To sing the unsingable: that's been the dilemma of pop music's response to 40 years of nuclear nightmare. Maybe it's that the reality of nuclear holocaust is difficult to encapsulate in three-to-five minute musical discourses. What songs there have been tend toward passive rhetoric, pointing to conditions without offering solutions. As statements of individual discontent, they are seldom transformed to the anthemic proportions of a song like, say, "Blowin' in the Wind."

The early atom bomb songs (some may be heard on Rounder Records' sound track for the film "Atomic Cafe") are the most intriguing, if only because they reflect America's groping for meaning in its sudden Atomic Age. "When the Atom Bomb Fell," written several months after Hiroshima, represented one popular viewpoint, calling the bomb "the answer to our fightin' boys prayers" and a "cruel justice" visited on Japan. Roy Acuff's "Advice to Joe," from the Korean War period, recommended nuking Russia.

But as the implications of The Bomb were absorbed into our daily life, other currents quickly appeared: "Atom and Evil," the Golden Gate Quartet's prophetic evocation of the dangers of atomic technology; and the Buchanan Brothers' "Atomic Power," one of many songs implying, in the words of another variant, that "There Is a Power Greater Than Atomic." There was even a collection of "Atomic Age Bible Songs" ("with scriptures and texts for comfort and warning").

By the early '50s, an atomic vocabulary of sorts had evolved and was being widely utilized in pop culture, particularly as a new sexual metaphor. The Five Stars' "Atom Bomb Baby" (1956) boasted that after "a chain reaction in my heart . . . she's just the way I want her to be/a million times hotter than TNT."

Still, for a generation growing up with the threat of instant oblivion, rock 'n' roll may have been as much a response as a relief. Rock's visceral approach, in which charged rhythm supplanted melody, provided escapism for listeners even as lyrics had in the decades before.

It wasn't until the early '60s, and the arrival of Bob Dylan, that rock expanded its lyrical and musical scope. Dylan inculcated political consciousness into stark songs of prophecy like "Masters of War," "Talking World War III" and "A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall," briefly elevating the protest song (long a folk music staple) to the mass media. But in the subsequent swirl of socially conscious music that defined the '60s, The Bomb was just another issue.

During most of the '70s, there was precious little music of commitment to anything but self. Punk's passion was directed at music first, politics second, and the meaningful songs were few and far between (Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Who'll Stop the Rain," Jackson Browne's "After the Deluge")

But over the past five years, dozens of pop songs addressing the nuclear issue have surfaced (among the best: the Clash's "London Calling," OMD's "Enola Gay," Elvis Costello's "Waiting for the End of the World," Culture Club's "War Song," and Prince's disingenuous "1999"), though none have had the impact of Dylan's briefs against death or the hit-bound awareness of Barry McGuire's 1965 epic, "Eve of Destruction."

That old music critic Socrates wrote, "good harmony and good rhythm accompany good disposition." After The Bomb, the human psyche was altered permanently in subtle and not so subtle ways. It's little wonder that the old harmonies and rhythms were altered just as irrevocably.