In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will be singing.
About the dark times.
– Bertolt Brecht, The Svendborg Poems
My father and I watched a NOVA documentary when I was a child. It was a sobering experience, as it covered all of the possible ways that our civilization, the planet and the universe could end. After viewing it, I sat in silence with my dad before speaking up.
“So, climate change and any other thing could end us. We can solve those and do like, things to prevent the random things like coronal mass ejections? The sun will eat the Earth in like, billions of years, so we’ll have to get off-planet first. Then the Big Rip or whatever, I guess we could try to escape to a different universe? Right, dad?” My dad just smiled at me.
Let’s face it — it feels like the world will end tomorrow. The Doomsday Clock — a design used by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists to visualize how close humanity is to its end — changed from two minutes to 100 seconds to midnight in 2020. I don’t think I need to repeat to you every possible reason that has been brought forward by every other article detailing how it feels like we’re in the end times. Instead, let’s look at what solace is in one of humanity’s oldest pastimes — music.
Probably the most famous song that tackles the feeling of impending doom is Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire”, a frantically-paced hit that chronicles world-shattering events from the late 1940s — when the Doomsday Clock was started — to around the song’s release in 1989. It insists that “we didn’t start the fire” of the flames consuming the world. Since its release, it’s been parodied and retrofitted to a variety of subcultures and every subsequent brush society has had with collapse. There’s another song that tackles the end times in a similar way and had its own time-specific lyrics replicated and personalized to other artists’ covers, ad infinitum.
“That Funny Feeling” by comedian/musician Bo Burnham is part of a special (one that he created in a single room entirely by himself) documenting the degradation of the world and a person’s mental state over the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic — a degradation that led to the Doomsday Clock’s shift. What’s extremely interesting is that “That Funny Feeling” is the polar opposite of Billy Joel’s hit in nearly every way. Aside from repetitive references towards current events, Burnham’s song is a much slower and simpler ballad. It swaps out Billy Joel’s grand instrumentals for just a guitar and ambient noise, each line delivered much slower than Joel’s rapid-fire and, most importantly, instead of denying that our current age is unique in its apocalyptic atmosphere, accepts the end: “Hey, what can you say? // We were overdue // But it’ll be over soon // You wait.”
If we take the pulse of our culture from the chart-topping songs that dictate its heartbeat, it seems to be slowing down. But how did we get here? Is it possible to map our relationship with the end of the world through our music? Sifting through the decades, we find this music to fall along a generational decrescendo — slowing and quieting down as humanity contends with the end-times over and over. It begins as a denial of the apocalypse and ends with its acceptance — much akin to the five stages of grief. We can’t extensively analyze every single song that centers itself around Armageddon, but I’ve certainly tried. I even made a playlist! Please, press play and listen to the crackle of the flames consuming our world.
SEVEN MINUTES TO MIDNIGHT
They moved Doomsday Clock forward and backward as the threat of nuclear war loomed and retreated over and over from 1947 until Billy Joel released his hit. In addition, the Doomsday Clock was expanded to include worldwide military conflict around 1968, a little before “Bad Moon Rising” by Creedence Clearwater Revival was released in 1969. The jaunty tune describes natural disasters consuming the earth with a “bad moon” being a herald of the end-times. The song’s writer, John Fogerty, stated very plainly the experiences that inspired the song — the chaotic political climate around the world — citing the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., as well as allegedly writing the song on the same day as Richard Nixon’s election.
THREE MINUTES TO MIDNIGHT
Skipping ahead a couple decades to 1987, we see the release of “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” by REM. This release followed a drop from the 1969 Doomsday Clock’s 10 minutes to midnight to just three minutes. This change was marked by steps backward by world powers as the Cold War began reheating. The song is a fast-paced, stream-of-consciousness rant interspersed by the chorus that the song’s title covers well enough. It refers more explicitly to current political events, like failures of the Carter and Reagan administrations in the 1979 hostage crisis and the Iran-Contra affair, respectively. But going back to Billy Joel — what’s the common thread to these three songs that define the initial auditory reactions to the increasing threat of doomsday?
While the three 20th-century releases sound very frank in their lyrics detailing the end, there’s a very clear dissonance between the tone and the content of the songs. “Bad Moon Rising” isn’t performed as an honest observation — it’s a cheerful tune that sets up a great irony with its lyrics. Fogerty himself stated that the dichotomy of the content and composition of the song didn’t hit him until the band started learning it all together. There’s a denial in this format — the first stage of grief — that arises from the contradiction of artist intent and execution. REM and Billy Joel would evolve this contradiction with their own upbeat interpretations on the end — the former presenting it as eagerly welcomed, and the latter insisting on the omnipresence of the end. In addition, there’s an anger to their words. Just like society at large’s outrage at nuclear proliferation as evidenced by worldwide protests at the time of their releases, REM takes shots at the failures of presidents and philosophies that had led to the current state. Of course, Joel differs with his indignant insistence — the feeling of worldwide unease has always existed. This leads to the next stage of grief — anger. Anger at the conditions that allow loss to occur. Fortunately for those fighting the fire, the Doomsday Clock would move its hands back into the double-digits as nuclear disarmament continued. However, new threats would loom on the horizon, initially beyond the scope of the Doomsday Clock in mounting terrorism and global warming.
FIVE MINUTES TO MIDNIGHT
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change declared in 2007, with 90% certainty, that humanity was causing the global warming observed for the past half-century. Additionally, that year the Doomsday Clock hit a record lateness for the 2000s — five minutes — with the news of North Korea conducting nuclear tests, fears that Iran was attempting the same and the U.S. ready for nuclear war with Russia. In this very same year, Matchbox 20 released “How Far We’ve Come.” Much like “Bad Moon Rising”, Matchbox 20’s song more generally details an apocalypse and the response to it. Unlike that song, however, its tone and lyrics paint different responses, even with a diluted angry energy to the instrumental. Noting the title, the singer sees the truth of the world’s end but clings to whatever progress humanity might have made — ‘how far we’ve come’ — but when our world ends, every advancement will be erased. The Doomsday Clock reset. This plea is nothing more than bargaining, the third stage of grief. In addition, these lyrics take a more somber tone, especially towards the bridge of the song. The singer seems to break down, repeating over and over that “it’s gone, gone, baby it’s all gone” and detailing every other way his sadness overtakes him at the end. We get a hint of the fourth stage of grief — depression. However, it’s only around 2013, after the Doomsday Clock reeled back to six minutes and then back to five from the combination of nuclear threats, other worldwide conflict and global warming, that this stage is explored in-depth.
“Pompeii” by Bastille was released this same year. While it is explained as a conversation between the victims of the infamous Mount Vesuvius eruption and burial of the Roman city of Pompeii, the lyrics as a text read out as yet another perspective on the end of the world. The anger that characterized the last three hits we’ve discussed is nowhere to be heard. Instead, the singer is asking questions, “If you close your eyes // Does it feel like almost nothing changed at all?” and “How am I gonna be an optimist about this?” The bargaining found in the first question contrasts with the depressing answer to the latter question. You can’t be optimistic about the end. You have to accept it first. Again, the bridge actually gives way to the next stage as the singer asks one final question: “Oh, where do we begin, the rubble or our sins?” The last stage of grief — accepting the end and moving forward from it. So as the Doomsday Clock steadily ticked towards midnight in the late 2010s heading into 2020 — cataloging the hottest years on record, the acceleration of nuclear programs worldwide, displays of international incompetence for pandemic preparedness (for Ebola, not the, y’know, other thing), scientific advancements in artificial intelligence and biotech, potentially posing more risks than rewards, and sociopolitical tensions heightening their fervor around the world — our artists began to accept the end.
TWO MINUTES TO MIDNIGHT
We’ve been documenting these releases in chronological order, but the next two are a bit more complicated. “As the World Caves In” was released by Matt Maltese in 2017 — two-and-a-half minutes to midnight — but it didn’t find mainstream popularity until it was covered in 2021 and blew up on Tiktok. In between this time, Hozier released the single “Wasteland, Baby!” in 2019 — two minutes to midnight. Both songs present a unique, never-before-seen perspective on the apocalypse. They detail finding love in the moments before and after the apocalypse, respectively. Maltese’s 2017 release was timely and a reflection of nuclear tensions, as he imagined the lyrics as a conversation and passionate consummation between Donald Trump and Theresa May as the world caves in from nuclear war (he has since recanted his original interpretation). It’s a grander mood and fuller orchestration than anything we’ve heard thus far, but it isn’t the harsh sounds of denial and anger, the pleading notes of bargaining, or even the more muted tones of depression. It’s acceptance. The realization that the end is here and nothing matters more than the fact that, in Maltese’s words — “… it’s you that I welcome death with.” Hozier has this same idea, as his far softer song covers a variety of apocalyptic events as analogies and settings for falling in love — a message so poignant that the Doomsday Clock headlines their playlist with it. He ends the song simply, with a barely-audible “That’s it.” That’s it. The world is ending, or it did so a while ago, and that’s it — accept it.
100 SECONDS TO MIDNIGHT
In 2016, Burnham quit live comedy due to the development of an anxiety disorder that caused him to suffer panic attacks while performing. When quarantine started, he dedicated his time in isolation to write, edit, film, compose and produce a comedy special by himself that takes place in a single room. The piece is a reflection of Burnham’s descent into COVID-19-induced craziness, the layers of self-awareness that separate people and performance, and the brand-new digital doomsday created by the corporate exploitation of the Information Age in nigh-apocalyptic conditions. This isn’t meant to be an analysis of the work, but context for what INSIDE has to say about the end of the world. Its narrative is a microcosm of Burnham’s personalized five stages of grief, but the last quarter — starting at “That Funny Feeling” — concerns itself exclusively with accepting the apocalypse. Nightly ambiance and a light guitar sets the backdrop for Burnham’s much slower stream-of-consciousness painting everyday oxymoronic pictures of modern-day life, such as “Female Colonel Sanders, easy answers, civil war // The whole world at your fingertips, the ocean at your door.” It displays this quiet absurdity of how we’re currently living and “that funny feeling” which arises from it, accepting that it’s unsustainable but unstoppable — “The quiet comprehending of the ending of it all.” “All Eyes on Me” comes afterward, a song stylized after stadium performances, one about us, Burnham’s career and declaring “You say the ocean’s rising // Like I give a shit // You say the whole world’s ending // Honey it already did.” The song concluding the special is “Goodbye”, wrapping up all the other elements of the show but feeling like a farewell to the human race after the last two. “Any Day Now” plays over the credits, repeating “It’ll stop any day now (Any day now, any day now)”. That “It” refers to a number of things, but in the context of our discussion, it refers to us. So is that the ending? We’ve denied, outraged, bargained, cried over and finally accepted our graves, so is it time to lie in them? Not quite. See, one of the layers of self-awareness of INSIDE and his stages of accepting the end through song was that Burnham is a white male musician, as is every artist discussed so far (hope you noticed). So what does everyone else have to say?
Jimi Hendrix and Prince, respectively, released “1983…” (four minutes) in 1968 (seven minutes) and “1999” (nine minutes) in 1982 (four minutes). Moving past their similar titles and the varying accuracy of their named year predictions, both of these songs illustrate an acceptance of the end-times decades ahead of anyone else. Hendrix’s hit is a nearly 14-minute psychedelic and insightful slow jam into how he would approach the end of the world — to “make love in the sand” and, less realistically, transform into mermaids to return to the sea and escape the worldwide flood, a metaphor for finding rebirth in the death of all things. We can see the kind of priority of love over loss in this that we didn’t see in our initial analysis until the 2010s. Prince creates an end out of Y2K and his classic presents us with a pre-apocalypse party. While we’ve established before that cheery instrumentation and lyrics with the apocalypse as a subject presents an irony that reads as denial, “1999” establishes a very concise explanation as to why their acceptance is very rational because “life is just a party // And parties weren’t meant to last.”
Skipping to the 21st century, Kendrick Lamar keeps the apocalypse as a theme in his work but centers it in 2016’s (three minutes) “untitled 01 | 08.19.2014.” He prophecies a Biblical Armageddon and Judgement and is less concerned with his own feelings on the matter but with the actual effects: his storytelling bringing us into the imagery of the end, his conversation with God and his final choice of “always camaraderie, I can see, our days been numbered.” What allows these artists to establish their apocalyptic art ahead of the others? Mereba of musical collective Spillage Village says it best in their 2020 single “End of Daze”: “It’s been like apocalypse since I was on the teat.” Mourning the collapse of civilization is a privilege when the most marginalized that hold up our society are already being crushed by it. The burden of survival as a civilization has no right to fall on them. Kendrick Lamar again speaks to this in “Mirror” the closer to his 2022 album, “Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers”, especially regarding the role of artists and their responsibility in that struggle: “Sorry I didn’t save the world, my friend // I was too busy building mine again.”
When I told my dad the plan, he smiled at me and said what I thought was very obvious.
“All of that sounds like a lot of work.” I gave him a toothy grin.
“That’s what makes it worth it!”
When schools were first shut down for two weeks my senior year of high school, I made a playlist called ‘laughing at the end of the world:’ defiant tracks like the Matchbox 20 I found in middle school from a Percy Jackson tribute, the Bastille hit that started my freshman marching band’s show plus the REM and Billy Joel I rhetorically analyzed in AP Language class. After the two weeks and the realization that this quarantine would be a lot longer than everyone thought, I added a much calmer Hozier track I had used for countless night drives. A year later, I suddenly had an album full of my favorite comedian’s songs to listen about the end to, while getting into my favorite rapper’s entire discography. That same special would be what I wrote on my accepted application for my first position at The Michigan Daily in the Arts section. I owe a lot to the end of the world — something I’ve been thinking on since I was a child but singing about since middle school. I was raised in the shadow of the apocalypse, like so many were. We’ve been told since preschool that we had to save the Earth, learned about our devastating nuclear might in primary school, stayed up tallying all the red electoral college votes that Nov. 8th in 2016. The world shut down from a disease we made beer jokes about in January, and our social media feeds constantly explode with every tragedy, threat to democracy and Constitutional right endangered.
So if there’s one thing I know for sure, it’s that you’re tired. We’re all tired. It doesn’t seem far off that we all think if we wake up to the apocalypse, we’ll at least be free of everything we’ve been shouldering for so long. Everything ends. It’s not a matter of if our world will end but when — as all living things do. However, what defines humanity is denying that essential truth. The five stages of grief apply to losses beyond our control. If we have a hand in ending the world (and by “we,” I largely refer to the handful of corporations, world governments and other bad actors that have contributed to nuclear proliferation, global warming and societal destabilization), we can have a hand in saving it. Humanity is not defined by its mortality but by our defiance of it; we are insurgents against the inevitable, endlessly attempting immortality in an ultimately ambivalent universe. Not everyone can keep up that fight, and that’s okay. We can save each other too. Perhaps the collapse of the old and oppressive structures is necessary, and we can build a new world from that rubble. So maybe when it’s all said and done, we can lie down in our mass graves, and the ground will be cushioned and comfortable with the fact that we gave it our all, that we tried until the very end — but in order for that to happen, we have to try first. We can’t live like our world will end tomorrow. We have to sing like we’ll save it.
Statement Correspondent Saarthak Johri can be reached at email@example.com.