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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

"Everybody Wants to Rule the World": Happy? Sad? Both?

It's Dead Week, and my existential dread is peaking once more.

For some reason, despite having gone through it six times, I was still shocked and frightened when I realized just how much work I have in front of me these next few days: a rough draft due Tuesday; another I'm trying to finish by then; a final paper due Thursday and another Monday; and an in-person final Thursday afternoon.

Some of you may think that me continuing with my blog is in part an effort to distract myself from all those tasks I described above... and you'd be right. However, I'm also using this space as a place where I can process my feelings by discussing tracks that speak to me in these moments. After hearing Tears for Fears' classic "Everybody Wants to Rule the World" the other day, I thought of the song again today as I was pondering whether or not all my efforts will be worth anything in the long run. I still haven't answered that question for myself, but in the meantime I have listened to the track a number of times, and I've taken away a couple things from it, both musically and thematically.

I think I'm so struck by "Everybody Wants to Rule the World" because of the palpable contrast between its musical setting and its lyrics. Musically, the song is one of the most upbeat of its era, and that feeling is definitely buoyed by its somewhat quick compound meter — in which its beats are subdivided into triplets. Triplets and compound meter have an interesting place in popular music, which is so dominated by structures based on powers of two (2, 4, 8, etc.), including measure and phrase length. When triplets are fast enough like they are in "Everybody Wants to Rule the World," they add an innate bouncy quality to the beat that keeps it somewhat happy-sounding and moving forward. This feeling is only furthered by the song being solidly in a major key (D Major) for its entire duration, being established as the song fades in with — get this — a triplet figure.

Contrast the upbeat instrumental with Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith's lyrics, which speak to the Cold War era in which they lived through its reflections on humans' unrelenting desire for control. The lyrics depict us common folk as people thrown into this undesirable world, opening with the foreboding "Welcome to your life / There's no turning back." The song's control aesthetic is then established with the rest of the first verse, with remarks on surveillance leading to the first statement of the title... and it's not like the number gets much happier from there. Even moments of narrative brightness ("Help me make the / Most of freedom and of pleasure") are immediately canceled out ("Nothing ever lasts forever"), leading towards the feeling that none of what we're doing really matters in the end. As the chorus suggests, "the walls" will "come tumbling down," and even if I'm "right behind you," all our efforts will ultimately be for naught.

...So what's the point, then? Why do anything when even life itself is ephemeral? Well, maybe there's hope to be found in nothing ever lasting forever, because that may also mean that the power structures which imprison us and so greatly limit our freedoms may themselves fall. One can certainly argue that was the case in some respects when the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991. Yes, new power structures have since emerged not only in Eurasia but around the world, and they too have restricted freedoms, but they too were not always there, and those regimes won't be immortal either. "Everybody Wants to Rule the World" thus does have a tinge of hope in its narrative. It doesn't suggest any permanent reprieve, but it does leave the possibility of the future being brighter for at least a little bit. Maybe that's why the music is so upbeat — it's looking ahead to that time.


I'll leave it up to you to decide whether that's the case or not.


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