Dancing Till the World Ends: Why Does Contemporary Pop Love War?

Sarah Grant

The Europop renaissance in Top 40 music has ushered in a peculiar fascination with the sounds, smells and visions of war. Seeing pop as a kind of warfare, or warfare in pop, provides a psychic escape for the listener.

“Our death is indeed, unimaginable”

-- Freud

“This place about to blow”

-- Ke$ha

As the ought’s have steamrolled into the two thousand and teens, we have been flying high and getting slizzered on the airwaves of mutilation (“Grenade”), sexual deviation (“S&M”), and global annihilation (“Dynamite”).

The Europop renaissance in Top 40 music has created some of the most brilliant pop songs. It has also ushered in a peculiar fascination with the sounds, smells and visions of war. These heart-thumping, cyborg sing-a-longs sound similar. Each crafted with the delicacy and danger of Ina Garten brewing a vat of 4LoKo. The lyrics are locked and loaded: cunningly contrived, over-the-top, comedic and grotesque all at once. They bask in glitter and indifference, which would be acceptable if they weren’t also trying to blow up the world.

In her 2010 roundup, critic Ann Powers noted the preponderance of violence in recent Billboard charts. About 100 years earlier, in a slightly different milieu, critic Ezra Pound noted the same thing. He called the cliché: “theatre of war", and then added: “Theatre is good."

One reason “theater” and modern war relate is because armies, like pop stars, perform under contract while “they’re over, over there.” Another is the wearing of uniforms that soldiers neither choose nor fashion in “real” life. Costumes specify a role and there are many to play the military, with a list of titles like Private, Captain, Sergeant, Lieutenant and so on. These factors distinguish between “military life” and “real life". The division creates a kind of melodrama that makes military affairs such attractive subject matter for artistic portrayal.

Role-playing, alternate identities and divergent realities, are tied into sadism and masochism (S&M), which has its own long history of representing war imagery, especially amongst war survivors and victims of post-traumatic stress disorder. There is a strange S&M routine being played out on the Billboard charts between Bruno Mars, providing the masochism, and Ke$ha, the sadism. Who knew that violence and cruelty also go together like a horse and carriage?

On “Grenade", Bruno Mars opines about a bad mama jama (er, “cannibal”), enumerating the ways he would commit suicide in her honor: jumping in front of a train, throwing his head on a blade, and, yes, catching a grenade. Keep bleeding love, Bruno. Despite the updated weaponry, the song revels in its old school-ness. When was the last time a woman was addressed as “darling” in a pop song? Mars’s “easy come, easy go” vocals, the doughy declarations, are temptingly close to loverboys of yesteryear, the Stylistics. Unfortunately, all the explosions woke up Ke$ha... who was feeling more like Polyphemus than P. Diddy that morning. “I... am... cann-i-bal,” she bellows, like a tramp-stamped Cyclops, picking off Mars’s backup singers one by one and dipping them in leftover Queso. Bottom’s up!

It’s really no surprise that all of this culminates with Rihanna and her awesomely bawdy track “S&M". The redheaded vixen is our mistress of Hotel Hell: Check in time, now, check out time, never! “Sticks and stones may break my bones / But chains and whips excite me,” she chants, calling upon a long, creepy fascination war poetry has with perverting nursery rhymes. Rihanna’s croons (“Feels so good being bad”) dissolve into deadpan fragments (“S, S, S, N, M, M, M”). Her signature “na na na’s” are repeated over and over, delivered with the mercy of a machine gun. It recalls the call-and-response “ye, ye, ye’s” from the battlefields of “Hard", on her last album Rated R.

The video for “Hard” features Rihanna driving a jeep, grinding in a base camp and barking orders at Jeezy, while donning her full metal jacket and some cleverly placed strips of black duct tape. Barely two years later, the same black duct tape traps the pop veteran in a Cellophane cage. The songs are eerily connected; like a two-part war chronicle Tom Hanks wished he had directed. Both incorporate low, tolling synths. In “Hard", the sounds and visions of military might is empowering. In “S&M", they are overpowering. “S&M” is a portrait of shell shock. Rihanna’s control is gone. She lunges at the fish-eye camera lens like R.P. McMurphy starring in Barbershop 10. She invites us -- through repetitions, easy breezy lyrics and hip-test-approved hooks -- to relive some kind of trauma with her. She becomes our muse, our memory, of war.

Rihanna - "S&M"

Sadism and masochism are traditions in post-war media. They illustrate the paradoxical shame of perversion and self-inflicted pain. In a particularly pungent episode from Thomas Pynchon’s war epic, Gravity’s Rainbow, a World War I veteran named General Pudding engages in ritualized torture (S&M) with a Dutch girl named Katje, who transforms into his “Mistress of the Night". She forces him to drink her urine and eat her shit. The worst part? He enjoys it. But not as much as Pynchon probably enjoyed hearing -- beneath his paper bag -- “There’s sex in the air / I don’t care / I love the smell of it.” Unless, Pynchon is Rihanna, which would explain a lot. Like this:

“The stink of shit floods his nose, gathering him, surrounding. It is the smell of Passchendaele, of the Salient. Mixed with mud, and the putrefaction of corpses, it was the sovereign smell of their first meeting.” General Pudding’s memory becomes clear only when reliving the torture, the shit, he endured in the war. It is a bizarre scene, both sickening and touching. The prose of the episode is strangely poetic, like a song, emphasizing the way pain frees Pudding by placing him in a familiar world, even if it is one of “nausea, vertigo and pain.”

The honesty associated with obscenity is often the same contradiction we face when listening to pop music.

Rihanna, like Katje, has two coexisting identities. Katje is both a Dutch girl and the Mistress of the Night, so too, Rihanna is both actual human and lacquered superstar. The song “S&M", combines this duality both literally and figuratively. On one hand, the song is dismissible. When have we needed an excuse for cheeky lyrics or a dominatrix routine? Any pop star after Madonna’s Sex book is hard-pressed to find a (legal) way of surpassing her contribution to sexpottedness.

On the other hand, the ambiguity of “S&M’s" message, the images, the lyrics, reflects the ambiguity of other troubling roles. Rihanna may be confronting a personal shell shock the best way she knows how: through the unrelenting media, the camera lens and public scrutiny. Mixing autobiography with pop is a cautionary act, but the memory of violence in a song like “S&M” is a real one. We don’t need to look further than the Good Morning America footage of shattered glass and a shattered temper to see the effects violent situations have on individuals, regardless of time or place. Rihanna captures the aftermath of violence on “S&M", but more importantly, captures a latent need to do something about it. Rihanna never gets quite enough credit for how ambiguous she is, mostly because her songs are so great it seems like a sin to muck them up with deeper consideration. “S&M” conjures the memory of war, of violence, in a hyper-public arena, and yet Rihanna somehow maintains her obscure character in pop. Like anything else she does, it is impossible to know what war she is fighting. All we can hope is that next time, baby, she’ll be bulletproof.

“S&M", “Grenade”, and Ke$ha's “Cannibal" are only a few examples of the wildly successful pop songs today that are imbued with the melodrama of war. Imagining the unimaginable is what makes these songs great. The stories they tell, the situations they present are too absurd, perverse, ruthless and strange to qualify as “real life". Seeing pop as a kind of warfare, or warfare in pop, provides a psychic escape for the listener. It engages our “real” selves without damaging our belief in the rational world. A quick fix.

The rhetoric of war also works well for record labels: living for today because tomorrow may never come is a valiant sentiment, but let’s be honest. Pop has never let us go hungry long. These songs are manufactured, like war weapons, in big factories, so that we few -- we happy few! -- keep dancing, singing, and buying, till the world ends. The ritualized torture and joy of pop music is a strange one indeed. The little General Pudding in all of us will return to the club or to the computer, to feed on the same shit over and over, but we like the smell of it.

Bruno Mars - "Grenade"

* * *


Paul Fussell. The Great War and Modern Memory. Oxford University Press. 1975.

Sarah Grant is a writer from New York. She currently lives in Baltimore, where she will receive her B.A. in Writing from Johns Hopkins University.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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