Apocalypse as critical dystopia in modern popular music
The last book of the New Testament has inspired countless narratives and cultural productions, most of them unaware of its complex and metaphorical contents. Apocalypse/apocalyptic has thus become a self-referential category in the collective imagination, an actually fascinating icon, no matter how far from the original. In the realm of popular music and especially after the two world wars, the Apocalypse was passionately embraced as synonymous of imminent catastrophe, generating a mainly dystopian discourse. Importantly, in dystopian rock, devastation is anticipated in present life; hence the urgency of its apocalyptic assertions. As a tool for analysis, the concept of critical dystopia (Moylan 2000; Swanson 2016) has built a useful bridge between apocalyptic menaces, re-enchantment of the world, and social protest.
On the other hand, ‘authenticity’ is a sacred dimension within rock, the antidote of commercialism and ‘mainstream’ as musical prostitution, very much in Biblical-style. The connection between Apocalypse and authenticity is therefore immediate and natural, the former becoming the desired and eschatological consummation of the latter’s victory against the evil/falsehood forces, developing into both an aesthetic and moral universe of personal engagement, highly respected by rock fans. Authenticity becomes revelation of the divine to the worshippers, and a cathartic projection into the future/salvation.
U2, The Rolling Stones, David Bowie, Bob Dylan, Iron Maiden, Alice Cooper, REM, The Doors, Tom Waits, Johnny Cash, Blackalicious, Busta Rhymes, and other celebrated musicians, have created relevant songs involving the apocalyptic-as-dystopia rhetoric, which are the case studies this work is based upon.
Moylan, Tom. 2000. Scraps of the Untainted Sky: Science Fiction, Utopia, Dystopia. Boulder: Westview Press.
Swanson, KJ. 2016. “Sinners, Saints, and Angels on Fire: The Curiously Religious Soundtrack of The Hunger Games’s Secular Dystopia”. The Journal of Religion and Popular Culture 28(1). doi: 10.3138/jrpc.28.1.3235. Accessed October 2, 2016.
South African #FeesMustFall protest songs as the sound of apocalypse
In October 2016, several factors simmering within the South African political landscape led to the national #FeesMustFall student protests. Across the country, students resolved to shut down universities completely, with the more immediate consequences of placing the 2016 academic year in jeopardy but also, even more seriously, calling into question the future of the country’s tertiary education structure. The abandonment of humanity manifested in the violence shown by some students as well as police and private security personnel meant that to this observer, the protests were decidedly apocalyptic in nature. Far from an isolated movement, these protests should be interpreted both in the context of the #FeesMustFall protests of 2015 and the general ‘protest culture’ active in South Africa (Duncan 2016). This movement is also related to anti-apartheid protests from the 1980s, especially because the students performed several struggle songs dating from this period during their meetings. These songs have a venerable history in South Africa and are often revitalised with new lyrics to suit particular protest contexts. Based only on their lyrical content which features descriptions of struggle heroes and a reworking of the South African national anthem, these #FeesMustFall songs are not inherently apocalyptic. Analysed on their use within the #FeesMustFall context however, I will demonstrate that they contain elements of an apocalyptic nature. These findings reveal that, in addition to analysis of ‘typical’ apocalyptic musical genres, we can also locate apocalyptic themes in music when our analyses incorporate the social contexts and use/function of the songs themselves.