The protest song is a familiar species of American music. Since the birth of the country, we’ve always found something to fight through song, whether it be an overbearing English king, the injustice of segregation, or wildly unpopular wars in Vietnam and, later, Iraq. These songs are inherently moral: Their singers establish themselves as forces of good fighting against tyranny and oppression.
But the protest song has an obscure evil twin, something I’d like to coin the “apocalypse song.” If the singer of a protest song is a moral agent pushing for justice, an apocalypse song is sung by a detached bystander morbidly curious to see how the chaos will go down. Far from condemning war, violence, and entropy in general, these songs revel in the excitement of end times. They’re cynical, haunting, and yet, often strangely beautiful in their depictions of turmoil.
In the last few years we’ve been on what’s felt like the brink of total chaos countless times, so understandably, the apocalypse song has seen a resurgence in popularity as artists grapple with how to react to our volatile political climate. Here’s a sampling of some of my favorite apocalypse songs from throughout American history.
“Atomic Cocktail” – Slim Gaillard Quartette
An early example of the apocalypse song is Slim Gaillard Quartette’s “Atomic Cocktail,” a startlingly giddy depiction of mass nuclear destruction. Recorded just weeks after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Slim gleefully sings lines like “It’ll send you through the sky like airmail” and “You push a button, turn a dial / Your work is done for miles and miles” with the help of a jaunty little jazz band. It’s almost charmingly naïve, with the infinitely destructive power of nuclear weapons being treated more as an amusement park spectacle than something that can—and in fact already had at that point—killed thousands.
“Gimme Shelter” – The Rolling Stones
The Rolling Stones’ atmospheric track “Gimme Shelter” is a hazy, paranoid reaction to the violence that was unfolding in Vietnam. Layers of bluesy guitar and anxious vocals gradually build to an emotional crescendo led by backup singer Merry Clayton, whose strident cry of “Rape, murder! / It’s just a shot away” cuts straight through the moody smog. The song captures the precarious state of the world at the time of its recording in 1969, when the Vietnam War, student protests, the Manson murders, and the Stonewall riots were all tearing at the fabric of society. For the Stones, it truly must have felt like war was just a shot away.
“Everybody Wants to Rule the World” – Tears for Fears
Tears for Fears are masters of understated gloom. In “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” their sunny new wave sound obscures the darker themes that pervade the song: corruption, war, and the horrors of totalitarianism. Given that the song was released in 1985, it’s presumably inspired by the Soviet regime and the nuclear arms race. The song begins from an ominous, authoritarian perspective, with lead singer Curt Smith airily singing lyrics like “Even while we sleep / We will find you acting on your best behavior,” before transitioning to a depiction of a violent political collapse. “There’s a room where the light won’t find you / Holding hands while the walls come tumbling down” curiously mirrors the chaotic fall of the Soviet Union that would occur six years after the song’s release. Did Tears for Fears anticipate world history? We’ll never know for sure, but I’d like to think so.
“Dark Doo Wop” – MS MR
MS MR’s strange gem of a song “Dark Doo Wop” is, as expected, fashioned after starry-eyed 1950s doo-wop music, except here the innocent puppy love is replaced by something much bleaker. The requisite doo-wops echo mournfully in the background as singer Lizzy Plapinger sings sweetly about the approaching doom: “This world is gonna burn, burn burn burn / As long as we’re going down / Baby you should stick around.” This is a love song about sticking it out through the worst of times—the end times, in fact. “If we’re gonna die, bury us alive / If you’re searching for us, you’ll find us side by side.” Plapinger delivers these lines with eerie serenity, turning a gruesome apocalyptic landscape into something almost romantic.
“NFWMB” – Hozier
The title track from Hozier’s latest EP, Nina Cried Power, is a textbook example of a protest song. It’s influenced by gospel music, features the legendary Mavis Staples, and honors singers of the past who have spoken out against injustice while serving as a rousing call to arms for modern-day activists. So it’s surprising that a song as passionate and emotionally engaged as “Nina Cried Power” is listed on the EP alongside its polar opposite, “NFWMB,” a sinister, apocalypse-themed love song. While “Nina Cried Power” is a forceful, morally-grounded rebuke, “NFWMB” is a celebration of turmoil. “Ain’t it warming you, the world goin’ up in flames?” Hozier sings adoringly against solemn piano chords and gentle acoustic guitar before launching into the chorus, variations of the phrase “Nothing f—cks with my baby.” The world might seem scary to us, but the object of Hozier’s affection is unfazed by it all.
Featured Graphic by Ikram Ali / Heights Editor