The Mayan Calendar. Rumours of the Rapture. Rod Stewart’s new Christmas album. All of them have been recently featured in the news over the past few years to make us wonder whether or not the end is nigh. Well, maybe the Rod album only makes me wonder that.
Anyway, as established with our 10 songs about death list, we can all agree that one day everything meets its end. This of course must include civilization as we know it; the end of the world. But, maybe making civilization and “the world” synonymous is just human arrogance. After all, the world existed before we came along, right?
And yet we’re a species that’s marked with a blessing, or is it a curse: we know that the end is coming. Maybe it’s both.
So, as a result, songwriters have taken it on. And how has it turned out?
Well, here’s 10 songs about doomsday in several possible forms. Sometimes, it really is about the end of everything. At other times, its about endings that just seem like the end of everything from a certain point of view. But, with all of them, it’s about confrontation with a force that we have to deal with whether we’re at the end of the line or not; our own humanity.
Take a look.
Ideas about the end of the world have been around since civilization began. But, in the early ’60s, with the Cuban missile crisis, fears of communist infiltration, and the Cold War raging, folk singers of all stripes contemplated what the upshot of nuclear Armageddon might actually be like.
Young Bob Dylan had his own take of what being a survivor of World War III might be like, and definitely what separates a good dream from a bad one. The main takeaway here is that the key to dissipating fear and mistrust surrounding the fate of humanity is by coming together long enough to understand what each of us is dreaming about, finding out perhaps that the dreams between nations with enough power to destroy the world might not be so different after all.
One fearsome aspect of the end of the world is not going down with the ship, but actually surviving, and having to face the aftermath alone. Following from Dylan’s tale of being the last person on earth, The ‘Dan set the scene with the single figure hunched over an old HAM radio, scouring the airwaves for some sign of life in a ravaged world of the future.
Written during the time of science fiction films like The Omega Man, and Soylent Green, as well as the beginnings of the environmental movement in the United States, “King Of The World” taken from 1973’s Countdown to Ecstasy is about the illusion of permanence that seems to be such a big part of Western Civilization.
There is another emotion or state of mind when it comes to being the last person on earth; boredom. When you’re forced to eat from cans and watch the same videos over and over again, being the world’s sole survivor isn’t much fun. But, in this song taken from 1980’s Zenyatta Mondatta, the subtext is about the banality of existence when we’re cut off from each other.
In 1980, this may well have been a problem worth writing songs of warning about, with western civilization beginning to ramp up to a culture mindless consumerism, isolation as enabled by technology, and unhealthy living in general. Little did we realize then how the world would develop more and more in this direction, with people tucked away in isolated suburbs with entertainment centers as their sole companions. And here on this tune, we see isolation from society taken to its logical conclusion.
In science fiction films of many types set in future times after civilization as we know it has come to an end, a lot of what’s left of our world are the pop cultural and consumerist artifacts left behind, and out of context. That’s what this song as taken from R.E.M’s 1987 album Document has always suggested; a list of names and objects that, taken out of context, that are ultimately sapped of their meaning. They become remnants of a world quickly passing, or entirely past.
Once again, here we find that the forces of civilization and culture shape our reality only because we all agree that they do. But, time marches on, and with it, so do perceptions and attitudes that define the world as we know it. When experiences, public figures, and values are forgotten or replaced, so are the worlds that are attached to them. In this sense, the world as we know is ending all the time – in increments. But all the while, it’s becoming something entirely new as well. The way we judge that transformation is another thing entirely.
And speaking of science fiction movies about the end of the world, this song that serves as the opener to Waits’ 1992 album Bone Machine is named after one such movie; 1965’s Earth Died Screaming, some of the footage of which is featured in the video linked to above. The song is also featured in the soundtrack of Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys, yet another end of the world film with similar themes.
Waits’ voice here is the perfect timbre for an apocalyptic vision of a dying planet. He pulls from a truly Biblical tradition of mythological creatures that stand as metaphors to the terror of a world that’s ending in judgement; crows as big as airplanes, two-headed lions, locusts and armies of ants. Of course with Waits, he had to throw in “…while I lay dreaming of you” for that personal touch, and an important sense of perspective. Sometimes, judgement day can be something we experience completely on our own, unbeknownst to others.
The Book of Revelation is the prime text in the Bible for what will happen in “the end times”. Much like Waits’ tune above, it’s filled with grotesque images to serve as a portent to fearful judgement. Laurie Anderson’s spoken word piece as taken from 1995’s The Ugly One With the Jewels touches on this, with the end of the world as being a fixture in a childhood memory, and retrospectively remembered as an adult. The song reveals the terror of all things ending, but somehow also reveals something of the absurdity that very often springs up around it.
Why should so many people be so obsessed with the end of the world? What leads so many away from living life in the present in favour of focusing on a vision of the apocalypse? Here in this song, the end of the world is tied up inextricably with a search for absolute certainty, misguided though it is. Perhaps contemplating the end of the world is the way that certain segment of humanity takes to understanding the reason the world began at all. But, as is shown here, a lot of people have to get thrown under the bus to get to that state of certainty, even one’s own grandchildren, those for whom we should be protecting our world instead of reveling in thoughts of its end.
New prog proponents Porcupine Tree crafted this song for their 1999 Stupid Dream record, released on the brink of a new century; before 9/11, and before wars on terror. If “King of the World” and “When The World is Running Down…” set up last person on earth scenarios as a warning in the tradition of science fiction films, than this song picks up that theme and runs with it. Of course, here there’s an extra element; having to explain humanity’s actions to an alien race investigating the remains of a ruined planet, and communicating with its sole inhabitant.
What we’ve got here is a study in perspective once again, with the scale of our own civilization and the forces that drive it meeting with the totality of the universe, and coming up as something small in comparison. It’s also about accountability, if not to each other than certainly to all life, no matter what form it takes. The explanation of a ravaged world here on this song is ultimately hollow, the product of hubris and narrow thinking.
XTC have taken on this end of the world theme a number of times before, with “This World Over” in the context of the threat of World War III (very 80s!), and indirectly with “River of Orchids”, which documents a planet where the plants reclaim their dominance. But this song which appears on 2000s Wasp Star Apple Venus, Vol 2, appropriately the last song on the last (to date – here’s hoping!) XTC record, is more philosophical when it comes to the end of the world. Here, we’re reminded that “everything decays”, even the world which we cling to.
This is an important consideration, seeing that the idea of the end of the world is most often a fearful prospect. Here, there’s a sense of resolution when it comes to the end of all things. And perhaps with that in mind, the world becomes more defined as a result as far as what it is and why we value it so highly. More importantly, it’s a further reminder that nothing in our lives so important as the planet on which we live should be taken for granted, and that the wheel of life is spinning all the while.
In his 1925 poem “The Hollow Men”, T.S Eliot famously wrote “This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang, but a whimper”. And we see shades of that here in this song by Australia’s The Jane Austen Argument, featured on their 2012 record Somewhere Under The Rainbow. In this song, the end of the world “passes like an awkward remark”. But, what it also does is to become a great leveler, with all of the classifications, ideological differences, and societal subsets of humanity becoming ultimately meaningless, along with the conflicts that arise out of them.
And yet, also in this song, those ideological forces are simply re-positioned;”We knew all along”, “We’d seen it coming”. The drive to be right and to deny any thoughts that we might be wrong that we saw in Laurie Anderson’s song is seen from the inside out. And yet, despite the fervor of belief, the conclusion is unchanged.
By now we can agree: the End of the World is really all about perspective. After all, when things end, other things generally begin. But, which specific world is ending, and which one might begin out of that? In Andrew Bird’s tune taken from 2005’s Andrew Bird & The Mysterious Production of Eggs is all about second chances, with the end of the world being an opportunity to reset the world, and to start again. Maybe when we change our context, we’ll recognize the possibility for friendship in quarters that we never thought to look. And maybe also we can set the crumbling financial institutions that once ruled our world to rest. Pony rides and dancing bears, no countries, or currencies – and snacks! – will be set to replace them.
Maybe this is a childlike, or even childish, vision of the end of the world, and the beginning of a new one. But, in some ways, what is childish now may not apply in that new context, when our basic humanity is laid bare, and when we come to find joy and contentment outside of what had been defined as the adult world of debts, divisions, and disempowerment of those who have not. This is the end of the world that it’s easy to get behind.
Ideas of the end of the world spark all kinds of reactions: terror, judgement, and even hope for a new start. Very often, the attitudes that determine one’s point of view on the end of the world is dictated by one’s view of life in the present as the world ticks along as we expect it to do. Our attitudes about society and fellow human beings is what counts at the end of all things as much as it does when we attend our first kindergarten class.
As we’ve seen above, we are a species that are very much aware that we are in time, and that things are changing all the time whether we like it or not. But, another thing we’re reminded of is that we’re also the only species that we know of so far that deliberately expresses our points of view in art. And maybe it’s through that which we can understand how to make our world better, even when facing the possibility of its end.