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 street-wise 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-of-time.” Those old songs suddenly have new work to do.
Pop’s nuclear songbook is surprisingly 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 error, 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 B-movie 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 perspective 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?” Twenty 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.