. Asked about the type of effect he was hoping to have on a 16 year-old kid present at a Concert for Darfur, Tunde Adebimpe asserted that the most he could do as an artist was to pass on information, and “what you do from there is absolutely your own choice” (Glide). What do wolfmen do when they leave the concert grounds?

Did you believe the lie they told you?

Back in the pre-Obama days, TVOTR suggested a solution in “Dry Drunk Emperor,” the most directly political song written by TVOTR. Its last verses of the song go:

What if all the bleeding hearts

took it on themselves

to make a brand new start.

organs pumping on their sleeves,

paint murals on the white house

feed the leaders L.S.D

grab your fife and drum,

grab your gold baton

and let’s meet on the lawn,

shut down this hypocrisy.

Similarly, intertwined in activist rhetoric, the “bleeding hearts” comment is a clear reference to the cliché conservative phrase about “bleeding heart liberals;” yet it ties a political practice right back to earlier themes of lycanthropy. Once you’ve opened your heart and let it bleed onto your playmate’s, as in “Wolf like Me,” maybe you will turn and see if the dark gift can have an effect on the country at large: in the single’s release communiqué, TVOTR says “we made this song for all our everybody... in the absence of a true leader we must not forget that we are still together.... hearts are sick ... minds must change ... it is our hope that this song inspires, comforts, fosters courage, and reminds us... this darkness cannot last if we work together” (TVOTR). The references to 1960s war protest, the march on the Pentagon, are not innocent, of course. They evoke a time when rock crowds and politically-minded crowds might seem one and the same. Lycanthropy was in the air, and it seemed capable of “washing the day away,” to borrow yet another great title from TVOTR.

That was then. When Nine Types of Light, TVOTR’s latest album came out in April 2011, and something in its lack of overt political commentary smacks of the numbing effect of Obama’s accession to the White House. Along with the album was released a film in which videos for each of the album’s tracks are interspersed with interviews of anonymous New Yorkers of all ages discussing dreams, love, fame, the future of the world. To the extent that one can read meaning in absence, Nine Types of Light evokes disappointment and fatigue in political matters. As always, hearts and blood are tell-tale signs, and in Nine Types of Light they are strictly private, a protection now against the outside:

I’m gonna keep your heart

I’m gonna keep your heart.

With the world all falling apart,

I’m gonna keep your heart.

Keep You Heart, of course is a love song, not overtly political, but its video again tells a different story. The video for Keep your Heart may be the most readily readable: love and politics are immediately intertwined here, in the initial scene that suggests something of the relation between the woman and the men sitting in front. As politics go this is a claustrophobic take on it, a love triangle with no connection to the outside. Encouraged by her lover in the passenger seat, he woman goes out to plant what appears to be a bomb. Her apparent act of sabotage we’ll never know more about, and for all accounts and purposes it dissolves in what appears to be an act of violence brought about by jealousy: in the woman’s absence, the driver picks up a stone and bashes in her lover’s head. If werewolves and other alternatives are a menace to good society, society has always been good at quashing that menace. The possibly star-crossed driver is shown laughing with his police buddies, casting shades of Bob Lambert, the English cop who, as part of his undercover surveillance of groups such as the Animal Liberation Front of other subversives, figured he might as well have a relationship, and why not, children, with one of the people he was spying on. None of this happens here, of course. Very little, in fact, happens as you might expect. If the bomb ever explodes, we do not see: instead it seems that once killed the lover was blown to golden bits, which the woman spends half the video reconstituting. There were three, then there was one, now there are two again, and if a couple does not quite make a community, at least it’s a personal achievement, the result of salvaging this body and heart.

Calls to collective action seem very remote, here. As Adebimpe blurts out on the dance number (complete with silly dance video) "No Future Shock," it seems like "after the war broke your piggy bank/ the bastards broke the world this time;" all that’s left is to "dance! Don’t stop, do the no future shock." Doubt and disillusion, certainly, leaving us right where we started, with the music.

Oh drop and bounce

And shake it, shake it like it is the end of time

Oh see that you get down in the town

In the country, in the city, in the middle of the village

Don’t get left behind

Which brings us back to this anecdote by Cecil Giscombe: at his first ever music festival in the early 1970s, Giscombe met a singular character: “I met a cute little hippie at breakfast the morning of the 2nd day, someone who’d come in a van, who said he pal’d around with a black guy his age who was over there still asleep right now. ’He got a goat and I got a goat too,’ he said, pulling at his wispy chin. ’Late at night ‘round the fire we both wolfmen.’”

This is where it all began, this is where it begins again, possibly. In the interviews of Nine Types of Light there is an odd and fragmented sense of community in those passages, a community of individual yearnings that may or may not cross, from people who may or may not know each other. Lycanthropy is a dark gift and a dance, better practiced and spread at communal events. It is a potential, an angry heart, a howl that goes on forever, and it’s up to you whether you decide to stay by the fire, or take it out to light up the darkness.


[1Donna Haraway, Modest−Witness@Second−Millennium.FemaleMan−Meets−OncoMouse: Feminism and Technoscience, Routledge, 1997, 258.

[2Haraway, 214-5.

[3Haraway, 215

[4InChain #7, p.68.

[5Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, Grove Press 2008, 144; 157.

[6Julie Deply’s turn in An American Werewolf in Paris is the only exception that comes to my mind, but there may be others.

[7Malone wrote the lyrics, but the song is sung by Tunde Adebimpe.