1. “It’s the End of the World As We Know It” by R.E.M.
It’s 1995. The windows are rolled down in my dad’s Oldsmobile. He’s driving me around in the “Blue Bomb” as he likes to call it, my unkempt mushroom bowl haircut blowing in the breeze. Sitting on the back seat, my feet rested carelessly atop the seat in front of me, the blowing leaves outside create a kaleidoscope of crimson and amber. R.E.M is blasting from the stereo during a time of innocence and unknowing. Climate change—what’s that? Al Gore has yet to shock the nation with any of his inconvenient truths. The world is my oyster.
Fast forward to 2020: COVID-19 is spreading throughout the world. Although seemingly everyone survived doomsday scenarios in the ’90s, even the Matthew Brodericks of shoddy apocalyptic remakes, listening to “It’s the End of the World As We Know It” in these times is an experience fraught with uncertainty. Spending Spring 2020 in self-quarantine, it’s worth spending four minutes and seven seconds with R.E.M. Singing along, we’ll feel like Tommy (Chris Farley) and Richard (David Spade) in Peter Segal’s comedy, Tommy Boy (1995), mumbling mile-a-minute lyrics that we can’t possibly pretend to have fully memorized.
We can enjoy “It’s the End of the World As We Know It” while identifying with singer Michael Stipe’s recent coronavirus public service announcement video urging us to stay inside and take care of one another. Even if our voices trail off in uncertainty like Stipe’s voice does in his P.S.A., we can take comfort in singing along to one of the tried and true choruses of yesteryear, a catchy, comforting tune that stands up to apocalyptic fears. It might even make you want to dance.
2. “Isolation” by Joy Division
Grant Gee’s 2007 documentary Joy Division begins with a foreboding inscription from Marshall Berman’s examination of modernism All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: “To be modern is to find ourselves in an environment that promises us adventure, power, joy, growth, transformation of ourselves and the world—and, at the same time, that threatens to destroy everything we have, everything we know, everything we are.” [i]
As a band and as a sound, Joy Division ultimately conveys a sense of crushing loss in times of wonder. Listening to “Isolation” during the COVID-19 outbreak, I feel like British culture is slowly dissolving and reforming into something less secure, something more easily bought and sold by powers beyond my control. Joy Division’s “Isolation” projects intimations of a world losing control of itself, its hectic hi-hat sprinting towards an unresolved conclusion.
During the time of coronavirus, listeners can locate themselves somewhere inside the chilling electronic drumbeat of “Isolation”, a song that powerfully expresses how it feels to be disconnected from the world outside with irresistible post-punk melancholy. Paradoxically, Joy Division’s Ian Curtis presents a case against himself while at the same time defending himself as a modern human whose nature is to succumb to modernity’s mindless distractions:
But if you could just see the beauty,
These things I could never describe,
These pleasures a wayward distraction,
This is my one lucky prize.
Isolation, isolation, isolation, isolation, isolation.
No band has captured how it feels to witness certainties, securities, and values crumble before our eyes in unprecedented times as Joy Division has with this song. As COVID-19 sweeps through the world, and as Americans become more painfully aware of the problems we face as a nation, we can all identify with “Isolation”, a song that serves as a mirror for every individual to self-examine and self-interrogate. We are self-isolated because of the coronavirus outbreak, but we are just as isolated by our consumerism. “Isolation” reminds us that we can become crippled by the products of our own ingenuity.
3. “40 Years” by House of Freaks
Life has become more complicated for me since I was cruising around in dad’s Oldsmobile listening to R.E.M. in the mid-’90s. I am struck by the sheer number of people I have known who have passed away from opiates, illness, and old age. Like many of us, I’m fascinated and awe-struck by death. As a teenager I used to walk through graveyards, amazed at the number of lives I was passing over that I would never personally know. In 2020 I feel as connected to those souls as I did as a teenager, especially considering the proximity of death in my life.
My younger brother Kevin technically died shortly after his birth before being brought back to life with a debilitating case of cerebral palsy, my mother survived breast cancer, and my father survived a brain tumor. Lost in the track “40 Years” by House of Freaks, I try to imagine being an innocent kid in the ’90s again, but I can’t seem to escape the presence of death. I picture my younger self riding on the “Mine of Lost Souls” at an amusement park I used to visit called Canobie Lake Park, a passenger on a rickety 19th-century mine car. I feel as if I can hear the miners singing at their work, unaware of the ghastly spirits of death that lurk around the next bend of the track.
House of Freaks’ “40 Years” is a stark reminder of all the unsung heroes who have passed on before us, unknown. The folk pop-rock equivalent of graveyard poet Thomas Grey’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”, the song reminds us that “the paths of glory lead but to the grave.”
A two-man band with a surprisingly complete sound auguring the likes of the White Stripes after them, House of Freaks hailed from Richmond, Virginia in the mid-’80s, their sound a mix of folk, rock, and Americana. “40 Years” is their classic dirge:
Rounded up in glory
Let the flag never fall
Blowing on the bugle
Out in the desert into these hallowed halls
A million hearts, a million minds
Have lived and died in 40 years
Pray for yourself and for your memories
And be thankful that we’ve had 40 years
These lyrics take up fresh meaning during the coronavirus outbreak. Each listener will have a unique experience reflecting on all of the unknown “faces that have passed this way”, but ultimately the song is a stark reminder of death, a memento mori. “40 Years” reminds me that I have much to be thankful for in the years that I’ve been lucky enough to have lived. The song serves as a reminder that although life expectancy was much shorter before our modern era, our fellow humans of past centuries, whose light burned so briefly, lived fulfilling lives, just as we do.
4. “Dancing on My Own” by Robyn
In my mind’s eye, the windows are rolled down again. This time I’m in the backseat of a Dodge Nitro SUV and my wife’s cousin is driving us through winding roads over rolling hills, past shrubs growing wild on the dunes of Martha’s Vineyard. I’m on vacation in 2015 and Robyn is blasting through the stereo. “Dancing On My Own” takes me back to memorable days and joyous occasions. It also brings to mind the epic face-off between Jujubee and Raven on RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars.
Like Robyn in “Dancing On My Own”, I’ve been “all messed up” and “so out of line” these days; alone, depressed, and anxious. Yet despite its expression of rejection and obsession, for many of us “Dancing On My Own” is a cry of perseverance in times of self-isolation that will help us get through life in the time of coronavirus:
So far away, but still so near
The lights come up, the music dies
But you don’t see me standing here
Despite the remoteness of our separation during 2020’s spring of social distancing, we are all connected—still so near. Although we might be dancing by ourselves or making goofy TikTok videos from our isolated chambers, we can and should still connect through stories, songs, episodes, films, FaceTime, and phone calls. Thank you, Robyn, for reminding us that it’s okay to dance on our own.
5. “Infected” by Bad Religion
A staple of the West Coast punk band’s live show and a modest breakthrough into the mainstream, “Infected” is one of those Bad Religion song that punk fans can’t get out of their heads, love it or hate it. I’m in the former category. Banking its streamlined efficiency on the familiar sounds of the grunge movement, “Infected” delivers ominous mid-tempo sludge from a band at the height of its powers.
Although AllMusic’s Jack Rabid has criticized the song as a “third rate ‘Sanity'”, referring to the classic anthem of madness from the band’s groundbreaking 1989 album No Control, “Infected” showcases all of the band’s strong suits, from infectious vocal harmonies to ripping lead guitar parts, while examining the toxicity of human attraction and obsession. [ii] “Infected” ultimately opens old wounds, whether from a damned romance, a struggle with addiction, or one’s tumultuous experience with faith.
Tension is the word that springs to mind when I hear “Infected” from the self-isolation of my room during the coronavirus pandemic. It would be hard for me to hear “Infected” without relating it to my own problems with alcohol consumption during my 20s. I imagine it might dredge up similar dark memories for many listeners.
While the coronavirus spreads panic and misery throughout our world, “Infected” serves as a touchstone for collective and personal self-analysis. This song asks that we question our relationship to the society we live in, that we scrutinize our unhealthy relationships with one another, and that we question our relationship to the cultural norms we upheld on a daily basis before the outbreak of the virus. Who will we choose to be when the world returns to some semblance of normalcy?
6. “Ghost Town” by The Specials
As my wife and I stroll through the deserted streets of Newburyport, Massachusetts in spring of 2020 to pick up the last check she will receive for some time from the local shop and café where she works, discarded paper waste blows its way down the road and tumbleweeds roll through the vacancies of my mind. A little further down the road we stop to discover that our favorite local coffee shop shut down until an indefinite time. “Ghost Town” by the Specials seeps its way through cracks in the seaport town’s brickwork and worms its way into my brain.
As the UK enters its current lockdown phase under Boris Johnson’s stay-at-home order, eerie parallels become drawn between the current global economic crises caused by coronavirus and the recession that wracked the British economy in the early ’80s at the height of the two-tone movement, a genre that fused first wave ska, punk, and new wave. Despite two-tone’s self-avowed pacifist desire to defuse racial tensions in Thatcher-led Britain, when the Specials toured the UK in autumn of 1980 in support of their album More Specials, many gigs descended into violence, a symptom of the discontent that many Brits felt due to urban decay, rising unemployment, and inner-city crime during the uncertainty of economic recession.
“You traveled from town to town and what was happening was terrible. In Liverpool, all the shops were shuttered up, everything was closing down… We could actually see it by touring around. You could see that frustration and anger in the audience. In Glasgow, there were these little old ladies on the streets selling all their household goods, their cups and saucers. It was unbelievable. It was clear that something was very, very wrong,” keyboardist and bandleader Jerry Dammers told The Guardian in 2002.[iii]
The resulting track “Ghost Town”, with its sparse lyrics and diminished guitar chords, conveys a ghostly and deserted atmosphere of impending doom. There’s no other song that more ominously expresses the devastation that the coronavirus pandemic is currently wreaking on the small businesses and workers of our communities.
7. “Sorry You’re Sick” by Ted Hawkins
While laying in bed with a high fever or caring for a sick loved one, there’s no song more curative than “Sorry You’re Sick” by Ted Hawkins from his 1982 album Watch Your Step (a brilliant collection of previously recorded soulful, bluesy American folk tunes). Speaking to the extreme lengths we would go to in order to alleviate the suffering of the sick and wipe illness from our world without a trace, “Sorry You’re Sick” grapples with the well-intentioned ineffectualness of one man to cure the illness of his loved one:
What do you want from the liquor store?
Something sour or something sweet?
I’ll buy you all that your belly can hold.
You can be sure you won’t suffer no more.
Considering our subjective inability to alleviate the current horrors of a global pandemic, these lyrics certainly resonate. The liquor stores are still open in the United States, where they are considered “essential businesses” (as, too, are gun stores). As I reflect on my commitment to avoiding heavy alcohol consumption during my self-quarantine, I can’t help but feel uplifted by the warriors among us who are managing to stay sober during these uncertain times.
8. “Sound and Vision” by David Bowie
I’m alone in my room in 2020. It’s a gloomy, rainy, overcast day in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Although Zoom “happy hours” with my fellow teacher colleagues and nature walks with my wife are therapeutic, I’m getting through this crisis by listening to David Bowie’s Low (1977) for what feels like the millionth time. Truly no other pop album expresses so profoundly the joy and plight of the alienated soul living out its existence in a state of pure solitude. Bowie has referred to the track as his ultimate retreat song:
It was… the idea of getting out of America, that depressing era I was going through. I was going through dreadful times. It [expressed] wanting to be put in a little cold room with omnipotent blue on the walls and blinds on the windows. [iv]
“Sound and Vision” communicates the isolation of an artist who has struggled with alienation and drug abuse, but it also expresses hope. We might be redeemed through our senses, we might be saved through our bewildering connection to images and sounds that bring meaning to our experiences as human beings. During my self-isolation, “Sound and Vision” reminds me of how integral art is to our survival as a species. It’s okay for us to draw the blinds, lose ourselves in omnipotent blue, and drift into a state of solitude. It’s what the doctor ordered. We just might come out of this experience more aware of ourselves as sensory beings who require sound and vision as much as meaning, love, and hope.
[i] Marshall Berman, All That is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity, (London: Penguin Books, 1988).
[iv] Watts, Michael. “Confessions of an Elitist”. Interview with David Bowie. Melody Maker. 18 February 1978.
What follows is a brief self-quarantine playlist I assembled while alone in my room during the time of coronavirus, along with a series of personal reflections and interpretations of how each song reflects the lonely, frightening times of global pandemic we are currently living through. I hope that this playlist offers some comfort in the time of coronavirus. You may be alone, but you’re not alone.
This playlist is also available on Spotify.