Nick Cave Predicts the End of Western Civilization
With “Higgs Boson Blues”, Cave simultaneously bemoans and embraces the existential crisis caused by hyperreality.
No matter how great the temptation to crawl back in bed rather than face another dismal American news cycle, it seems we can no longer deny we’re on the verge of something legitimately major -- for better or worse -- in 2016. What better occasion than a Nick Cave release to acknowledge our cultural precipice? Devoted Nick Cave fans can at least take shelter for a little while in Andrew Dominick's new film, One More Time With Feeling, and the recently released Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds album, Skeleton Tree. How better to acknowledge the state of things than to revisit an older Cave masterpiece, one that accidentally or deliberately chronicles the demise of Western civilization?
I started writing scraps of this essay in my head over three years ago, shortly after the February 2013 release of Push the Sky Away. One song in particular, “Higgs Boson Blues”, took hold of me and remained, feverishly, in my consciousness -- and on my playlist -- long after the others faded from rotation. It became a soundtrack to some memorable occasions in my life. On a March 2013 road trip to meet my sister-in-law’s family, my retired math professor father and I debated whether his background in particle physics or mine in literary theory provided the better interpretive framework. Some version of that conversation, fueled by craft beer and rich holiday food, was excavated again with my husband -- a writing professor like me, but also a musician. He insisted that, in overlooking key references to blues music, we had missed the mark.
I had a feeling he was onto something, so that’s where I officially started my research: at the crossroads where the song’s protagonist encounters Robert Johnson and the devil making their legendary pact. From there, I spent weeks on the blues, reading up on scholarship ranging from the metaphorical significance of the crossroads to the elusive trickster figure of the signifying monkey. Much of this was relevant to “Higgs Boson Blues", but that wasn’t the essay I wanted to write, at least not now. Instead, I wanted to focus on the verse that most urgently captures what it’s like to be alive in the late summer of 2016, alive and processing months of unrest and even violence in America and around the world, along with the incomprehensible rise of Donald Trump.
There are any number of lines in “Higgs Boson Blues” -- as well as many songs within Cave’s bleak oeuvre spanning decades -- that depict the unraveling of the universe, but one lyric in particular succinctly acknowledges a possible root of the problem. What was dismissed by many as a hasty, tongue-in-cheek rhyme to finish a song that went on too long, “Hannah Montana does the African Savannah as the simulated rainy season begins” actually manages to foretell the illness that plagues society today.
A 2013 Harvard Crimson reviewer is not alone when she writes off the verse as Cave’s “apparent obsession with everybody’s favorite Disney starlet” (Marshall-Christensen). Though the album earns a favorable grade overall from many critics, there's also some consensus that Cave has grown opaque, self-indulgent, or somewhat incoherent by the time Hannah Montana shows up. Indeed, an Edmonton Journal writer even conjured a hypothetical competition with Anthony Kiedis for “Most Ridiculous Lyricist” (Sperounes). Pitchfork's Stuart Berman notes that the song “travers[es] the entirety of modern history”. However, by including Cave’s own admission to “Googling curiosities”, even Berman may attribute more randomness to the song’s genesis than one should.
It’s more complicated, yet just as plausible, to argue the song originated from intelligent design. After all, we know from a 2013 Guardian interview that Cave’s inspiration started with a trip to a wax museum, where he saw a likeness of Miley Cyrus adjacent to one of the iconic Elizabeth Taylor. This anecdote reveals Cave’s wistfulness for the past, an awareness of aging, and possibly even an anxiety about the ebb of his own career.
Interestingly, the song’s alarmed protagonist -- seemingly a physicist who failed at locating the particle, which, if found, could have spared humanity from a mysterious apocalypse -- may mirror some of this uncertainty. Both Cave and his fictional physicist have the blues, and why wouldn’t they? Modern society’s obsession with celebrity and its relative apathy toward art and science threaten their extinction. In an ultimate irony not lost on Cave, celebrity worship is so ubiquitous that his own music, obscure by contrast, cannot escape its clutches.
Even if taken at face value, as a reflection of authorial anxiety, the song still wields an impressive scrutiny of a youth culture that has begun to annoy, elude, and even intimidate those who are no longer young. But Cave seems to have something deeper in mind, something less personal and more universal. To peel back the many layers of the Hannah Montana verse, it helps to start with a literary theory concept known as simulation, attributed to 20th Century philosopher Jean Baudrillard. The Hannah Montana lyric contains an example so perfect I sometimes use it in my classes to explain a concept important to postmodernism.
Let’s remember that Cave’s father was a literature teacher who exerted considerable influence on his worldview. The word “simulated” suggests Cave knew about simulation theory prior to writing the song, and that he was interested in how 21st century innovations often blur the distinction between what is real and what is replica. Also, since textbooks, online lectures, and (his proclaimed favorite) Wikipedia cite Disneyland as the archetypal model of a simulacrum, the very mention of Hannah Montana, herself a brainchild of the Disney Channel, further indicates a deliberate homage to Baudrillard.
Basically, a “simulacrum” is the copy of an entity that either 1. never had an original, or 2. whose original has been so frequently copied that the difference between real and artifice is no longer recognizable. In “Higgs Boson Blues”, the African Savannah is the place being simulated, and Cave’s lyric momentarily bridges the physical distance between listener and African Savannah. Depending on one’s own arsenal of available images and experiences, the resulting picture of the Savannah might be quite vivid and close to the original.
But actually, we’re listening to Cave sing of a scientist who thinks about an actor, who is playing a character that crosses the African Savannah. Turns out, that character is not in the real African Savannah, either; instead, as she waits in a bathroom line, we realize she’s at an amusement park and inside an African Savannah exhibit. The amusement park simulates. Hannah Montana wanders. Miley Cyrus acts. The TV broadcasts. The song’s weary scientist recalls seeing that episode. Cave sings about the scientist. I listen to the song. If this essay gets published, you read my words: eight separate layers of experience conflated into six words.
In case your head isn’t on the verge of exploding yet, there's at least one more layer to the Hannah Montana lyric. On the now-defunct show, Miley Cyrus played a character with a double life: she was an average teenager by day, a famous singer named Hannah Montana by night. In other words, the real African Savannah is obscured under an almost infinite deferral of others’ experience of replicas. As for Cave’s role as creator, we can chalk it up to miraculous accident or meticulous composition. Take your pick. Either explanation yields the same product: the Large Hadron Collider and Miley Cyrus are worlds apart, yet they’re separated by less than one minute in a song that manages to bring them paradoxically together under the control of a particle that cannot be seen but can apparently end it all.
Somewhere in another time zone, the “real” African Savannah keeps existing, indifferent to all this simulation, and although 21st Century technology allows us to “experience” it, this contact is illusory. Proximity might be the greatest deceit of technology, as a dizzying abundance of information resides in our pockets, activated by our fingertips and voices. These days, it’s easier than ever to fall into the trap of experiencing people, places, and things as both closer and realer than they actually are. Those who follow celebrities on social media can’t be blamed, then, for feeling like they really know those people. But there are also significant consequences to this perceptual distortion. After all, if a song lyric can simulate the African Savannah, then an American presidential candidate’s impromptu tweet can just as easily lure millions of followers into feeling directly and intimately addressed by a message that is ultimately empty.
I’ll get back to real life in a minute, but I’m still not done with Hannah Montana. Curiously, she "does" the African Savannah, as opposed to sees, walks through, experiences, or any number of other more passive -- albeit less musically catchy -- alternatives. A present tense singular verb, does almost hints of invasion, thereby equating this ostensibly innocuous Disney character with the song’s most violent conquerors, assassins, and killers. Early on, the physicist witnesses Lucifer coughing up “one hundred black babies”, Cave invoking the devil not to exonerate people for their role in genocides, but rather to suggest humanity’s inherent and enduring capacity for extreme evil. He also seems to travel back in time to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Then he recalls an unnamed caliphate’s subjugation of Jewish people. Finally, he charges a (presumably Christian) missionary with exposing a colony to fatal illness under the pretense of “saving them savages”. Whether the “Higgs Boson Blues” is supposed to represent “salvation” in the form of science, religion, technological advancement, or cultural appropriation, Cave’s intentional grammatical error derides the ignorance of salvation’s deliverer.
By the end of the song, Cave has argued a view of progress akin to the postcolonialists and to similar epics like Neil Young’s “Cortez the Killer”, namely that the rise of one civilization portends the fall of another. One empire enjoys a golden age; another gets wiped out from disease or war or economic collapse instigated by disease and war. What’s more, beyond the song’s violent images hover more latent, bloodless examples of conquest. As Hannah Montana capriciously “moves on to Amazonia” from the African Savannah to “cry with the dolphins”, Cave’s droll tone matches the exhaustion of those who think unchecked capitalism has reached a farcical extreme. By charging upwards of $100 per ticket, for example, amusement parks become proxies for experiences only available to a privileged few. In this way, the African Savannah can only be seen by the affluent, and here only by celebrities like Miley Cyrus who have nothing more than a fleeting interest in it. Meanwhile, Cave’s intellectually curious scientist sits alone in his basement and thinks.
In this nihilistic portrait, nobody is really let off the hook, with Cave seeming to implicate most human frameworks and narratives in nearly equal measure. Without a doubt, the big three monotheistic religions -- Judaism, Christianity, and Islam -- are all tangled up in this “civilized” mess. The real surprise to some listeners may be the indictment of science. Though considered the antidote to blind faith by skeptics and atheists, science carries no particular weight with postmodern scholars, for many viewed it as another “narrative” potentially as rife with human error as religion. For a long time after postmodernism’s heyday, this idea -- debunking science as story -- was mostly relegated to literature and philosophy classrooms. After all, we need something concrete to believe in, don’t we?
Recently, though, distrust of science has experienced a mainstream resurgence. We need look no further than climate change denial or the anti-vaccine movement than to conclude the wellbeing of truth has never been more precarious. Also, many writers chronicling the 2016 American presidential race characterize the populace’s indifference to fact, unprecedented in modern society, as a “post-truth” environment. In a 4 August article, Washington Post writer David Ignatius discusses sociological research into confirmation bias and concludes that vehement attempts to fact-check politicians like Trump may only lead to supporters doubling down on the falsehoods.
Back in 2012, when composing the song, Cave couldn’t have foreseen Donald Trump’s ascent from billionaire television personality to presidential candidate, but he may have had all the evidence he needed that Western civilization was hurtling toward a similarly ludicrous end. As Miley Cyrus outlasts all matter that has ever existed in the past, present, or future, she becomes the song’s final image, a passing 21st century star floating ambiguously face up or face down in a post-apocalyptic pool. Listeners are left with the vision of a society in which celebrity status supplants millennia of discovery -- and, by extension, in which fame carries the same weight as knowledge, and in which saying something is true is just as good as its actually being true.
A full generation before Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and whatever else has started to trend before I finish writing this essay, Baudrillard more or less predicts that our constant state of “hyperreality” -- the feeling that everything is realer than real, and also indistinguishable from artifice -- will render us more disconnected than ever from ourselves, from each other, and from truth. With “Higgs Boson Blues”, Cave simultaneously bemoans and embraces this existential crisis. Whether he devoted weeks to brushing up on postmodern theory or whether he simply spent a few bleary hours “Googling curiosities” matters little in the end. If he was able to accomplish this sleight of hand with the aid of only Wikipedia, we may never know; regardless, the fact that Wikipedia is even a possibility further bolsters his vision that contemporary society is at a truly historical crossroads.
Danielle DeRise is an adjunct professor of writing, humanities, and literature at three colleges in Virginia. Her class themes range from the ethics of food to the spectacle of capital punishment. “Mercy Seat” is her second favorite Nick Cave song.