Singing While Rome Burns (A Selection of Music for the Apocalypse)
“I am singing now while Rome burns.” — Richard Siken, from “Snow and Dirty Rain”
In idle moments, I find my mind lately gravitating towards disaster. Harrowing images of terrible events past and present cycle through me unbidden. I have no doubt there are many others lingering on the same preoccupation.
If there is any certainty about the future, particularly amongst people of my generation and those younger, it is that things are going to change, and not for the better. Every piece of news we consume seems to point in the direction of the catastrophes we slowly, surely drift towards—mostly due to the accelerating rate of climate change and world governments’ relative inaction.
No wonder, then, that we’re seeing the apocalypse make a comeback as a major topic in pop culture. Of course, people have made media about the end of the world for centuries. At different points in our history, such as when nuclear warfare first became a reality, catastrophe must have felt as tangible as it does for us today. We have swathes of apocalyptic and dystopian fiction and films, and many of these works have become enshrined in our cultural memory.
I do think there is a relief of sorts involved in seeing our fear reflected in the art around us. Creative works such as Good Omens and Snowpiercer assure us that our feelings are not unfounded, that we’re right to believe that humanity is on a worrying trajectory. Some of them are warnings; some are meant as inspiration; most serve as invitations to think about our world more deeply.
Despite being less opaque and direct than literature, films, and television, music is nonetheless a form of storytelling in its own right. Many talented musicians are grappling with our present specter of impending destruction, and doing so with passion and care. Personally, I’ve found a different sort of catharsis in their emotional responses to the strife in the world right now, and in their visions of what might spring from the ashes. Perhaps, upon listening to these songs, you will too.
Our first entry is a rousing ode to protest anthems, with the singer taking heart in the power of music to effect change. “Nina Cried Power” pays homage to musicians who used their voices to advocate for revolutionary causes, from Nina Simone to Billie Holiday to James Brown. The song works so well as a response to our current political climate because it invokes an African-American history of protest through music, using the past to move into and embody the present. Listening to it is invigorating—Hozier and Staples shake away our lethargy, urge us to not only keep our eyes open, but act on our impulses to resist oppressive laws and traditions.
Another artist I’ve found myself turning to in recent months is Janelle Monáe. Monáe’s music has always been electrically charged and futuristic—she’s created her own tiny, brilliant universe in the tracks of her first few collections, which she sings from the viewpoint of an android. “Dance Apocalyptic” is from Monáe’s second album Electric Lady, released in 2013: an upbeat, joyous riot of a track, featuring lyrics like “but I really, really wanna thank you / for dancing til the end / you found a way to break up / you're not afraid to break out”. In this song, Monáe responds to imminent doom by calling upon her audience to dance, to be lively—to spend their last moments connecting with one another instead of bemoaning their fate.
There’s a curious swagger to the melodies of this tune, each guitar riff an emphatic rebellion. Unlike the previous artists, Cage the Elephant approaches the subject of a world winding its way towards an ignoble end not with grace or joy but humor. The lyrics and tone of “Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked” are mocking, bordering on merciless—but an undercurrent of fear runs through the song as well. For all the singer’s devil-may-care attitude, you’re left with the nagging twinge of not being quite sure what will happen next, or whether you’ll make it through.
The title track of Sufjan Stevens’ sixth studio album Age of Adz is a grand and haunting ode to the terrible glory of a universe imploding. Stevens makes use of unsettling, thundering instrumentals in the introduction, then adds his mournful voice to the extravagance. With lyrics like “when it dies, when it dies, it rots / and when it lives, when it lives / It gives it all it's got”, the inevitability of the end is impressed upon us. And despite the cacophony at the start, the song finishes with a whimper, not a bang: the instruments slowly dropping away to center Stevens’ voice in the last stanza.
This is the last song to appear on Hozier’s album of the same title, a stunning, thoughtful imagining of what happens after the apocalypse, when the world has turned wasteland. Despite the horrors of their surroundings, two people find and fall for each other with the same sweetness of love at a brighter time.
A classic in the apocalyptic music genre, few songs so cheerily desribe the eerie portents that warn of the world’s end. The juxtaposition between the bright, upbeat sound of “Bad Moon Rising” and the terror the singer describes makes it one that endures the trials of time. Despite having been released in 1969, it remains as catchy as ever, and perhaps even more dread-inducing.
This past June, the indie band Bastille released their third album, appropriately named Doom Days. As the title suggests, this record is another that grapples with the realities of the current time period; each track varies between mourning the world, ignoring it, and trying still to save it. In the title track, the singer finds themselves emotionally near the edge, focusing their attention on the object of their affections as the world burns around them. Lyrics like “we fucked this house up like the planet / we were running riot / crazy that some people still deny it” express disbelief in the damage we’ve done to our environment and the fact that climate change deniers still exist, while lyrics like “I’m live-streaming the final days of Rome” depict the absurdity of feeling powerless to do anything but record the end rising like smoke around you.
Coming off of Florence + the Machine’s most recent album High as Hope, “100 Years” is filled with the thumping percussion and soaring vocals characteristic to the band’s style. It’s not quite as dramatic as another apocalypse anthem of theirs, “Dog Days Are Over”, but certainly more oppressively ominous. Lyrics like “funerals were held all over the city / the youth bleed in the square / and women raged as old men fumbled and cried / we're sorry, we thought you didn't care” mercilessly reference events we all know of, events we might prefer to forget. The song thus thrusts its violence upon the listener, leaving us to wonder at the meaning of its warlike, triumphant ending.
“Love It If We Made It” is another more recent song attempting to make sense of the time we’re now living in. Thoughts tumble over each other in a list in the first half before leading into the uncertain chorus, proceeding to bridge into quotes that first seem nonsensical, then shockingly familiar: they’re pulled from horrifying, violent sound bites by Donald Trump. In many ways, this song feels like a ringing alarm, as electronic instrumentals and Matty Healy’s vocals blend into each other with furious aplomb, breaking over us as though he’s singing directly into a loudspeaker.
Monáe gets direct in this track, unhurriedly peeling back layers of the damaging nationalist fervor termed “American identity” with tongue-in-cheek lines like “I pledge allegiance to the flag / learned the words from my mom and dad / cross my heart and I hope to die / with a big ol’ piece of American pie”. “Americans” combines dystopian visions of the future with protest against the political state that has precipitated those dark possibilities with seeming effortlessness. It never feels one-note. Increasingly, I find myself listening to this song when things seem hopeless, because even through the darkness Monáe imbues her work with so many possibilities that it’s difficult to feel cynical about humanity’s ability to create change.
Simply the title of this song is enough to render it relevant to our times, seeing as the fear of the future characterizes the lives of myself and so many younger people I know. The production is gritty and pulsing, electric guitar crashing down around St. Vincent singing of her uncertainty about the coming years. Through the lens of a failing relationship, we also watch the world fail around the lovers in the doomed tale this track tells.
We wrap up on this enduring apocalyptic ballad by the immortal Leonard Cohen. As the piano instrumental jaunts in the background, Cohen’s deep voice commands the listener’s attention. The singer’s requests to his lover resound in the throats and hearts of the audience as well. We are just as hopelessly drawn into the end.
It’s evident then that important, topical music is being made about the prospects of the world, and that we are far from alone in fearing for the future. So now, when you’re overwhelmed by those cheery thoughts about our impending doom, at the very least you’ll have the perfect soundtrack to accompany them, songs utterly unique to their artists in style but universally relatable on an emotional level. And just perhaps you’ll be inspired to do something tangible with those thoughts, whether that’s creating art, engaging in protest, or devising ways to delay—if not avert—the apocalypse.