Fallout 3, the most critically acclaimed video game of 2008, continues the series tradition of incorporating big band music from the 40s and 50s. However, while the first two games only used these classics for one-offs (Fallout 2’s instructional video being a classic example), Fallout 3 is the first game to incorporate them into the soundtrack.
In the game, one of your earliest missions is to repair a jury-rigged radio antenna atop the Washington Monument. Doing so allows Three Dog – a jive-talking DJ, part Wolfman Jack and part Super Soul – to broadcast his pirate radio station, Galaxy News Radio, to all corners of the Capital Wasteland. Three Dog announces helpful tips (“make sure to keep your weapons repaired,” etc). He also keeps everyone within one hundred miles informed of your progress – praising you if you do good, slamming you if you do evil.
But mostly, he plays music.
Every song Three Dog plays comes from the big band boom of the 40s and 50s. Upbeat music about city life, swooning torch songs, and toe-tapping jazz numbers. You’ll hear classics like Roy Brown, Cole Porter and Billie Holliday, as well as long-dormant artists like the Ink Spots (whom you just heard in the trailer above).
Pleasant, yes? An entertaining diversion? Well …
Consider the soundtrack in context.
All of the music comes from American artists in the 1940s and 50s. America had just won the second World War. While Europe reeled with debt and death – several generations lost in the last two wars, architecture and infrastructure bombed to flinders – America at least had the appearance of health. The war effort had propelled American technology forward, giving the world the digital computer and the atomic bomb. The postwar housing boom and the Interstate Highway Act put two conflicting goals – the security of land and the freedom of the open road – within reach of every American.
The theme was Optimism, and the music of the time reflects that.
Look at the lyrics of the Andrews Sisters’ hit “Civilization” (featuring Danny Kaye):
They hurry like savages to get aboard an iron train
And though it’s smokey and it’s crowded, they’re too civilized to complain
When they’ve got two weeks vacation, they hurry to vacation ground
They swim and they fish, but that’s what I do all year round
So bongo, bongo, bongo, I don’t wanna leave the Congo, oh no no no no no
Bingo, bangle, bungle, I’m so happy in the jungle, I refuse to go
Don’t want no jailhouse, shotgun, fish-hooks, golf clubs, I got my spear
So, no matter how they coax him, I’ll stay right here
It sounds like a paean against civilization, but it speaks with a smart-aleck, satisfied tone. It spends all of its verses listing the immense wealth of the First World – mass transit, movie theaters, ranch houses – but little depicting what makes the Congo so preferable (“I got my spear”). People who are genuinely unsatisfied with civilization don’t write big band music. They write punk.
For a less ironic take, consider the dopey sentiment of the lyrics of Bob Crosby’s “Way Back Home”:
Bob doesn’t even bother coming up with clever rhymes – “the trees are the sappiest; the days are the nappiest” – or developing much of a narrative beyond them. The meaning is clear: the benefits of home are obvious enough that I don’t need to spell them out. I can make up silly nonsense rhymes about it, because we’re all on board.
So this is the soundtrack. What is its intended effect?