Well, it’s election year again, and that means 8 more months of name-calling, fear-mongering, and pandering on the part of candidates trying to convince us that however much we may doubt them, the alternative is worse.
As politicians try to convince us that the world will literally end if we elect their opponents, it’s hard not to think of the dystopian state that each side promises. Works of fiction, from Blade Runner to A Clockwork Orange; from Brave New World to 1984, all feature hypothetical realities where heroes (and villains) make the best (or worst) of being knee-deep in a Worst Case Scenario.
It’s in this spirit that we present the following 12 songs: tunes about police-states, post-apocalypses, dark futures, and the rebels that can’t live without them. Whether it’s economics, religion, nuclear war, or good old-fashioned censorship that pushes your panic button, you’ll be sure to find an incarnation of your worst fears realized within these dozen cautionary glimpses of tomorrow.
“My Radio (AM Mix)” – Stars
Cluster around the wireless, citizens, because we’re diving into the world of the Cold War nuclear apocalypse that we never got. “My Radio (AM Mix)” conjures the image of listeners who cluster each night around a radio to listen to their favorite DJ, only to pull back and realize that they’re living in a world that’s gone very wrong.
“Mr. Roboto” – Styx
Other than being an excuse for dancers to get up and pretend their arms are held together by rivets, “Mr. Roboto” is a great Styx song. The 1983 Kilroy Was Here highlight finds the protagonist, Kilroy, in a world where rock ‘n’ roll is outlawed. In order to escape the prison where the fascist government has placed him, Kilroy disguises himself as a maintenance robot. Freed, he tracks down rebel musical messiah Jonathan Chance to bring back the power of rock ‘n’ roll! As for subtlety? Deep messages regarding dystopian states? There’s none of that to be found here, but the song remains all the more glorious for it.
“Big Brother” – David Bowie
David Bowie’s 1974 song about 1984 (as described in 1948) is notable for his genuine attempt to better understand the appeal of the modern dictator. Is it the simple human comfort that comes from being told what to do? Don’t worry, Bowie probably didn’t think too much about the song either; just take one quick glimpse at the Diamond Dogs album art and guess where he was trying to stir up controversy.
“In The Craters On The Moon” – The Mountain Goats
John Darnielle, the lead singer of the Mountain Goats, does a better job of describing why this song belongs on this list than we can: “The people in this song have reached a point of comfort with their dread: ready for panic to set in, relishing the moment.” This is a useful song to have around if you wake up one morning and wonder how long we’ve been at war with East Asia.
“We Will Become Silhouettes” – The Postal Service
It’s probably a safe bet that this is the jauntiest song ever written about cowering in a fallout shelter. Ben Gibbard’s unusually positive-sounding narrator can be heard hiding alone somewhere; his only company being cautionary news reports warning of the dangers of the outside world. There, Gibbard’s character is so desperate for human contact that he has reduced himself to taking comfort in the inevitability of being blasted to ashes. Whether narrative or metaphor, this vivid and disturbing song earns its spot on our grim list.
“Draconian Crackdown” – Rasputina
Every once in a while Rasputina does a song that reminds you that they are a Rock Band with a capital “R”, and not a classical one. “Draconian Crackdown” is a hard-rocking, head-bopping gem, all carefully distilled into one hell of an audio-espresso shot. Get the picture? Oh, it also takes place in a steampunk alternate universe where America is ruled by a tyrannical Mary Todd Lincoln. The narrators are no less than the underdeveloped, under-seige populace of Pitcairn Island and their charismatic terrorist leader. In case you haven’t guessed by now, this song delivers an epic “Crackdown”; the shouted vocals and furious cello playing (yes, furious cello playing) lets the audience experience each and every act of violence. Awesome.
“One More Robot/Sympathy 3000-21” – The Flaming Lips
What would the future be without a robot uprising? This song from Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots combines tender vocals with a cold, synthetic sound to recount how unit 3000-21 develops sentience. We don’t get details, but keep in mind that by the next song conditions have apparently deteriorated so badly that “The City” has hired the titular Yoshimi to exterminate the robots. Robots like Unit 3000-21, who we’ve gotten to know surprisingly well over this scant five minutes.
“Way Down Hadestown” – Anais Mitchell
“Way Down Hadestown” reimagines the story of Orpheus and Eurydice as a Depression-era fable. The lord of the dead is now a mining tycoon obsessed with building a giant wall to protect his employees, who he sees as his “children” from the horrors of the poverty and corruption in the outside world.
“Planet Health” – Chairlift
The soothing vocals and light tones of this song sweep you up into the auditory equivalent of a spotless white room. Chairlift’s utopia, here dubbed “Planet Health,” imagines a world where fitness and happiness are mandatory, and the sick, sad and old are shipped away somewhere. With shades of Brave New World, Chairlift present a cautionary tale of utopia where what we want most is what destroys us.
“3030” – Deltron 3030
If you grew up with The Matrix, this song will push all the right buttons for you. Rapper Del the Funky Homosapien adopts the futuristic persona of Deltron Zero, laying down lyrics fast and hard about fighting the omnipresent corporations of apocalyptic future with hacking, stolen mechs and daring escapades into cyber-grids. Keeping up with the allusions, action and rhymes is enough to make anyone’s head spin; perfectly conveying a future where everything keeps getting faster and ideas are more powerful than guns.
“The Bagman’s Gambit” – The Decemberists
A riveting tale of spy against spy, this Decemberists tale is set during the Cold War. Though it may not be set in the future, “The Bagman’s Gambit” perfectly encapsulates many of the themes that underlay dystopias: its protagonists are isolated agents striving for a connection while in the employ of two monolithic governments so remote and unknowable they might as well be the same entity. Just replace the brief mention of Petrograd with “Mega City 1,” and the listener will find no less than the paranoid alienation of a Phillip K. Dick story.
“Intervention” – Arcade Fire
Rather than the traditional godless dystopias of Orwell or Huxley, Arcade Fire’s 2006 album Neon Bible proposes an oppressive theocracy. Led by a truly massive pipe organ, “Intervention” is a journey into the mind of a soldier as he’s ground into nothing by the demands of his faith and duty. Even five years later, the song has yet to feel dated; it would appear that fear-mongering, fanaticism, and the overarching sense of “Us-Versus-Them” isn’t going out of style anytime soon.