This week's guest is radio host and book reviewer Mahvesh Murad. Mahvesh can be found interviewing authors for 89 Chapters and spinning the blues [does one spin blues? I'm so not cool] for Voodoo Nights, both for City89, Pakistan's top radio network (and both shows can also be heard through your computerbox).
As an afficinado of both genre fiction and fine music, Mahvesh has done a list of... well, er... see for yourself. It is pretty spectacular...
Making a list of songs about the end of the world is easy. Making a list of songs from the last decade about the end of the world isn’t as easy - especially when you’re looking for good songs from a decade you don’t appreciate so much. But, it isn’t impossible. Here’s my list of five songs about the apocalypse from the last decade, in no order of preference.
1. Britney Spears - Till the World Ends
When Britney was good she was fantastic. When she was bad, well, she was a mess and we all know it. What was the very worst though, was when she was neither good nor bad - tracks like If U Seek Amy languished in that middle ground: so boring, so bored. Britney with her dead eyes and her limp moves; Britney, with everything that made her that glistening snake goddess in 2001’s I’m a Slave for You stripped away; Britney, hair grown out, sobriety claimed, and without soul. This Britney tried very hard to fake it, but it didn’t always work. What did work though, was 2011’s Till the World Ends. A solid dance floor anthem with a chorus that even Cher would have been proud of in her 90s disco days, Till the World Ends is probably Britney’s best song, post-comeback.
But I must admit, Till The World Ends can claim to be a song about the apocalypse primarily by the support of its video (let’s face it, most of Britney’s songs are held up by their videos. And her magic moves). The lyrics of the song could mean anything (or nothing - it’s a pop dance number, come on!), but Ray Kay’s director’s cut for the video very helpfully sets the song at the end of the world - on December 21st, 2012, in fact: the date of the Mayan apocalypse. We meet Britney in an underground tunnel, fabulous and fully (un)clothed in dystopian chic, with her artfully ripped stockings and studded jacket. The world outside starts to falls apart as we see people above ground running to find shelter of said tunnel via a manhole in the street.
The sky bursts into flame and for a second everything goes dark, before flaming asteroids slam into the city. But Britney? Britney is safe in her underground club, safe in her music, lost in dance, busy trying to keep up with far more energetic dancers. At some point there is a solar flare (or a nuclear blast?) and Britney and her companions are all drawn to the light - maybe it’ll give them superpowers for the new world, maybe it’ll fuse them into one massive orgiastic sweaty, pretty dance troupe. The world shakes and suddenly the sprinklers go off. This makes everyone very happy, because clearly no one has showered in days (it’s the end of the world and they’ve been busy dancing) and anyway, god knows when they’ll have water again. You may have been caught up in the sweaty gyrations in the bunker-club, but don’t forget the world is ending.
The video descends very quickly into a half-baked homage to the fantastic I’m a Slave for You. A master-shot dance routine, smaller groups of dancers erotically magnetised to Britney and close-ups of Britney herself, looking at us with her dead eyes, faking enthusiasm very, very badly. But that’s okay, because this is as close to an authentic comeback as Britney could have had (I’m purposely ignoring the disastrous Would You Hold It Against Me which was more product placement then music video). More importantly, for our purposes, this is actually a pretty great end of the world song - not only does it tell us to go underground and focus on what we have (our stories, told by all we’ll have left - our bodies, our music, our songs), it also tells us that there is hope for a new day.
Because at the end of it all, Britney finally emerges from the manhole, almost beatific in the rising sun, so pleased to see the world is still there. We’ll always be there, Britney.
2. Janelle Monae - Dance Apocalyptic
Janelle Monae's Dance Apocalyptic is also very much about dancing ‘till the end. "I need to know, if the world says it’s time to go / tell me will you break out?", she asks. Because, of course, that’s Janelle Monae to the core - proactive and feisty, and even in the face of the apocalypse she’s going to break out of every mould there is. But where Britney was a bit depressed about it, Janelle revels in the chaos of the apocalypse. She always has - Monae has energy enough for a hundred Britney comebacks.
Monae’s first studio album, The ArchAndroid, was about an android sent back in time to free a suppressed people. Dance Apocalyptic is off her second album, The Electric Lady, which continues the story of Cindi Mayweather. To me, Monae’s music is as an important part of Afrofuturism as George Clinton’s Mothership Connection was - Cindi Mayweather is the perfect contemporary bookend for Clinton’s own alter ego, Starchild.
In the video for the song, Monae even has multiple aspects of the apocalypse covered: "We have fires in New York, we have locusts in Detroit, there’s an earthquake in Miami, and I just got word that there are zombies in Atlanta!" The answer for all of the above, of course, is to break out of whatever is holding you back - tyrannical regimes, social constructs or even the limits of commercial pop music.
3. Arcade Fire - Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)
Ballard meets contemporary urban angst in a whole other kind of apocalypse in Arcade Fire’s Sprawl II. Regine Chassagne’s vocals are unique and her upper register is fantastic - even when she lilts she does it with enough control to prove that you don’t need the steady, bass-y repetitions of Waters and Gilmour on Another Brick in the Wall to create a hypnotic song about being trapped in conformist society.
Sprawl II’s apocalypse is perhaps the scariest possible for creators of any sort of art - a place where you’re told creativity is pretentious, where it’s advisable to just "punch the clock". The world of the Sprawl consists of never-ending city life with no respite, concrete "mountains beyond mountains, where "dead shopping malls" rise across the landscape. It may not be a nuclear wasteland, but it’s just as sterile a place, constantly under bright lights, with darkness impossible to find. A place where "they’re screaming at you / we don’t need your kind".
4. Dead Man’s Bones - My Body’s a Zombie for You
Some years ago actors Ryan Gosling and Zach Shields were dating a pair of sisters. Their relationships with the women didn’t last, but they found a common interest beyond that - their love for the ghoulish and macabre. So they formed Dead Man’s Bones and released an eponymous album in 2009. I don’t think they’re a particularly good band - neither Gosling nor Shields has a very strong voice, neither of them are particularly dextrous with any instrument and they’ve done themselves no favours by recording under self-imposed rules about not recording more than a set number of takes, or not using a click track.
But... My Body’s a Zombie for You is just very creepy. It’s not very subtle - skin is worn and thin, flies are in the sky, there’s blood around and the repeated refrain of the song’s title should sort out any confusion, though this song does bring to mind the much more frightening classic Haitian zombies, as opposed to the George Romero Hollywood versions from contemporary pop culture.
What makes this song especially creepy is the addition of a choir of children. From the strange, disconnected laughter at the very start of the track, to the very young voices used in the frequent chorus and backing vocals, the words "my body’s a zombie for you" have never sounded eerier. To top it all off - a little handclap and rhythmic playground chant escalating at the end, where the children sing "I’m a Z-O-M-B-I-E - zombie".
5. Amanda Palmer - Idiotique
Each time some fool claims global warming isn’t "real", or extreme climate change is "just a phase", I’m going to sing "We’re not scaremongering/This is really happening" at them, Amanda Palmer style. Though originally by Radiohead, Palmer recorded Idiotique in 2011 for an album of Radiohead covers played on Palmer’s "magic ukelele". Even rabid Radiohead fans had to admit that Palmer’s covers were earnest and from the heart - she clearly loved these songs, and respected Radiohead’s music.
Palmer’s Idiotique is an earnest, sincere and particularly evocative version. The desperate, bare picking of that magic ukelele of hers and the clarity with which she sings is nothing like the original, often mumbling vocals of Thom Yorke, but somehow even more frightening. The apocalypse she’s singing about is the most likely sort - "ice age coming", she warns us again and again. Palmer makes this version her own by adding a harmonic, frightening list of names at the end of the song, as if for soldiers fallen, or family gone.