It Was the End of the World as We Knew It (And Did We Feel Fine?)

Taken directly from the R.E.M. music video “It’s the End of the World”. Sorry for the low quality, it’s from 1987 :^/

Before You Start Freaking Out . . .

Big disclaimer: this post WILL be a tad bit off-topic. I had a hard time picking something I really resonated with among the possible topics in the Seventeen Moments, BUT this article about the “detente” period in the late 60s and 70s got the ball rolling for me.

The Detente Period was a time, mainly in the 70s, of little tension than normal between the Soviets and U.S. due to some strategic negotiations by Nixon with Brezhnev and vice versa. The most notable topic of this era were the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (later nicknamed ‘START’ by President Ronald Reagan) which was largely an informal promise between the two nations to start arms reduction. Here’s a helpful Britannica article on the subject.

The atmosphere of this time was primarily described as a “relaxation” of competition with the U.S. and Soviets, but it got me wondering: was this really such a “relaxing” time? Hence why this is going to be slightly out of line with the current time period we’re learning about, which is early Brezhnev. My research revolves mainly around the late Brezhnev into the Gorbachev, but since this is my last blog post I thought I’d try and come full circle with what we’re probably going to talk about in the next couple of weeks.


It Starts With an Earthquake

Cover of the 1987 R.E.M. single “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”.

It didn’t start with an earthquake, but I thought it sounded like a cool title that comes directly from the lyrics. Oh well, hit or miss.

Anyway, this article IS about the song. I’m going to attempt to analyze and showcase the Cold War influences that this song represents using various video sources and primary knowledge, so I’m terribly sorry to say I didn’t use the Current Digest (more boos from Professor Nelson, again I’m sorry).

This famous R.E.M. anthem is in fact not wholly about the Cold War with the Soviets, but more so about the Iran-Contra Affair around the time of release under the Reagan Administration. However, there are multiple references to Cold War history and namedropping of various celebrities from the era, such as the Soviet premier Leonid Brezhnev himself . . . and a lot of Lenny Bruce for some reason.

I picked this song in particular as a study of Cold War attitudes of the general populace because of the enormous irony within the chorus: “It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine”. Interesting. It’s the end of the world, but you feel fine? Let’s take a look at what this means through the various lyrical passages . . .


Polyphonic

Art asset made by the wonderfully talented Polyphonic in his video about the song I’m attempting to discuss. Here’s the link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rq-lv3mRKM4&t=530s

Polyphonic is indeed not an attempt at a cool, quirky title, but instead the name of a YouTuber that I drew great inspiration from for this topic. He is a video essayist that makes online content mainly about music and pop culture, and I’ve found his videos on Rage Against the Machine and System Of A Down to be some of my favorites. He also has a whole series taking a deep dive into the entire “Dark Side of the Moon” album by Pink Floyd that is currently in progress and is also VERY good. If you have nothing else to watch during quarantine I highly recommend his work!

The key takeaways from the breakdown can be summarized below:

Contrast between “left of west” and “book burning” Soviets and the “vitriolic, patriotic” U.S. (both quotes being actual lyrics in the song).

Compares ironic attitude of Michael Stipe in 1987 to the current COVID-19 pandemic today, that the biggest response to this “apocalyptic” event are internet memes and a similar “I feel fine” attitude.

This “I feel fine” attitude is pretty much the thesis of this post. Despite being in the midst of some of the most tense times in modern history, where two of the most powerful entities in human history have access to the most powerful weapons in human history and could decimate one another in a matter of days, everything among the general zeitgeist seems to be “fine”. And even despite stating various quarrels with the Reagan government and overall concerns with society at large, Stipe himself has no real response or recommendations for change.

This is similar to our current situation as well. Although there are many fingers pointing many different directions, no one has any correct information to make a justified opinion on the subject of COVID-19, and instead we just end up cannibalizing each other’s thoughts to try and arrive at a comforting solution. And that’s the thing, no one has a solution yet. If we did, this thing would’ve been over weeks ago. The best we can do as a society right now is to stay home and make memes, and that’s about all we’ve got. Let the scientists and essential workers handle this for now, we all can jump back in when the time is right.

*steps down from soapbox*

Alright, that’s out of the way. Sorry about that!


A Crash Course on the Cold War

Photo of John Green in his usual YouTube vlog location. Green is an author and Internetainer out of Indianapolis, IN and is known for such works as “The Fault in Our Stars”, “Looking for Alaska”, and the YouTube channel CrashCourse that he founded alongside his brother Hank Green.

I love this channel. Ever since we were “forced” to watch it in my high school world history class, I haven’t been able to shake the endless knowledge this platform provides. They have series on anything under the Sun history-wise, such as general World History, U.S. History, History of Science, Film History, History of Games, Mythology, and their newest venture into European History.

One particular video from the new series came out maybe a week ago entitled “Post-War Rebuilding and the Cold War” and gave me the historical context needed to tackle a topic such as this. The main points of the video can be broken down like this:

Cold War began with the Western fear of Soviet takeover, which was entirely in the realm of possibility since Europe was absolutely crippled due to WWII.

Further tension built during Berlin Blockade, “Operation Vittles”.

Green shares perspective of growing up during the Cold War, practicing nuclear fallout drills as soon as elementary school (same goes for my parents, and probably many of yours as well).

Stalin didn’t set a good precedent for communism due to the early Purges and the constant testing and production of atomic bombs.

One of the most interesting points of the video were the similarities between the U.S. and Soviet Union during the time. For example, the Americans set up a radio program called “Voice of America” to issue news and possible misinformation about the Soviets, whereas the Russians did almost exactly that as well. The popular James Bond wasn’t the only one of his kind, as the Russian author Yulian Simyonov developed a similar character named Max Otto von Stierlitz.

Now that we have a base level understanding of why these times were so difficult, let’s dive into some more lyrics!


A Tournament of Lies

You already know what this is, and it is neither in the U.S. nor Russia, but IS a place way back when where they held a LOT of tournaments. So, there you go.

“A tournament, a tournament, a tournament of lies” – perfectly encapsulates the ending to the Cold War.

A lot, a lot, a lot of misinformation and hollow promises between the superpowers. Neither side believed in the things the other were saying. Decades of prior missteps informed both sides of their decisions (answers one of the Topic Questions), thus creating a penultimate bottleneck in foreign policy.

These lyrics highlight specifically the short relationship between Reagan and Brezhnev, which is a huge contrast to the bond Reagan and Gorbachev would create. Gorbareagan . . . or maybe Reagachev? I don’t know, but these peculiar bedfellows ended up having possibly the best relationship among a U.S. president and Soviet premier one could ask for. Mikhail even attended Ronald’s funeral. How sweet.

Photo taken from a Wiki article about Reagan’s funeral. Gorbachev can be seen on the left, with Margaret Thatcher in attendance as well on the right. Such contrast.

Solutions, Alternatives, Decline

Reagan and Gorbachev, trying oh so hard to break the ice in Reykjavik.

“Offer me solutions, offer me alternatives, and I decline” – emblematic of Reagachev’s rocky beginning.

Negotiations during the Cold War weren’t easy. As previously mentioned, the closest the two sides came to an agreement were the START talks, but even those were held over a period of two decades and even persisted past the lifetime of the Soviet Union. Neither side were willing to comply to the terms of the other, because both were terribly scared of each other. This is why we had a Cold War in the first place.

What was held in high regard among Russian foreign policy with the U.S. was Reagan’s beloved SDI (Strategic Defense Initiative) program. This program, inaptly named “Star Wars”, was a possible initiative proposed by President Reagan of putting air defense satellites in space to protect against possible missile attacks. This, of course, in the 80s was impossible. In a decade where the highest grossing music acts were a David Lee Roth-less Van Halen and the borderline illegal, mindless Motley Crue, the Soviets really thought putting air defense satellites in space was plausible. Nowadays, this is entirely within the realm of possibility, and we actually do now have something similar in the Space Force that President Trump christened towards the end of last year. Moral of the story: Reagan wasn’t willing to negotiate the SDI (informed the Soviets on a lot of their foreign policy decisions). Gorbachev strictly named the SDI as the ground zero of agreement conflict, but Reagan deemed it too important an idea to give up. Thus, we get the above songwriting.


Birthday Parties, Cheesecake, Jelly Beans . . . *BOOM*

Artistic representation of Reagan’s love for jelly beans, which can be found in the Jelly Belly Factory.

“Birthday party, cheesecake, jelly bean, boom!” – one of these things is not like the other . . .

What the **** does the “boom!” part mean? We’ve got some pretty pleasant nouns in their, like “birthday party”, “cheesecake”, and “jelly bean”, followed by an equally aggressive onomatopoeia: boom.

Well, the boom refers to something that isn’t very obvious. We all know about government nuclear launch codes and the running gag that the Big Man can push the button at any second and cause Nuclear Winter. Reagan carried around the launch codes and mechanism at all times, in a briefcase which he called his “football”. He took his football everywhere, just in case Gorbachev left him on “Read” for a minute too long then *boom*. This never happened, as we now know, but what a power move to carry around a “football” with you at all times, am I right?


And I Feel Fine

This is R.E.M. Please don’t laugh, these were regular fashion decisions people of the 80s had to cope with.

Just hold on ladies and gentleman, we’re almost there. Time for me to rap this thing up. About time to be honest, I always go on way longer than intended in these posts . . .

But I feel fine. Do you? Yeah, I guess that is pretty normal, to feel “fine”. Which may be why R.E.M. felt the same way 33 years ago now. Amidst the most tense atmosphere known to human psychological history, with the world’s greatest superpowers, etc., people found a way to remain somewhat calm and find solace in as mundane of things as we do nowadays. John Krasinski, aside from he and his wife’s film “A Quiet Place”, hasn’t been relevant since The Office closed set in 2013, yet he now probably has the most popular Internet show of today, “Some Good News”. It really is quite good, and not despite the name is quite some good news. It’s relevance just proves my drawn out point, that even in times of crisis and panic we can find refuge in the most regular of things such as a good show or movie. Because, guess what, we don’t really have any control over these situations. What, do you think your grandma was going to just stop the Cold War all by herself? She’d sit up one day, fed up with those “dang Reds”, then go out and demand that it all be over? Preposterous. Just like now, we can’t stop what’s going on in the world, whatever it may be. The best we can do is say that everything will be fine and listen to some good music, maybe R.E.M. if you’d like. (not my thoughts, just the ultimate theme of the song)

No seriously, if you haven’t heard of this song or R.E.M. you might be a Soviet yourself! Try it out, give it a listen, and report back to me with your critiques in the comments below.

Listen to the song here: https://open.spotify.com/track/2oSpQ7QtIKTNFfA08Cy0ku?si=LBUPj7QbR-uzfYOaYJqwGA

13 thoughts on “It Was the End of the World as We Knew It (And Did We Feel Fine?)

  1. Landry, even through it didn’t go exactly with this week’s topics, I loved this post. I loved the title and the way that you used lyrics as headings to explain what was going on at the time. You were able to take a tense topic, and make it very light-hearted and even more interesting to read about. You also did a great job of explaining events during this period, and covered a lot of ground. I’m probably going to have this song stuck in my head for the rest of the day – and I feel fine with that (haha). Really nice job!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Landry, I really appreciate your alternative take on these subjects. It is always interesting to see how music and the arts came as a result of what was happening in the world at the time. I liked how you broke down the various lyrics of the R.E.M. song and analyzed the events that they described. The Cold War era saw some of the most iconic music in history in my opinion. Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. With tough times comes great music. Luckily, the Cold War set in motion the music industry as a whole so people would have something to hold on to. And yes, some of the best music and songwriting came from those decades . . . even Motley Crue . . .

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Hello, although this blog didn’t necessarily follow the weekly topics I genuinely enjoyed reading your post! Studying music and how it changes is an extremely good indicator on how society is changing as well. I especially like the R.E.M. song

    Liked by 2 people

  4. As someone who is old enough to have REM CD’s that wore out from constant play in the then very fancy CD changer of my Jeep as it made it’s way from Blacksburg to rural Indiana, rural Michigan, rural Kansas (ok, that’s all of Kansas), and back, I am happy to overlook the omission of the Current Digest (again) from this post, which is just all kinds of wonderful.
    (Most of the links don’t seem to work for me in Firefox though — is that problem on your end or mine?)
    Anyway, your post resonated with me in so many ways — it actually does connect really nicely with De’Vonte’s post on the rural prose writers and Matt’s discussion of Shukshin (the movie star) by reminding us that we always err by underestimating the power of music and the arts to mobilize people (for good or bad) and to define an era or an experience.
    I agree with the James Bond / Stierlits comparison and hope you have the real 17 Moments (on YouTube) cued up for some Pandemic binge watching.
    And I am glad you feel fine. I have to say that I don’t feel fine. In fact, just a couple days ago, someone I follow on Twitter said something like “REM lied about how I would feel right now” and it made me choke up. Partly because I think there was a certain amount of sarcasm in Stipe’s original “I feel fine” — a kind of “I’m pretty powerless to do much about this, so I’ll call out the bread and circus quality of the whole thing and just go out singing” kind of sarcasm. You know?
    I’ll refrain from going deep into the weeds of the my personal response to the current crisis here, but will just say that the further in we get the less fine I feel because it’s becoming more obvious that whenever the new abnormal does set in, we will have given up so much in the way of safety, privacy, security. We are profoundly social creatures, which is what makes the virus so deadly and what will make the price of victory (not even sure that’s the right word) so dear. I’m fine in the sense that I feel like I’m doing everything I can to stay healthy and keep others from getting sick. But it’s going to be a long time before I’ll be fine with the consequences of this thing — partly because they haven’t all been elaborated yet. But even the rough outlines worry me.
    Back on track now: Thanks so much for setting this post up the way you did — as you note in the beginning, this narrative arc takes us through to the end of the course. And that’s not just fine, it’s wonderful.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for all the compliments and critique! Unfortunate that the links aren’t working, I had them embedded into the text but may be an issue on Firefox’s side. On a side-note I’ve noticed that some browsers/platforms view the page differently, like my mom was trying to read it on her phone but my formatting wasn’t showing up (yellow titles, red text, gray background). But anyway, yeah in that Polyphonic video he saw Stipe’s lyrics as the exact same you did, more of a sarcastic response to the events happening around him. I, for better or worse, am an unassuming optimist and really do try and find the good in situations, just to make me feel better if anything. Glad you liked the post!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Landry I really enjoyed this post and is a nice break from reading about similar topics over and over again. I loved the part about Reagan carrying around his “football” with him where ever he went and that he also said he put air defense satellites in space to scare Gorbachev. The man was always ready to just light up the Soviets at all times.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Indeed, coming into office Reagan had two key points to make during his presidency: bettering the economy after an absolutely horrid 70s, and “dealing with” or perhaps also in the end bettering relations with the Soviets. I loved how Reagan and Gorbachev’s bromance (if you will) evolved since their talks in Iceland, fascinating to see diplomacy work the way it did.

      Like

  6. The Cold War was a really scary time. I remember when I learned about duck and cover which to me sounds ridiculous. I do not understand how people at the time believed that hiding under a desk would protect themselves from a nuclear bomb. I guess it was promoted in order to promote a peace of mind or security for people and prevent mass panic or anxiety. I guess it would go along with R.E.M.’s “I feel fine”. I wonder how people coped with the idea that the end of the world could happen at anytime with the way that United States and Russia negotiations were going.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It helped to have some of the best entertainment we’ve ever experienced during this time. Some of the greatest T.V. shows, movies, music, and other media came from the decades 50s-80s into the early 90s, so that played a big role in keeping the population sane. That was actually intentional by both the U.S. and Soviet governments, but not from a place of keeping the well-being of the public. Both countries and allies throughout the Cold War period revolutionized production of media devices, from the colored television to the cassette tape. These inventions were used by the populace at large for personal use, yes, but the Cold War governments also used them as an enticing mechanism to promote one ideology over the other, capitalism vs. communism.

      Like

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