The man on the wireless cries again
It's over, it's over
Dancing With Tears In My Eyes - Ultravox
Enola Gay - Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark
Forever Young - Alphaville
For months, possibly even close to a year, I slept with the radio on.
It was the early 80s and America was in a deep freeze. But I didn't know it until the day an older girl, one of my friend's big sisters, already in junior high, walked us home. She and her homeroom class had visited the school's fallout shelter, and she chattered blithely about concrete walls and gamma rays, mushroom clouds and nuclear winters, taking great pleasure to inform us in a cruel aside that we needn't worry about mastering the vocabulary: We'd be vaporized, living as we did 10 miles from a major defense contractor and 30 from an air force base. And it could happen any day, any minute even. I'm not sure how the other girls took this news, but when my turn-off came and they disappeared from sight, I ran. Ran for shelter.
From then on and for what seemed like a long time, I lived with the conviction that nuclear annihilation was imminent. Even if I was just a kid, I wasn't exactly wrong. This wasn't like my girly apprehension of spiders; adults far more knowledgeable than I were certain we would never cross the millennial line. But I didn't share with anyone. I kept my fear close, folded to my chest, knotted in my gut, locked in my throat. It wasn't the sort of thing my parents liked to discuss. It was unpleasant, and besides, why worry about things you can't control?
Because kids try to control them anyway. I stayed indoors as much as possible. I bargained with God, or fate or chance of whatever I believed at the time: If the Russians don't bomb us I won't watch Three's Company tonight, If the Russians don't bomb us I'll be nice to my brother, I'll give up candy, I'll try harder in school. And I began sleeping with the radio next to my bed. So long as I could discern the hushed breath of music, the jabber of DJ, anything but the Emergency Broadcast System, I knew World War III hadn't begun yet, that I was still alive. Meanwhile, music became a companion. There had always been music in our home; my dad was an audiophile and much of the house was wired for sound. But for the first time, it was functional, not decorative. It was a comfort, a friend, a shelter. Sometimes that shelter was a home, other times a prison. Conflicts were enacted and deflated within this structure, but also nourished, sustained. I wasn't the first kid to learn the cathartic--and isolating--function of music.
Somewhere along the way--paralyzing fear isn't sustainable--I released my nuclear terror. It became background noise. And not long after, I started listening to synthpop, pinning my ear to the local new wave station, exchanging feverish letters with my music-mad English cousin lucky enough to live in the country where it all seemed to originate. The worst of the genre was justifiably lambasted for being void of content, but in retrospect, not of context. If technology was the tool of destruction, it was also a device of pleasure. If we're gonna die anyway, let's go out on the dancefloor. Plump, metronomic beats collided with lacquered synths and plaintive vocals. It was theatrical, sometimes embarrassingly so. But if you think everything about the era's popular music is a construct of costumes and poses, a "remember the 80s" themepark maintained by VH1 and a cynical culture industry, you obviously weren't there. Or you forgot.
"Dancing With Tears In My Eyes" video.
Songs about nuclear war:
In the 80s
The nuclear threat and anti-war songs of the 80s
VH1 anti-war songs
Lament, Ultravox (US, UK)
OMD Singles, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (US, UK)
Forever Young, Alphaville (US, UK)