The pop mu­sic guide to the end of the world

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY CHRIS RICHARDS

When we were still in­no­cent babes, pop songs pre­pared us for the things that couldn’t be pre­pared for. Sex. Heart­break. Nu­clear an­ni­hi­la­tion.

Prince’s “1999” urged us to get ready for two out of three. He was our coolest Cold War child, sen­si­tive and street­wise enough to con­vince the masses that danc­ing in the nu­clear twi­light might even be fun. Now, as our new pres­i­dent blurts forth his vi­sion for an in­creas­ingly weaponized planet, “1999” sounds dis­con­cert­ingly fresh. We’re a lit­tle bit closer to “over-oops-out-of­time.” Those old songs sud­denly have new work to do.

Pop’s nu­clear song­book is sur­ment pris­ingly thick, but its ten­sile strength has al­ways been tested by the weight of our fears — fears that can feel dumb and ir­ra­tional un­til smart, ra­tional peo­ple start feel­ing them, too. So here’s Philip Roth in the New Yorker back in Jan­uary: “What is most ter­ri­fy­ing is that [Pres­i­dent Trump] makes any and ev­ery­thing pos­si­ble, in­clud­ing, of course, the nu­clear catas­tro­phe.”

Roth’s 2004 novel “The Plot Against Amer­ica” isn’t about a farewell flash, but it does imag­ine a dystopia as chill­ing as those ren­dered in Ge­orge Or­well’s “1984” and Al­dous Hux­ley’s “Brave New World” — books for which sales have spiked since Trump’s elec­tion. Read­ers crave wis­dom in sense­less times.

But we lis­ten to nu­clear pop for

dif­fer­ent rea­sons. We bor­row Joe Strum­mer’s ma­cho courage when we sing along with the Clash’s “London Call­ing” (“A nu­clear era, but I have no fear”). We pout with Mor­ris­sey when he begs for the bomb dur­ing “Ev­ery­day Is Like Sun­day” (“Come, Ar­maged­don, come”). And when R.E.M. tells us that “It’s The End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine),” we feel pretty fine, too.

That’s be­cause through­out the great­est hits of the apoc­a­lypse, the end rarely seems all that nigh — not even dur­ing “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall,” a bal­lad that Bob Dy­lan first per­formed a month be­fore Kennedy an­nounced the ex­is­tence of Soviet nukes in Cuba. Obliv­ion had never felt closer, but the dan­gers fore­told in Dy­lan’s prophecy sounded far away — the stuff of “seven sad forests” and “a dozen dead oceans.” Then again, that was 1962. Maybe they’re closer now.

In the ’80s, mush­room clouds be­gan to sprout on MTV with numb­ing reg­u­lar­ity, as if the net­work’s en­tire pur­pose was to toughen up the chil­dren of the Rea­gan era through a fit of atomic hic­cups. You could spot the death-bloom in videos for David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” and Ge­n­e­sis’s “Land of Con­fu­sion,” and Cul­ture Club’s “The War Song” and Time Zone’s “World Destruc­tion,” and Don­ald Fa­gen’s “New Fron­tier” and Fish­bone’s “Party at Ground Zero” — a song that cheek­ily dis­missed these tor­rents of dread as “a Bmovie star­ring you.”

One way to stop fear­ing the bomb was to laugh it away. If not that, fan­ta­size about your in­vin­ci­bil­ity. Nena’s cau­tion­ary “99 Luft­bal­lons” was sung from the per- spec­tive of a sur­vivor, and the em­bry­onic nar­ra­tor of Kate Bush’s “Breath­ing” was prepar­ing to be born into the ru­ins. That’s the funny thing about nu­clear win­ter: Life goes on, but prob­a­bly not yours.

Sur­vival is a cen­tral theme in rap mu­sic, so when a new cen­tury ap­proached, it only made sense that rap­pers be­gan declar­ing them­selves im­per­vi­ous to dooms­day. And while Method Man, Three 6 Mafia and oth­ers fun­neled end-times bravura di­rectly into their rhymes, it was Busta Rhymes who most ea­gerly es­poused the end the of the world, turn­ing his first three solo al­bums into an in­for­mal rap­ture count­down. The cover of 1998’s “E.L.E. (Ex­tinc­tion Level Event): The Fi­nal World Front” de­picts the en­tirety of Man­hat­tan del­i­quesc­ing in atomic fire, mak­ing it the most hor­rific al­bum jacket since Count Basie’s “The Atomic Mr. Basie” circa 1958. As for the mu­sic it­self, few rap­pers have sounded more de­fi­antly alive in the face of death than Busta did in 1996 when he warned, “There’s only five years left!” Don’t mock the guy’s mis­cal­cu­la­tions. There may only be five years left, some­day. Keep lis­ten­ing.

Mean­while, the dura­bil­ity of rap’s most salient Ar­maged­don jam has more to do with sys­temic racial pro­fil­ing than lin­ger­ing nu­clear para­noia. In the sec­ond verse of 1997’s “Apoc­a­lypse,” Wy­clef Jean re­ports that Brook­lyn has just “turned to Hiroshima,” so with an en­tire bor­ough va­por­ized, he flees to New Jer­sey, where the cops at­tempt to pull him over for driv­ing while black. Amid the chaos, some­one has robbed a gas sta­tion, and our hero matches the de­scrip­tion. But it couldn’t have been him — “I was at the Gram­mys with Brandy,” Wy­clef raps. “Didn’t you see me on TV?” Twen- ty years later, the truth in this song still burns: Amer­i­can racism will sur­vive the apoc­a­lypse.

Still, as sober­ing, thrilling and dis­tract­ing as they may be, our great­est nu­clear pop songs are lit­tle more than hedges against the void. We buy them up hop­ing that we’ll never ac­tu­ally have to use them, like bi­cy­cle hel­mets, or the ex­tra cov­er­age at the Hertz kiosk. They feel in­suf­fi­cient. As they should. No one song could truly pre­pare us for a self-in­flicted mass ex­tinc­tion, but there are two that bravely and gen­er­ously try.

The first is “Nu­clear War,” a rel­a­tively ob­scure jazz prayer recorded by the vi­sion­ary Sun Ra in 1982. Over a se­ries of as­cend­ing pi­ano chords, the band­leader ca­su­ally draws the mem­bers of his leg­endary Arkestra into a dev­as­tat­ing sin­ga­long: “It’s a mother-----, don’t you know/If they push that but­ton, your ass gotta go.” The man sounds loose, re­laxed, pro­foundly dis­ap­pointed, but ul­ti­mately at peace with the fact that his wishes have no bear­ing on our planet’s nu­clear des­tiny. This is a piece of mu­sic that looks obliv­ion square in the eye and ac­cepts it.

And then there’s “1999,” a song that soothes our col­lec­tive fear of col­lec­tive death by invit­ing all of hu­man­ity to the great­est party ever thrown. Prince knew the score. “Ev­ery­body’s got a bomb, we could all die any day,” he sang, “but be­fore I’ll let that hap­pen, I’ll dance my life away.” This wasn’t plat­i­tudi­nous seize-the-day bab­ble. It was an ec­static ex­pres­sion of re­sis­tance. Still is. To re­sist fear is to deny the but­ton-push­ers power over your mind, your body, the lion in your pocket. And un­til dis­ar­ma­ment or Judg­ment Day, it re­mains our only op­tion.


Prince’s “1999” is a song that soothes col­lec­tive fears of an im­pend­ing apoc­a­lypse by invit­ing all of hu­man­ity to the great­est dance party ever thrown.

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