Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Cold War Kids

Over at the Popdose site, friend of Debris Slide J.A. "Jim" Bartlett has a post up on Sting's "Russians," as part of a series on the World's Worst Pop Songs. "Russians" is part of an unlikely group of anti-nuclear war hits that flourished in the early to mid-1980s, and while "Russians" is certainly Not Good, it's also a long way from the worst of the lot.

I never quite understood why nuclear paranoia made such a heady comeback in those days, but it was all the rage there for a while. And a lot of artists seemed convinced that we could skirt the problem if they could just convince enough people that a nuclear war would be extremely unpleasant. I don't just mean pop stars; there was a very famous, highly regarded book of the time called The Fate of the Earth, by a writer for The New Yorker named Jonathan Schell, that was entirely about how bad a nuclear war would be. (Spoiler alert: Pretty frickin' bad.) I never read The Fate of the Earth, but I have read and enjoyed Michael Kinsley's evisceration of it in Harper's several times - maybe my all-time favorite Kinsley piece.

Everywhere you turned, everyone wanted to talk about the destructiveness of a nuclear war, although it's a pretty short conversation, since we'd all just die, period end of sentence. I was in high school in those days, and in English class we were assigned as an essay topic, "Should students have to study nuclear war?" The teacher told me I was the only student who answered that question in the negative. Why should we have? If it happened, we were all goners anyway, whether we knew how many megatons the Soviets had aimed at New Orleans or not. Time magazine had a cover story on all of this, called "Thinking the Unthinkable." My uncle was visiting our house at the time and asked me if I had read the article, and I said, "No, I try not to think about it." Which was true, and made him laugh - the funniest things are always true - although making him laugh had the unfortunate side effect of leading me to think I was funny and, eventually, to my writing snarky comments about pop songs for the as-yet-uninvented weblog.

Anyway, pop stars of the time, just like Jonathan Schell, thought they could help avert nuclear war if people would just stop for a second and realize how terrible it would all be. So in the summer of 1983, Men at Work released "It's a Mistake," an all-too-accurately titled bit of fluff that, you know, taught us all a valuable lesson. At the end of the song's video, the singer stubbed out his cigarette on the nuclear button. My bad! "It's a Mistake" ended up being Men at Work's last Top Ten hit.

This same trope was used in the video for Genesis' 1986 hit "Land of Confusion," which was, as Phil Collins helpfully pointed out, "a political song about the mess we have landed in." The video was based on the satirical British TV show Spitting Image, which used puppets made up like famous personages of the day for humorous purposes, although you couldn't prove that by the video. At the end, the Reagan puppet, given two buttons that read "Nurse" and "Nuke," pushed the wrong one. That's so satirical!

But the absolute bottom of the Cold War barrel was Dweezil Zappa's "Let's Talk About It," off his all-too-accurately titled 1986 album Havin' a Bad Day. This song was so important that Jane Fonda agreed to appear in the video, making sandwiches. Poor, sweet Moon Unit was forced to sing - well, more like "recite" - lyrics like "Capitalism, communism, freedom/They're all words/Do we know what they mean?"

They're all words. Think about it.

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