Song of the Day #4,376: ‘We Do What We’re Told (Milgram’s 37)’ – Peter Gabriel

I love when the Random iTunes Fairy dials up a song I’m sure I must have featured on the blog before, a song I truly love, and it turns out I’ve never written about it.

‘We Do What We’re Told (Milgram’s 37)’ is the sixth song I’ve featured from Peter Gabriel’s excellent 1986 album, So, an album that has only nine songs in total. It’s a largely instrumental cut but for some background chanting of the title phrase and a brief outro by Gabriel.

The song’s title is a reference to the famous 1961 experiment by psychologist Stanley Milgram, in which he directed participants to deliver ever-stronger electric shocks to a man in an adjacent room. More than half his subjects delivered the most severe voltage, even as the man next door (an accomplice who was not really being shocked) screamed in pain and eventually fell silent.

Milgram wanted to explore the psychology that led Nazi guards to carry out heinous actions simply because they were “following orders.” While his experiment demonstrated that a disturbing percentage of people could be pushed to extreme limits by an authority figure, other experts argued that the Nazi connection wasn’t valid because the underlying conditions were so different.

This song was used in the 1988 film The Chocolate War, adapted from the popular young adult novel of the same name. I remember really loving that film as a teenager, and I can still picture the pivotal scene in which this song plays.

The Chocolate War was written and directed by Keith Gordon, who I just learned is also the writer/director of the wonderful 1992 anti-war film A Midnight Clear. Gordon went on to direct episodes of some of my favorite TV shows, including Fargo, The Leftovers, and Better Call Saul.

We do what we’re told
We do what we’re told
We do what we’re told
Told to do

We do what we’re told
We do what we’re told
We do what we’re told
Told to do

One doubt
One voice
One war
One truth
One dream

2 thoughts on “Song of the Day #4,376: ‘We Do What We’re Told (Milgram’s 37)’ – Peter Gabriel

  1. Dana Gallup says:

    From time to time, we watch the TV show Classic Albums whenever it features a favorite artist. The show basically goes through the making of the album, with interviews of the artist, producers, engineers and musicians. Usually, the artist and producer or engineer are sitting in front of a mixing board where they play with the levels on various tracks to highlight something about the song like the drums, bass, vocals, etc. We recently watched the episode featuring So and it was really compelling.

    If you haven’t watched this show, you really should check it out. I just set them to tape, then delete those of less interest. We recently also watched the one for Tom Petty’s Damn the Torpedoes and Paul Simon’s Graceland. Great stuff!

  2. Amy says:

    I remember being astonished after watching A Midnight Clear for the first time and learning how young the director was. I taught this film during a War Unit in my AP English class for several years. Though I only saw Chocolate War once (and, sadly, don’t remember the scene with this song), I always appreciated that Gordon cast John McGinley in what struck me as very similar roles in the two films.
    I should probably revisit Chocolate War given my high regard for A Midnight Clear.
    Meanwhile, you should consider another theme week with dramatic films made all the more compelling by music.

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