The big problem with truth-telling is one addressed by Machiavelli— that truth-telling effaces civility. The lyrics narrate, “Things could be so different now/ It used to be so civilized/ You will always wonder how/ It could’ve been if you’d only lied.” All this is a “consequence”; but grey areas open up around the opposite equation— isn’t some kind of integrity lost if lies are told? Machiavelli was, of course, in “The Prince,” writing about politics, not (necessarily) personal relationships; this narrative does not hint at political realities. The title of the song, however, does; and the fact that individuals adopt policies in personal relationships becomes significant. In politics, individuals cannot become too close— too many interests are being represented, too many decisions being negotiated. But the situation at hand in the song seems, clearly, like a relationship situation. What’s curious is that the tone Gore adopts is both more formalized and more sententious (and thus, stereotypically political) than most rock lyrics— “It’s too late to change events/ It’s time to face the consequence/ For delivering the proof/ In the policy of truth.” “Proof” has not only political but legal connotations; Gore goes all out to demonstrate the levels of distance in human relationships that necessitate lies and/or half-truths. Gore’s narrator seems to suggest that individuals should conduct themselves like states— that relationships should be dictated by policies, and that punishments are meted whenever intimacy is attempted. That’s what the issue is in most relationships— intimacy. Truths, even painful ones, create intimacy; lies create distances. That this narrator condones lies over truths, and, in fact, seems to find truth a subversive force, makes it clear that his reliability, to a mature sensibility, is hazy. Except that all these equations are hazy ones— as the narrator sings in the third verse, “Hide what you have to hide/ And tell what you have to tell.” In other words, it isn’t that you can’t tell any truth; you must be judicious enough to mix a certain amount of truthfulness (thus creating a certain amount of intimacy) with some distortion so that some semblance of civility can be maintained. Not only that: mixing intimate truths with distortions will get you what you want out of relationships. If people are states, then like states they must compromise. Negotiations can’t be slanted too much towards lies or truthfulness; everything depends on a delicate balance, and an absolute policy one way or the other (i.e. a “policy of truth”) will get you killed every time.
That’s the hardest equation to be derived from “Policy of Truth”— that, in human relationship terms, there is no policy that can keep you safe from getting killed. This is true of states and of people— no one and nothing, no human or human construct, is or can be invulnerable. This song begins darkly, and stays dark. One of its ironies is that it is danceable, and remains a staple in many clubs. Either people don’t realize what they are dancing to, or they are willfully avoiding the import of these lyrics. The song, to be fair, is perky and upbeat for Depeche Mode; it grants its listeners the option of enjoying it just for its surface. But what actually happens in clubs? People gather to celebrate, socialize, and, as the saying goes, hook up. So the meta-irony is that people wind up living out these lyrics even as they ignore them. Club-kids often self-create from nothing; they invent personas based on clothes, tastes, postures, and social attitudes. Depeche Mode are often associated with what is known as a “Goth” sensibility. Goth subculture has to do with choosing the dark, bleak, and desolate; but, however bleak your posture and tastes may be, human craving for affection and acceptance remains. Questions of when to dissemble and when to relate honestly wouldn’t have the urgency they do in this piece if underneath there weren’t a sense of neediness, hunger. The other salient point that hasn’t been mentioned is the games people play, not with others but within their own consciousness. The repeated bridge makes this clear— “never again/ is what you swore/ the time before.” This heightens the realization for us, as audience, that there is, in fact, a situation at hand that is life or death. What the bridge alerts us to is how fast these situations can happen and how drastic they are. When something drastic happens rapidly, it becomes impossible to pull calculated moves; more often than not, you are forced to improvise. While you balance on the knife-edge, the moves you make are conditioned by both past and present conditions. But in-the-moment life situations have a drama built into them because humans can’t always control the moves they make, especially when something crucial is at stake. The music, which has waves of dread and unease beneath a fresh, upbeat surface, percolates in such a way that, by the time we hit the third verse, we feel the knife-edge of tension that the protagonist is experiencing.
The genius of the way in which Martin Gore constructed these lyrics is that they pull us into something without letting us go, while leaving the situation open-ended enough so that it is widely applicable; something everyone has been through. We leave the song not knowing what moves have been pulled or if the situation has been resolved. All-in-all, the song has the quality that all great rock songs (which, by the way, where Depeche Mode is concerned, might be something of a misnomer; they are not strictly “rock”) have; it changes slightly every time you hear it. You can fit yourself into it in any number of ways, contingent on where you happen to be in your life and how much truth consonance you think you have. What is so vital about “Policy of Truth” is that everyone has some kind of truth policy, but almost no one is honest about admitting what theirs’ happens to be. How many people would dare say anything other than that “I think I’m an honest person”? But truth policies change as contexts shift, and different people have varying levels of understanding of what truth is and what its’ value is. This song lays out a simple human issue in complex terms, and in such a way that it has been heard (and danced to) by millions. For this reason, Gore has created something useful on more than one level; though it remains unknown how many of us are actually able to think as we dance.
Adam Fieled, 2011