Over at Global Comment back in May, Bitch contributor Emily Manuel argued that “jokes about the Rapture express a deeper anxiety about the decidedly apocalyptic times we live in.” She cited natural disasters, political alienation, growing poverty and violence, and noted, “when taken altogether, it’s hard not to get the feeling that the end of the world as we know it is nigh.”
I agree that apocalyptic imagery has figured prominently in the public imagination in 2011, in part as a result of the anxieties of this moment in time. Nowhere has this been more evident than in songs about love, in which said love is either a distraction from or metaphor for the end times. First, let’s take a look at Aussie singer, Lenka’s “At the End of the World (lyrics here):
It’s a pop song about how, At the end of the world we will be together…/If I can be with you/Then the end of the world don’t matter. Here, love is a celebratory distraction from chaos. It’s a party, literally: We’ll throw a party to celebrate/The things we used to do/Like living life, breathing air. Impending doom is just a backdrop to the real story—that is, of lovers insulated from it all.
The song has an “all you need is love” message and peppy melody. Love is the road to salvation here, the only means of escaping devastation of Biblical proportions. Indeed, love is the only way that we won’t feel the earth collapse into/A mess of blood and fire. In this song, escapism is a precious commodity, and love is the one thing that can adequately supply it.
Things get a bit bleaker for the Decemberists, though, in this catchy apocalypse song (lyrics in video):
It’s a love song of a sort, set to catchy hooks and lyrics recounting a dream about “the war of the end times” in which “California succumbed to the fault line.” But the narrator is with a romantic partner, and, as in “At the End of the World,” there’s a sense of escapism at first: We heaved relief/As scores of innocents died. Like “At the End of the World,” the melody is upbeat and rousing, with catchy hooks and Colin Meloy’s carefree croon: “Ah ooh ooh ooh, girl.”
But the lyrics quickly get darker. Meloy sings, you’ve receded into loam/And they’re picking at your bones. So, humans (or animals, it’s unclear) try to eat the “girl” addressed in this song. It’s not the first song from the Decemberists that seems to chronicle violence against women all in good fun (See, for example, “The Mariner’s Revenge Song” and “The Bachelor and the Bride.”).
The two lovers do eventually escape and “go home,” so apocalypse doesn’t completely overtake them. Even so, it lingers. Apocalypse is dangerous here. Far from providing escape, love makes the characters oblivious to the real horrors all around, leaving them unprotected. Love is not innocent in the end.
Emmy the Great takes a grim turn with “Dinosaur Sex,” in which the end of the world—specifically environmental disasater—may function literally and as a metaphor for a failed relationship (lyrics here):
Like “Calamity Song,” this one involves a dream about the end: A power station shivers then it weeps/Bleeds onto the fields and kills the wheat/Harvest comes but will we ever eat? Nuclear disaster, meanwhile, is poised to destroy human life: The sky splits like an almond under feet/Skin is peeling off of us in sheets. Emmy says, “I’m terrified about climate change… I would have been one of those people who built a bunker.”
The song is part straightforward meditation on the fear of apocalypse. “Dinosaur sex,” a tongue-in-cheek reference to fossil fuels, “led to nothing,” and then the song takes a more personal turn: “Maybe I will lead to nothing.” Perhaps this indicates hopelessness about finding anything, maybe a romantic relationship, that is sustainable.
In each song, references to the end times, if not jokey, are not altogether serious. Whether Lenka’s end times party, Meloy’s lyric about bad driving “in the year of the chewable Ambien tab” or Emmy’s use of a phrase like “dinosaur sex,” there is a way in which each artist maintains a distance from straightforward apocalypse anxiety. Humor staves off real anxieties, which do, I think, linger in consciousness. I suspect that artists will write more and more apocalypse music in the years ahead, and I will be watching to see how long we can maintain this distance from fear. Maybe it will grow as disasters multiply, at least until a breaking point when it seems inhumane to laugh anymore.