Monday, 11 April 2011

The Most Dystopian Pop Song

Last month I was walking around a large branch of Marks & Spencer, the clothing retailer which for many years has also sold housewares and food.  The customer profile of the store is predominantly people aged 55-75, so born sometime between 1936-1956, and in their twenties 1956-1985.  Thus, I guess that it was unsurprising that the music playing in the store was from the late 1960s which falls pretty much in the period when the bulk of the customers were aware of the popular music scene or those songs were still lingering on radio play lists.  Currently it seems to fit with the styles in the store.  Much of the women's wear is based on 1970s styles, making the wearers resemble the character of Margot from 'The Good Life' (1975-8) but in homewares a lot of crockery has a more style and especially iconography of the mid-1960s, with lots of emphasis on London, the kind of thing you might expect to see in Mrs. Peel's flat in 'The Avengers' (1961-9; Peel era: 1965-8). Of course, not everyone in there was over 55, but interestingly there is a lot of cross-generational shopping groups, notably mothers shopping with daughters and quite often with grandchild too.

Anyway, I was walking around browsing to the sounds of 'Waterloo Sunset' (1967) by The Kinks and then 'In The Year 2525' (1968; though it did not chart until 1969/70) by Zager and Evans, a real oddity of 1960s pop music which rather jarred with the jolly crockery and summer shades of clothing.  However, I guess it is supposed to be background music rather than you actually paying attention to it.  It is interesting how the record has endured despite its very bleak message.  The record was produced by Denny Zager and Rick Evans from Nebraska along with Dave Trupp and Mark Dalton, collectively known as Zager and Evans.  It was written in 1964 and recorded in 1968 but it took over a year to get into the charts, but reach number 1 in the USA and the UK.  By 1970 the single had sold over 4 million copies and to date it has sold 10 million.  It effectively became a 'one-hit wonder' as the follow-up single, 'Mr. Turnkey' was too bleak for customers to stomach being about about a rapist who nails his own wrists to a prison cell wall.

I accept that 'In The Year 2525' probably fitted in with the futuristic feel of the period, it reached the top of the US charts at the time the manned mission arrived on the Moon.  However, it is a bleak pondering of the future of mankind, and, as one might expect from two men who met at the Nebraska Wesleyan University, it actually has religious aspects to it.  I doubt that many listeners actually considered the lyrics very deeply and that like 'Spirit In The Sky' (1969) by Norman Greenbaum with its clearly Christian message and 'My Sweet Lord' (1970), the George Harrison version, the only Hare Krishna focused song ever to enter the charts (to my knowledge) the distinctiveness of the music simply carries the listerner along.

'In The Year 2525' is an example of how to draw the listener in.  It starts very slowly with the vocalist's voice dominant: 'In the year 2525/ if man is still alive / and if woman can survive / they may find ...'  (the year is said as 'twenty-five, twenty-five'), then for the rest of the song until the conclusion, it moves through at a break-neck speed, jumping from century to century pondering all the problems that man is likely to bring down on himself.  Given that it was written in 1964, it is pretty much ahead of its time.  I have read magazines from 1964 in which the damage to the ozone layer from CFCs in aerosols was warned about but it was 5-10 years before environmental concerns. 

It is not unusual for heavy metal and goth bands to record bleak songs, it is far more atypical for a pretty mainstream (though to the fringes of this, I accept) rock band to go with such a song.  It has been re-recorded by artists such as gothic Fields of the Nephilim, industrial Laibach, techno new romantics Visage, German electronic Project Pitchfork and kind of indie Ian Brown.  I do wonder what those versions sound like.  It would be interesting to find out as a different arrangement may not work because it lacked the operatic-style fast-paced drive of the original.

It is probably easiest if I lay out the entire lyrics and then comment on parts in turn.

In the year 2525
If man is still alive
If woman can survive
They may find...

In the year 3535
Ain't gonna need to tell the truth, tell no lies
Everything you think, do, and say
Is in the pill you took today

In the year 4545
Ain't gonna need your teeth, won't need your eyes
You won't find a thing chew
Nobody's gonna look at you

In the year 5555
Your arms are hanging limp at your sides
Your legs not got nothing to do
Some machine is doing that for you

In the year 6565
Ain't gonna need no husband, won't need no wife
You'll pick your son, pick your daughter too
From the bottom of a long glass tube

In the year 7510
If God's a-comin' he ought to make it by then
Maybe he'll look around himself and say
'Guess it's time for the Judgement day'
In the year 8510
God is gonna shake his mighty head
He'll either say 'I'm pleased where man has been'
Or tear it down and start again

In the year 9595
I'm kinda wondering if man is gonna be alive
He's taken everything this old earth can give
And he ain't put back nothing

Now it's been 10,000 years
Man has cried a billion tears
For what he never knew
Now man's reign is through
But through the eternal night
The twinkling of starlight
So very far away
Maybe it's only yesterday

In the year 2525
If man is still alive
If woman can survive
They may find

In the year 3535
Ain't gonna need to tell the truth, tell no lies
Everything you think, do or say
Is in the pill you took today ... [fade]

The song was written by Evans.  Many of the concerns are ones that we can identify as being part of 20th century science fiction.  The idea of a pill to give you your opinions is pretty much like 'better a gram than a damn' from 'Brave New World' (1932) by Aldous Huxley which is set in the year 2540.  Similarly that novel features children being grown in test tubes such as in the 'long glass tube' mentioned for 6565.  Commentators note that such concepts were not commonly discussed among the public at the time.  However, the book had sold well internationally and had been dramatised on CBS radio in the USA in 1956.  In addition, remember that Evans and Zager were university students in the early 1960s so would have been exposed, like many US teenagers and students to the extensive range of 'pulp' science fiction magazines of the time and science fiction novels and short stories.  The belief that, in the future that robots would take over so many chores was one that endured right through the 1960s and 1970s, so the sense of us becoming limp as robots did everything for us was again, a not overly-challenging suggestion. 

What is interesting is how already, in Zager and Evans's lifetimes so many of these things have become true.  If we think of Prozac and how many people have been prescribed it in the USA a country long obsessed with correcting the mental health of people.  Test-tube babies became a reality by the late 1970s and now we are even cloning sheep.  These things have been happening decades rather than centuries after the song.  Whilst household robots have not appeared, the 'limpness' of the human body is with us, notably in the USA where in 2009 all states had between 19-30% of their populations deemed to be obese, rather than simply overweight.  On average this means about something like 75 million Americans are obese.  The general comment about man taking out of the Earth and not putting back in, touches on the kind of environmental damage we have been witnessing for centuries, but notably through the late 19th century and the 20th century and is still continuing as flooding, global warming and acid rain show.

The song slows down for what is the final verse before the reprise.  It suggests that man will eliminate himself as the 'reigning' species.  It leaves it open whether God will clear it away instead.  From 7510 onwards God is shown considering whether to have judgement day.  It is interesting he ponders this for anothet two centuries, though I guess if you are eternal this is not very long.  I tend to envisage this rather than the Second Coming, something more like the Flood.  God promised humans that he would not repeat this, but the suggestion in the song is that humankind has so wasted the gift of Earth that it all needs to be cleaned out like a sewer.

I know this is only a pop song and not a philosophical consideration of the future of humankind.  However, it fascinates me that a song which rather than portraying fun or love but rather questions consumerism and technology and how this interacts with religion could be chart-topping.  It also seems a very ironic song to be playing in a shop which is pandering to consumerism, trying to get people to buy more and more.  I know Marks & Spencer tries to avoid exploitative production of its items and waste of the World's resources, but it is part of a consumerist system which actually is rapidly draining out so much.  I do wonder, sometimes if we will survive to 2125 let alone the year 2525.

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