Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Top 10: Songs About the End of the World

On 21 December 2012, the Mesoamerican Long-Count Calendar will turn over to 13/0/0/0/0, the start of the 14th b'ak'tun, a cycle which lasts approximately 394 years in our Gregorian calendar.  Whilst the turnover of a period this long is cause enough for celebration, the Mayans placed more importance on this one in particular.  According to the Mayan creation myths, the gods had created three worlds previous to the one we live in now, and the last one existed for 14 b'ak'tun.  Truth be told, the details are still fuzzy to me, but if you haven't heard about it already, much hype has been placed on the world destroying itself on the day.  For what it's worth, the ancient Mayans have also calculated dates as far forward as the 48th century AD, and even the US government issued a statement stating there is no cause for alarm.  Neither do I consider myself a believer of such -- trust me, I've survived my share of armageddeon hoaxes back in the day -- but all the same, I thought I'd get in the spirit nonetheless by counting down the top ten songs dealing with the end of the world.  The songs below are ranked according to how much their lyrics deal with end times, and what emotions they evoke in the listener.  And for inclusion's sake, I'm counting songs about nuclear war, since we've treated that much the same way since the invention of the A-bomb.  So, ladies and gentlemen, let the final countdown begin.  (P.S. "The Final Countdown" is not going to appear on this list.  It's about a spacecraft launch, thank you very much.)

10) "1999" by Prince
from 1999 (1982)

The punchline ("Tonight we're going to party like it's 1999") may be dated, but this Prince classic puts a new spin on party songs.  As the last batch of doomsday predictions concerned the turnover from AD 1999 to 2000, he used it as a metaphor that the year 2000 is too late for whatever you wanted to do, so smoke 'em if you got 'em , pretty much.  Bonus points for the full album version; at the end, there's a child's voice saying, "Mommy, why does everybody have have a bomb?" twice before the track just cuts out.

9) "It's The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)" by REM
from Document (1987)

I'll be honest, very little of this song's famous stream-of-consciousness lyrics have anything to do with the apocalypse.  Maybe the first lines suggest how it might happen: "That's great, it starts with an earthquake / birds, snakes, an aeroplane".  ...Wait a minute, did they just predict Snakes on a Plane?  Even if I'm wrong, with all the words Michael Stipe throws out at you, things sure seem chaotic, which would be an appropriate reaction  to this sort of bad news after all.  Also, think about the title: It's the end of the world as we know it.  This means that the planet Earth will still physically remain, but enough changes will come into your life to render it unrecogniseable.  This is not always a bad thing; for example in cultures such as that of the tarot cards, death represents not the end of existence, but the change from one soul to another, in that the latter entity carries on the former's wishes in his or her own way and I can't help feeling I've talked about this before

8) "How Far We've Come" by Matchbox Twenty
from Exile on Mainstream (2007)

Matchbox Twenty has never struck me as a very interesting band, but this song, a new track from their first complation, is one of their few songs which I can claim I like.  The instrumentation is exciting, in particular Paul Doucette's drum work, and the music video features a montage of mainly positive events from the second half of the 20th century, from the civil rights movement to the 2000 New Year's celebrations.  Even the Discovery Channel and others have co-opted it for promos.  However, the lyrics are about reminiscing on what we've accomplished, on a personal level and mankind as a whole, as a theoretical apocalypse is transpiring around us.  Isn't it ironic, don't you think.

7) "99 Luftballons / 99 Red Ballloons" by Nena
from 99 Luftballons (1983) / Nena (1984)

The German and English versions essentially tell the same tale, about 99 toy balloons being let into the air, but an unidentified nation mistakenly identifies them as an enemy aircraft, and an escalation to nuclear war ensues.  Underneath the new-wave veneer, this song reveals the readiness for war and heroics on both sides of the Iron Curtain, consequences be danged.  Fun Fact: The (German) lyrics were written by bandmember Carlo Karges, when he attended a Rolling Stones concert in West Berlin.  He saw some balloons being released into the sky, where he thought they took the shape of some UFO, and wondered what would happen if they crossed over the Soviet-backed East Berlin.  Second Fun Fact: Whilst Nena's members wrote and recorded the song in 1982, a similar real-life event would also transpire.  On 26 September 1983, lieutenant Stanislav Petrov was in charge of the Soviet Union's radar network when their satellites reported five missile being launched from America.  However, Petrov made a snap decision that the reading was a false alarm, and indeed he was right.  Combine all that with the concurrent release of the film WarGames, and you'll have a perfect idea of how unstable the global society was back then.

6) "The End" by The Doors

from The Doors (1967)

Sometimes the simplest statements are the strongest.  With the title of this song being simply "The End", you know what to expect: everything that stands will be no more.  And the desolate composition featured on the verses only adds to the sense of hopelessness.  But with such a simple concept, the end of the world is but one way to interpret "The End".  For example, Jim Morrison wrote it about breaking up with his girlfriend 1, so, the end of a relationship.  Or, in a 1981 interview with Creem Magazine, he gave this explanation on the lyrics, particularly the words "my only friend, the End":
"Sometimes the pain is too much to examine, or even tolerate….That doesn't make it evil, though – or necessarily dangerous. But people fear death even more than pain. It's strange that they fear death. Life hurts a lot more than death. At the point of death, the pain is over. Yeah – I guess it is a friend..." 2
5) "2 Minutes to Midnight" by Iron Maiden
from Powerslave (1984)

On lists like these, one song that has been a popular choice is "Run To The Hills" by Iron Maiden, but I won't be putting it on mine.  As it turns out, that song is about the ravaging of aboriginal American tribes by European settlers.  But they did put out another song, 1984's "2 Minutes to Midnight", which fits the bill.  The song's title is a reference to the "Doomsday Clock", a concept maintained by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, and uses a value of time, up to midnight, to represent how soon humanity is to destroying itself through nuclear war or what have you.  The year Iron Maiden wrote and recorded the song, the clock was set to 11:57 PM (3 minutes to midnight), its latest setting since the 50s.  (As of December 2012, the clock stands at 11:55 PM.)

4) "Skyfall" by Adele
Non-album single (2012)

Bet you didn't think a James Bond theme song would find a way on here, but then again you underestimate how much of a James Bond fan I am.  Actually, you underestimate its potential.  The eponymous theme from Skyfall injects doom and bravado into the usual soulful elegance of the Shirley Bassey-type songs that are so heavily associated with this stuff.  The song works on its own, as well; the word "Skyfall" is not only used in relation to events in the film, but as part of the phrase "let the sky fall".  James Bond is definitely the kind of man who would face this danger head-on, and fight to get out of it alive.  If you don't believe me, I think I've brought this one up before.

3) "Russians" by Sting
from The Dream of the Blue Turtles (1985)

A lot of these songs came from the 1980s, eh?  Welp, that may have a little do with the flare-up of the Cold War.  In this song, Sting cautions against concepts such as mutually-assured destruction and the divisive actions of not only the Soviet Union but the United States.  So what could prevent war?  The belief that the "Russians love their children too", that it would be against their interest to virtually destroy the world, as there would not be any more world for their progeny to grow up in.  Sting explained the inspiration for linking the danger of nuclear policy with the innocence of children in a 2010 interview for Britain's Daily Express:

"I had a friend at university who invented a way to steal the satellite signal from Russian TV. We'd have a few beers and climb this tiny staircase to watch Russian television... At that time of night we'd only get children's Russian television, like their 'Sesame Street'. I was impressed with the care and attention they gave to their children's programmes. I regret our current enemies [See also: al-Qaeda, North Korea. -ed.] haven't got the same ethics." 3
The song also samples a melody from the Lieutenant Kijé suite by Sergei Prokofiev, which enhances the song not only culturally, but with a spooky, foreboding atmosphere.  In other words, the perfect musical image of a Russian villain.

2) "The Man Comes Around" by Johnny Cash
from American IV: The Man Comes Around (2002)

And now for another phenomenon related to armageddeon: the second coming of the messiah.  In Christianity, it is believed that when the Jesus Christ comes down to Earth one last time, He will judge all souls and send the good ones up to Heaven with him for eternity.  Such is the backdrop of one of Johnny Cash's final songs, "The Man Comes Around".  Through the use of half-spoken lyrics, stripped-down instrumentation, and plenty of Biblical references in the lyrics, the Lord's Son is portrayed as a man who's kicking butt and taking names -- almost literally.  Don't let his country label fool you, because Johnny Cash is bad@$$.

1) "Dancing With Tears In My Eyes" by Ultravox
from Lament (1984)

If you knew the end was here, how would you spend your final moment?  Such is the question posed by Ultravox in what I'm assuming is their only American hit, "Dancing with Tears in My Eyes".  The protagonist comes home to his wife, they "drink to forget the coming storm", and more or less embrace under the covers as their doom comes in the form of... a guitar solo.  Huh.  Well, in the music video, it's a nuclear plant explosion, so close enough.  ...Hey wait a minute!  That's not how meltdowns are supposed to work!  Okay, so some things are best left to your imagination, but the over-the-top passion with which Midge Ure sings about it makes it work.  And remember: you only get one chance to make a last impression.

There's really more good songs about this subject than I could list, which is why they started one on Wikipedia.  I've seen songs like "Black Hole Sun" by Soundgarden, "Red Skies" by The Fixx, "Gimme Shelter" by The Rolling Stones, and "All Along The Watchtower" by Bob Dylan (or Jimi Hendrix if you are so inclined).  Come to think of it, there are a lot of good songs on there!  (Then again, said list also contains "Give Me Everything" by Pitbull and company, so forget about it.)  Even though I left many of them out because their lyrics or emotions didn't have enough to do with end times, I still urge you to check them out on your own time.  And I do believe you'll have plenty of time to do so, but if not, remember...

You are the resistance.

1 Farley, Robert (25 September 2005). "Doors: Mary and Jim to the end". St. Petersburg Times. [link] Retrieved 19 December 2012.

2 James, Lizze (1981). "Jim Morrison: Ten Years Gone". Creem Magazine. [link] Retrieved November 8, 2012.

3 "Sting's Russians was inspired by illegal satellite viewings". The Daily Express. 15 July 2010. [link] Retrieved 18 December 2012.

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