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Screen shot, Silent Running (1972) poster, November 24, 2020. (https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0067756/mediaviewer/rm3505217792/).

Music has nearly always been a dreamscape from which I could envision alternative histories, sense multiple futures, uncover possible presents, feel and find my best self.

It has also been a place for revealing the naked, uncomfortable truth of humanity’s existence in real life. If one were to take the music of the late 1960s and first half of the 1970s, the R&B that clearly outlined the combination of migration, poverty, heroin addiction, the Vietnam War, police brutality, unemployment, miserly government social welfare and urban living would be one way to go. If one were to take the eclectic British and Irish pop and rock of the 1980s, those folks illuminated the connections between rising conservatism, austerity meant to cut the social safety net, and the normalization of government oppression, corruption, and infiltration into the private lives of everyday people.

It all adds up to one simple yet very scary truth. Our world, the one in which my mother birthed me, the one in which I have grown up and grown older, has always been a dystopia. That’s it. All this talk of technological innovation, of moral and philosophical advancements, of a post-World War II, West-led democratized, globalized, capitalist meritocracy is simply The Real-Life Matrix pulling the dystopian world over our deluded, narcissistic eyes. And nearly everything in the world of mainstream news and journalism, in everyday national and international politics, in formal education systems, and in every single iota of American and global popular culture.

Except in the occasional and deliberate attempts made by artists and authors to expose the underworkings of this Matrix. I have written far too much about those authors of late, from Sarah Kendzior, Mona Eltahawy, and Leta Hong Fincher to Kiese Laymon, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Derrick Bell. Truth is, I felt and sensed this truth in music even before I had read Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, or William Faulkner’s short stories about racist White men sleeping in beds for 20 years with the dead bones of their incestuous mothers. Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues {Make Me Wanna Holler),” Stevie Wonder’s “Living For The City,” and Donny Hathaway’s “The Ghetto” brought the dystopian of Black life in the US to my attention long before I knew what the prefix dys- even meant. The contrast between this and the Afrofuturism of Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Fantasy” and “Boogie Wonderland” of the late-1970s wasn’t lost on me, even though it would be nearly 15 years between these songs and my reading of Octavia Butler’s Kindred.

 

But the 1980s hit me and my family as hard and fast as a government coup in Brazil or in Trump’s version of the US. It’s wasn’t just that it was our apocalypse. It revealed that the American Dream was a nightmare for so many people. It opened up my 100 billion neurons to the possibility that there could be no American Dream, no rise of the West, no Euro-American hegemony over the world without it being a dystopia for billions of people in the US, in Europe, and around the world.

It was also the decade of the Ethiopian famine of 1983-85, “We Are The World,” Bob Geldof and Live Aid, Farm Aid, and protests for South African divestment. So it seemed normal for groups of White guys in bands to write music, play instruments, and belt out lyrics like the ones below from Mike + The Mechanics’ “Silent Running” (1985).

Don’t believe the church and state
And everything they tell you
Believe in me, I’m with the high command

The post-apocalyptic movie of the same title from 1972 was apparently on Michael Rutherford (guitarist of Genesis), et al.’s minds when they decided to work on the lyrics for this song. The idea that someone from the future would communicate with their ancestors in the past to resist the forces of totalitarianism and propaganda in order to preserve the path to a better future? Boy does that sound like the stuff of Octavia Butler, Derrick Bell, Kiese Laymon, and Colson Whitehead (not to mention, Tomi Adeyemi in her Children of Blood and Bone), where ancestors and descendants can somehow have confabs in real life! All in an effort to swap ideas, to conjure up solutions before we understood the problems, to recognize that time is nonlinear, and so are we.

As a teenager who saw more than most that the Reagan Years were part of the dystopian present, and not a return to American greatness, “Silent Running” was refreshing, if also incredibly scary. I was like, if these White guys from the UK and Ireland get it, then why don’t folks in America get it? At least, the folks I saw at school and in running my errands every day.

But it wasn’t just Mike + The Mechanics. A lot of music from the 1980s and 1990s was subversive, including the more obvious Springsteen and the E Street Band’s “Born In The U.S.A.” and John Mellencamp’s “Pink Houses” to KRS-One and Boogie Down Productions, Alanis Morrisette, and The Cranberries. It was just that the less subtle, the Billboard Top 40 hits and the B-side non-hits stood out for their double-meanings. When I stripped away the male bravado, the love and the lust and the loneliness from the repertoire of rap, R&B, hip-hop, and ’80s pop I listened to, the subversive was the remainder.

In my family-level apocalypse and resistance against my stepfather, the subversive helped. In the disconnect between the normalcy of magnet-program-learning among a cabal of Benetton-commercial-wannabes, the undercurrent understanding that this fakery belied a world very much like the one in The Matrix. The lyrics, the synthesizers, the heavy guitar strums and the drum rolls meant something different to me than anyone I knew growing up could imagine.

It wasn’t just “Silent Running” for me, nor something that hit like a sledgehammer like Genesis’ “Land of Confusion” that hit the radio waves my senior year of high school. There were others. For more than a decade, there were others, including:

  • PE, “Welcome to the Terrordome
  • Sting, “Love Is The Seventh Wave”
  • Dave Matthews Band, “Cry Freedom
  • The Cranberries, “Zombie
  • Peter Gabriel, “Biko” and “Shaking The Tree”
  • Des’ree, “Crazy Maze
  • James Blake, “No Bravery”
  • Seal, “Future Love Paradise” and “People Asking Why”
  • U2, “Bullet The Blue Sky”
  • Arrested Development, “Tennessee”

In the years after I finished my doctorate, I didn’t forget these songs, and may have taken on some more obscure ones by Floetry, Coldplay, U2, Bryan Ferry, Pharcyde, The Fugees, among others, along the way. Popular music has become more vapid and craven and corporate as the leaders in our world have made their taste for a dystopia that advantages them more and more obvious. This position is probably why I can’t find a nod to the dystopian in Rihanna, Cardi B, Chance the Rapper, Rick Ross, Beyoncé, Gary Clark, Jr., or Chris Stapleton (although Solange’s and Missy’s music videos at least contain subversive and dystopian wisps).

This world is the dystopia that has always been. And those of us who talk to ourselves while speaking out at the same time have been trying to get everyone else to see it and sense it all along. I should know. I’ve been talking to myself since my week of homelessness at 18, and speaking out as the world has lurched itself toward calamity for nearly as long.