Eschatology in Pop Culture

Since living in Philadelphia, I’ve taken to watching the VH1 top music videos show. Apart from being Saturday morning fluff TV for watching in bed, it’s interesting to see the strains of what’s popular both visually and lyrically. In many cases themes are predictable – love, sex, celebration, heartbreak, doing what you believe in, etc. – but occasionally they surprise me.

Today there were two videos in a row that had a very similar end-of-the-world feeling: Bastille’s Pompeii and Lorde’s Team. Post-apocalyptic themes have been somewhat consistent as a minor strand through pop/rock music for the past couple decades, but these were interesting to me in the qualities they evoked. They were quiet, inevitable, hopeless and hopeful at the same time. There is the sense that the present is so suffused with the post-Collapse future that it has already happened in every meaningful sense.

The stream of thoughts reminds me of William Gibson’s famous line, “The future is already here – it’s just not very evenly distributed.”

bastille-pompeiiThe host’s opening comments to Bastille’s Pompeii were that the band wrote the song inspired by the notion of lovers communicating across a distance as Mt. Vesuvius erupted, covering the city of Pompeii in lava and ash. It’s a beautiful idea and a beautifully sad song about the end of one’s entire world, which of course can be extended to a mentality regarding social Collapse. The echoed, chanted choral lyric, “but if you close your eyes, does it almost feel like nothing changed at all?” gives the song a dreamy, passive sense – it’s already happened, it’s already here, the event itself is just an echo. The video itself was very dreamlike, running through a frightening world, run-down and abandoned, with the few people run into sporting sunken-in eyes and blank faces. It ends with the character approaching a line of wind power turbines at a gorge, mountains in the distance, nobody and nothing around.

lorde-teamMeanwhile, Lorde’s Team is more of a standard popular depiction of a post-apocalyptic world surrounded by abandoned beaches, tunnels, junkyards, motorcycles and empty shipping containers. The quality that makes it different is that nobody is trying to do anything in particular. It’s a group of liberal-looking unemployed twenty-somethings passing a jug in a circle, dressed in salvaged clothes, just hanging out. In other words, this is not the future: this is the present. The lyrics are more about the present as well, “we live in cities you’ll never see on screen,” but they indicate that the present is indistinguishable from the future, and the future consists of the “ruins of the palace within my dreams.” The palace is already ruined, and we’re just waiting for the physical world to catch up to what’s so painfully obvious.

Artists have always had a unique ability to feel the future, and when business interests acknowledge a particular aesthetic regarding the future (because music videos on a pop platform like VH1 don’t get there without being vetted for their cultural land-ability), especially when that aesthetic is among those that tend to inspire me and my writing, it’s an interesting sea change to me.

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