Wednesday, June 15, 2016

What's on Your iPod? - A Mix-tape for the Apocalypse

Society crumbles; you take shelter where you can, huddling in abandoned buildings as the dead shuffle by. It's a lesson from 1984: "We are the dead." You have little in which to take solace besides the music that pumps from your earbuds. What songs appropriately set the mood? You're the last of us; thank God you've got a shitload of batteries.

Waiting for Godot
In a post-apocalyptic scenario such as this, nihilistic art forms would undoubtedly enjoy a huge upswing in popularity (and so would God, btw). After all, nihilism's inherent negativity meshes well with apocalyptic thematics. Nihilism (from the Latin nihil, meaning nothing) holds that traditional values and beliefs are unfounded, existence is without meaning, and there are no objective truths. Essentially, life is without purpose and human existence is senseless and empty. In an increasingly Godless society, it's one of the dilemmas we face: we're bold enough to deny the existence of God, and maybe our science backs this up, but does being right counteract our need for spirituality? Society is giving up God without being able to face the subsequent insignificance. We're just not ready to find comfort in that poster of the galaxy with the arrow and the caption "You Are Here."

But AM's about the music, so here's your mix-tape for the Apocalypse:

1. "Like a Rolling Stone." The greatest of rock songs is the existentialist anthem. "How does it feel? How does it feel? To be on your own…" You get the idea.

2.  "Heroin." 50 years ago the Velvet Underground recorded "Heroin," a highly lauded song that overtly describes heroin use while seeming to revel in the glory of negation: "I have made the big decision; I'm gonna try to nullify my life." For Reed , heroin was the agent that allowed him to accept the meaninglessness of things. "Cause when the smack begins to flow,/ then I really don't care anymore./ Ah, when the heroin is in my blood,/ and that blood is in my head,/ then thank God that I'm as good as dead./ Then thank your God that I'm not aware,/ and thank God that I just don't care."  

3. "Smells Like Teen Spirit." The ultimate garage band, Nirvana were poster children for the 90s, the musical icon of Gen X, a cohort typified by its apathy (and flannel). Anarchy, self-loathing, and nihilism were themes the band touched upon repeatedly, particularly in the form of personal negation. Released in 1991, "Smells Like Teen Spirit" unexpectedly shot up the charts: "I feel stupid and contagious./ Here we are now, entertain us." 

4. "London Calling." In 1979, The Clash broke through the Atlantic divide and made it big in an America that could just as easily connect with the inherent frustrations of unemployment, racial conflict, and drug abuse. The end result was an apocalyptic, nihilistic masterpiece that's stood the test of time: "The ice age is coming, the sun is zooming in. Engines stop running and the wheat is growing thin. A nuclear error, but I have no fear. London is drowning - and I live by the river."

5. "Sheep Go to Heaven." Cake's deliciously cryptic tune is packed with obscure references. The chorus "Sheep go to Heaven, goats go to Hell" is an allusion to the Bible (you know, the book often cited as the definitive record of who goes where). The line "And the gravedigger puts on the forceps" is a bit more perplexing. It's taken directly from Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, a staple of existentialist theater: "Down in the hole, lingeringly, the grave digger puts on the forceps. We have time to grow old. The air is full of our cries. But habit is a great deadener."

6. "Thirty-Three." The Smashing Pumpkins have quite a knack for expressing their dissatisfaction with feelings of loneliness and disconnection. "Thirty-Three" is a plea to an unknown someone for love that will "last forever." There is a sense of hope in the song, and our narrator believes in the person he sings to, while drawing support from others ("But in all the same old haunts I still find my friends"), however, there's a strong sense of isolation in an unfeeling world: "So I pull my collar up and face the cold, on my own/ The earth laughs beneath my heavy feet! At the blasphemy in my old jangly walk." He clings to the hope that this person will "make it last, forever," but in the meantime is alone. Poor Billy Corgan, so unhappy, so upset; remember: "Despite all my rage, I am still just a rat in a cage." Ultimately, the song concludes, "And I still believe that I cannot be saved." Different song, same context.

7. "Piggy." Nine Inch Nails' catalog contains an abundance of nihilistic fare. "Nothing can stop me now -- I don't care anymore." Any commentary necessary about NIN?

8. "Hotel California." Eagles' Don Henley's vision of 70s California as a fiendish hotel filled with earthly temptations takes its tone and setup from Jean-Paul Sartre's No Exit. "Hell is other people," says Sartre. Henley adds, "This could be Heaven, or this could be Hell," implying that maybe they're one and the same. "Hotel California" is one of those classic songs that deserves every bit of its fame. Listening to it, you feel a palpable desire to be somewhere warm and tropical where the livin' is easy. You also feel a chill of recognition that you'd soon become bored, listless and depressed playing games with the wealthy and beautiful. "And still those voices are calling from far away." Thanks, Henley. What an insightful, elegant bummer, man.

9. "Lazarus." David Bowie was constantly changing his sound and experimenting with styles, clearly evidenced on his most recent release, Blackstar. The album, which dropped just two days before Bowie’s death, features some of the artist’s most surreal, experimental tracks. “Lazarus” is a perfect example of that, with dreamy saxophone and synthesizer overtones accompanying Bowie’s emotional lyrics. “I’ll be free, just like that bluebird,” sings Bowie, which seems like a knowing reference to the singer’s passing. The video, which features Bowie in a hospital bed singing to the heavens, almost feels like Bowie’s last gift to his fans. With “Lazarus,” Bowie gave the world one last glimpse into the beyond, reflecting on the meaning of death and its power over life.

10. "Leave Me Alone." New Order and Joy Division claim their fair share of existentialist philosophy, but "Leave Me Alone" is the song I go back to timelessly: "But from my head to my toes, from my knees to my eyes,/ Every time I watch the sky/ For these last few days, Leave me alone./ But for these last few days, leave me alone.

Leave me alone.

Leave me alone."