I was born during arguably one of the most tumultuous times for international politics. The year I was born, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ “Doomsday Clock” struck four minutes to midnight. Three years later, the minute hand moved another minute closer to midnight. The Bulletin’s midnight is a hypothetical Doomsday. The minutes remaining until midnight represent the level of existential threat humanity faces. In the 1980s, the Bulletin’s biggest worry was nuclear Armageddon. There were heightened nuclear tensions as Reagan and a quick succession of Soviet leaders entered the waning Cold War years. Cooler heads prevailed, and by 1986, international observers watched the threat of nuclear Armageddon essentially evaporate as Reagan and Gorbachev held a nuclear summit in Reykjavik. Although the conference failed its mission, it signaled to the East and West that diplomacy between the Cold War nemeses was possible. (As a side note, in 2020, the clock was set to 100 seconds to midnight, the most dangerous international political condition ever, which will offer a healthy discussion as my research progresses).
Three years later, events unfolded at the Berlin Wall that signaled the end of Cold War hostilities was neigh. The continued existence of the Soviet Bloc was untenable. And in another two years, after the Singing Revolutions materialized in each of the Baltic States and beyond, Lithuania simply walked away from the Bloc. After a failed Soviet coup d’état attempt in August 1991, the Soviet Union finally dissolved.
With the nuclear launch codes firmly in Boris Yeltsin’s hands, the threat of global nuclear war had reduced to essentially zero (from the average observer’s perspective). The Bulletin’s minute-hand fell back from three to seventeen minutes by 1991. It had never been, nor has it been since, further from midnight. Global security in the nuclear age reached its apex in the early 1990s.
I watched all of this unfold through the eyes of a disinterested kid, but my ears listened in earnest. Although I was too young to experience the mortal terror of major international events, such as the Cuban Missile Crisis, I understood the costs at stake. Songs like Timbuk 3’s “The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades” communicated in no uncertain terms that the fate of humanity rested in the hands of a few men. With one hand tremble, I and everyone I know and love could be vaporized. But as the threat of nuclear holocaust waned, the 1990s seemed to usher in a musical sense of relief and anger. In some cases, literal arguments about humanity’s future broke out between songs. Some singers believed in democracy’s promise, while others put their full political prowess into songs of accusation (against society, politicians, religions, or the police).
Songs of political protest dominated many of the loudspeakers to which I pressed my ears, volume cranked to ten. My first civics lessons came not from my grade school teachers but rather from Michael Jackson (“Black or White”), Public Enemy (“Fight the Power”), and En Vogue (“Free Your Mind”). My musical upbringing and background as a political scientist inspired a significant research project into the songs of 1990s political protest, all of which emerged from the burgeoning sense of relief that the Cold War was over and an overlooked urgency that the end of the Cold War solved nothing. This research is ongoing, and for now, I wish to focus on that point of inflection when the Doomsday Clock’s minute hand began ticking backward—that is, the period between 1987 and 1991 when the bomb lost its monopoly on cultural relevance and democracy prevailed over Communism. How did music grapple with the unfolding events? Does the song believe the world has reached a liberal democratic utopia? Or does it acknowledge human suffering persists?
While numerous musicians wrote about their experiences watching nuclear threats evaporate, I will focus on four: Jesus Jones (“Right Here, Right Now”), Tracy Chapman (“Talkin’ ’bout a Revolution”), Prince (“Sign o’ the Times”), and Seal (“Crazy”). These musicians, each writing during the late 1980s and early 1990s, tackled existential threats of the day. And each brought unique perspectives of what mattered to the Billboard Hot 100. I discuss these competing realities below to set the stage for the broader 1990s protest song research project in which I’m engaged.
The End of History and Jesus Jones
“Right Here, Right Now”
Billboard Hot 100 position: 2
To some, the 20th century was an epic showdown between Fascism, Communism, and Western Liberal Democracy. In the battle between ideologies, good ideas survive at the expense of bad ideas. Fascism mostly met its end in 1945, although Spain remained a lonely holdout for a few decades. Fascism’s demise meant that the battle came down to Democracy versus Communism. But US and Soviet leaders couldn’t duke it out like the Nazis did with the rest. The invention and bilateral proliferation of nuclear weapons meant that even a small war could rapidly escalate to nuclear war, and the costs of a nuclear war were unacceptable to both sides. So the battle was long and cold. But when the threat of nuclear costs evaporated, Western Liberal Democracy emerged victoriously.
Francis Fukuyama watched like a giddy schoolchild and penned his “The End of History?” essay as early as 1989, although the longer book, The End of History and the Last Man, came out three years later. His general thesis is: The success of Western Liberal Democracy over other political ordering ideologies is the end result of an evolutionary process. Because nations cannot be divided into units smaller than the individual, the ascendency of individual liberty is the final form and the highest echelon of government.
Fukuyama not only believes his hypothesis; he extols democracy as the best form of government.
Mike Edwards, the lead singer of the band Jesus Jones, also extols the end of the Cold War. To Edwards, there is no more monumental event in history. He starts his song, “Right Here, Right Now,” by dismissing Tracy Chapman’s “Talkin’ ’bout a Revolution” because the real revolution—the victory of Western Liberal Democracy—“already passed her by.” Being alive after the end of the Cold War, something not everyone believed was possible in the 1980s, is all that matters. He cites the threat of nuclear annihilation during the 1980s (“the world could change at the blink of an eye”), scorning Prince’s “Sign o’ the Times” as too unfocused. The real threat, according to Edwards, is the nuclear holocaust. None of those other things Prince (below) sings about matter. Edwards even harkens to the “End of History” hypothesis in his chorus (emphasis added):
I was alive and I waited, waited
I was alive and I waited for this
Right here, right now
There is no other place I want to be
Right here, right now
Watching the world wake up from history
To Edwards, neither Chapman nor Prince gets it right. As will be discussed below, they either believe the Cold War didn’t matter or that it wasn’t the essential existential threat facing the West.
And this is it. Right here, right now, as the world rapidly shifts towards democracy, is the only place Edwards wants to be—because he sees it as the end of history. We’ve all awoken from history’s perils. And we can all relax without a care in the world. Anyone who disagrees just doesn’t understand how big of a deal the new international order is.
Unfortunately for Edwards, not even Fukuyama believed 1989 or even 1991 was the end of history. He noticed that societies shift toward and away from democracy periodically. A fully democratic society might—and probably will—backslide (the US has been backsliding for twenty years). He also knows significant events can still occur. Fukuyama has faced backlash from people who misinterpreted the “End of History,” but Fukuyama clarifies that bad stuff can still happen in democracies. Even he knows you don’t let your guard down when you walk down a dark alley at three o’clock in the morning.
Economic Inequality Matters
“Talkin’ ‘bout a Revolution”
Tracy Chapman (1988)
Billboard Hot 100 position: 75
Even Francis Fukuyama knows human suffering is a problem for states and societies, something “Right Here, Right Now” fails to acknowledge. Mike Edwards even seems to disparage singers who believe AIDS and hunger need to be overcome with revolutionary movements.
Chapman opens her track, “Talkin’ ’bout a Revolution,” highlighting the history of revolutionary music. Although she doesn’t mention any songs by name, by 1988, hundreds of protest songs had entered the popular lexicon, including Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” (1939), Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam” (1964), Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” (1970), and the Dead Kennedys’ “Holiday in Cambodia” (1980). For a more comprehensive list of protest and political songs, you can visit a dataset I’m presently building for my research project.
But while Chapman sings, “Don’t you know / They’re talkin’ ’bout a revolution,” she finishes off the verse with the almost ominous line, “It sounds like a whisper.” The pleas for change, she insinuates, aren’t screams—they’re not even loud enough to hear over a normal conversation. This more nebulous refrain can take on many meanings, and I’ll not try to pin Chapman down to one of my choosing. I’ll instead write that, to me, the 1980s aren’t exactly known as the decade of compassion. When Queen sang “Is this the World We Created…?” in 1984, it isn’t as if every Reaganite American went rushing out to feed and house all of the starving children in the world. Queen’s ballad was hardly noticed, appearing as a B-side to a minor hit, “It’s a Hard Life,” which peaked at #72 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Isn’t that the case with all revolutionary art? How many times has a message been consumed but left undigested? American conservatives telling Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello over Twitter to stick to music and stay out of politics is the best-known example of listeners singing along to songs without taking them to heart. I remember screaming, “Fight the war, fuck the norm!” on a school bus with a kid who became a staunchly conservative normie. Yet, he still posts Rage Against the Machine videos on his Facebook profile.
This doesn’t imply that Chapman’s song is a futile effort. Whispers are norm-building exercises. Chapman’s song reinforces those norms.
In the first verse, Chapman laments that those standing on the welfare check line could instead work for their big promotion if only they weren’t wasting their time in this goddamn line! Instead, the system is rigged. Once you’re poor, you gotta stay poor. Promotions are for the rich.
But in the next verse, she sings, “Poor people gonna rise up / And get their share.” During the Reagan years, the trickle-down economy didn’t have the impact it promised. Chapman alludes to this inevitable outcome of which Marx warned.
When she segues into the next hook, Chapman reveals that the revolution is already happening. Fed up with a system that encourages money hoarding by the wealthy, she says that the poor are already starting to take what belongs to them.
So here we have two views about what matters as the Cold War closes out. On the one hand, Chapman believes that economic inequality creates a feedback loop that compels continued poverty. She believes this requires revolutionary actions; otherwise, human nature left unchecked will benefit the few at the expense of the masses. She feels an unrestrained free market is inherently unstable and is already demanding equilibrium by revolutionary forces.
On the other hand, Edwards supports the Western Liberal Democracy free-market model, mocking Chapman for her Marxist beliefs. To Edwards, Marx’s ideas have already been vanquished when the Iron Curtain came crashing down, and Eastern Europe experienced the Third Wave of Democratization. Of course, in his dismissal of Chapman, Edwards also acknowledges petering out of the nuclear threat is a huge reason to be thankful for being alive. Every other concern is secondary.
The Universal Revolution
“Sign o’ the Times”
Sign o’ the Times (1987)
Billboard Hot 100 position: 3
In another track that Edwards disses in “Right Here, Right Now,” Prince’s “Sign o’ the Times” identifies issue areas for change, couplet by couplet. These issues include, in order:
- Gang violence
- Natural disasters
- Starving children
- Heroin epidemic
- The Challenger disaster
- Nuclear warfare
In the debate between Edwards and Chapman, Prince takes a hard position, aligning with Chapman. In the verse on starving children, Prince sings, “My sister killed her baby ’cause she couldn’t afford to feed it / And we’re sending people to the moon.” Prince argues NASA’s space missions (it had been 15 years since anyone went to the moon) are too costly to justify when that money could be better spent uplifting children from poverty.
Unsurprisingly, Edwards fires back at Prince. The only thing that matters is the fact that global leaders could have destroyed the world “at the blink of an eye.” Of course, Prince agrees. He sings, “Baby make a speech, star wars fly / Neighbors just shine it on / But if a night falls and a bomb falls / Will anybody see the dawn.” Prince is illuminating the nuclear despair many felt during the 1980s when nuclear annihilation was a real and palpable fear.
But while Prince acknowledges the threat of nuclear war,* he also agrees with Chapman. But Prince adds a diversity of problems and shows how many are interconnected. The heroin problem exacerbates the AIDS problem. Crack multiplies the gang violence. The space shuttles, which rob America’s children of sustenance, randomly explode. And re-runs of the Challenger disaster air on television non-stop, reminding the world that the same technology we use to send humans to space can be used to send intercontinental ballistic missiles across oceans. To Prince, it’s all bad, and something needs to change.
*I wonder what type of tone Prince would’ve taken had the Cold War ended before he penned this tune.
But Prince stops short of calling for a revolution. No, he seems defeated. His solution to the wealth of human suffering is to make more babies that will inevitably go through the same trauma through which all humans go. Perpetuate the cycle of trauma. But the more I think about this—again, I’m not trying to impart precise meaning to a nebulous statement—the more I think Prince is attempting to guilt us into changing things. When he sings, “Sign o’ the times mess with your mind / Hurry before it’s too late / Let’s fall in love, get married, have a baby / We’ll call him Nate, if it’s a boy,” might be a guilt trip. Trauma needn’t be genetic, and the times don’t need to be static. To reference Stephen Jay Gould, the times needn’t be cyclical; they could be an arrow moving forward towards some nondescript utopia.
Before I get to the fourth view from the end of the Cold War, let’s recap. Edwards channels Francis Fukuyama’s “End of History” hypothesis to claim that the end of the Cold War was the high point in human evolution. With the (perceived) end of nuclear threat and the spread of Western Liberal Democracy over Communism, “There is no other place I want to be.” Chapman fires back (preemptively, for this essay’s purpose) and seemingly says, “Look at what your precious free-market capitalist system is doing to people! We’re going to push back!” But then Prince comes along and says, “Whoa! Stop your bickering! Look, you’re both right about some things. The end of the Cold War is important, and so are the problems of poverty. I’ll take it a step further and add all of these other issues. The world is a bad, bad place, and we should do something about it.”
The Revolution Is to Get a Little Crazy
Billboard Hot 100 position: 7
In 1989, Mikhail Gorbachev became the first leader from the Soviet Bloc in 70 years to meet with the Pope, a drastic about-face from a government that had spent its entire existence fomenting anti-Catholic sentiment at home and abroad. At the same time, the Wall between East and West Berlin was coming down. Families were reunited, and religion was no longer a bad word; these two events signaled that a change had finally come. While there were undoubtedly numerous signifiers of political change in the Soviet Union, these are the two significant events singer Seal mentions in the first verse of his 1990 smash hit, “Crazy.”
In the next verse, Seal stands horrified at the Tiananmen Square massacre in which soldiers killed hundreds or thousands of Chinese citizens. He says many of the soldiers probably knew the protestors they massacred because they went to school together. And here, Seal makes his first plea: Everyone just needs to get high and chill out.
When Seal gets to the bridge, he synthesizes the first and second verses. He sings, “In a sky full of people, only some want to fly / Isn’t that crazy.” In other words, he sees the liberalization of the former Soviet Bloc and the cracking down on Chinese students pushing for reform as stark contrasts between how the world is and how it could be. Seal thinks it’s crazy that not every country wants the same freedoms enjoyed by the Western world. So, again, what do you do about this? Get high. Get crazy.
Although Seal sings in the chorus, “We’re never gonna survive unless we get a little crazy,” I don’t believe he’s concerned with nuclear war. Survival, to Seal, doesn’t rely on mutually assured destruction keeping the peace between two superpower belligerents. No, it seems to me that Seal means we need to break the rules a little bit. Those Lithuanians singing for freedom were breaking many rules, and while the Soviets met their peaceful Singing Revolution with bullets, the protest was successful. Lithuania and her Baltic sisters, Estonia and Latvia, were the first countries to break away from the Soviet Union. Was it due to their songs of freedom? Probably not, but those songs didn’t hurt their chances.
On the other hand, Seal sees backlash. Much like in the Baltic states, China’s response to students pushing for democratic reform was brutal. And I believe his chorus—“We’re never gonna survive”—is an accusation against China on the one hand and encouragement towards the protestors on the other. “Unless we get a little crazy”—break the rules, smoke pot, experiment with different philosophies! Take your freedom directly from the oppressors!
Seal doesn’t mention anything beyond the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Tiananmen Square massacre, but I believe his attitude towards protest is universal. In less than a year following the release of “Crazy,” riots would engulf whole American cities after video footage captured the LAPD beating an unarmed Black man. That, combined with the ascendency of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court and the ensuing Anita Hill sexual harassment accusation and contested Senate confirmation hearing, inspired a brand new punk musical genre and political movement called riot grrrl. Seal didn’t see it coming, but he’s glad these young women are breaking all the rules and getting a little “crazy.”
Riot grrrl epitomized Seal’s “let’s break the rules to become a better society.” It was the idea that gendered rules were outdated and harmful. So, “Girls to the front,” scream about what really matters, and tear down the people abusing the system for their own benefit. Hell, tear the system down while you’re at it! For many riot grrrls, watching Clarence Thomas crowned to SCOTUS and seeing what happened in LA, it was time to have a riot of their own. Although the music was mostly overlooked (again, I’m picking up on a recurring trend in revolutionary art), it was instrumental in shaping third-wave feminism and standing against Reagan and Bush after the former presidents had pushed back the 1970s progress for women and LGBTQ+ rights.
What Seal appears to do is to identify the inspiration that enveloped many adolescents and young people across the world who used the 1990s to “get a little crazy.” Through Seal, we learn how to apply Chapman and Prince to the real world. Of course, rule-breaking is often the definition of problem-solving. It’s nothing new; however, Fukuyama isn’t finished. He and Samuel P. Huntington help explain why Jesus Jones kept us right here, right now, despite all of the 1990s protest movements in music and elsewhere desperately trying to push us forward.
1992 was supposed to be the American “Year of the Woman.” That year, several women won national elections. They ran for office directly due to Clarence Thomas’ confirmation to SCOTUS in a Senate filled with men who “just don’t get it.” Furthermore, Hillary Rodham Clinton’s husband won the Presidency. Hillary, a wealthy and successful lawyer who carried Bill financially, was the powerful female figure activists thought the country needed to contrast twelve years of Republican efforts to undermine the women’s movement. Most important, SCOTUS narrowly and surprisingly upheld abortion rights in Planned Parenthood v. Casey. To many, these events signaled that society was rapidly changing. But for the feminists and social activists of the early 1990s, something went wrong.
In 1968, Fukuyama’s mentor Samuel P. Huntington examined the role institutions play in shaping societies and economic growth (See Political Order in Changing Societies). Huntington ended up challenging the predominant Weberian view that economic growth and social change come with modernization. Instead, Huntington believes that institutional variation explains varying degrees of stability. Modernization, progressive societies, and economic development damage institutions. The more rigid and ingrained an institution is, the more the state can withstand social and economic pressures to change.
Seal’s two visions of Cold War protest—the successful Singing Revolution and the unsuccessful Tiananmen models—illustrate Huntington’s thesis. Both societies, Eastern Europe and China, were relatively modern, had experimented with economic liberalization, and faced growing domestic pressure to join Huntington’s Third Wave of Democratization. But institutional rigidity in China overcame these pressures while the Soviet Union, with higher institutional flexibility, as perestroika illustrates, succumbed. For a good description of how institutions in the Soviet Bloc whittled away, see The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century (1991).
Institutional rigidity might save systems in the short term, but societies tend to continually shift left. Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris have co-authored a few books on this phenomenon. Using the “Year of the Woman” as an example, the Third Wave of Feminism’s failure to affect real change in the 1990s was irrelevant in the long term. Gen-X gave way to the Millennials and Gen-Z, both generations tending to be more accepting and radical than the prior. Again, as Huntington notes, these changing societies put pressure on institutions and slowly chip away at them. Fukuyama and Huntington call this “political decay.”
Political decay makes institutions more malleable. Social progress in the US has shown radical advancements in the public’s acceptance of LGBTQ+ members. But Norris and Inglehart are skeptical that progress is necessarily meaningful and lasting in the short term. In their 2019 book Cultural Backlash, they note a phenomenon called the “authoritarian reflex,” where societies that change too rapidly will elect strongman politicians to push back against change, even popular change. In other words, robust structures facing political decay can get a new lease on life, albeit lasting only a generation, when social movements try too hard to initiate the revolution. I don’t believe the US experienced the authoritarian reflex until after Obergefell v. Hodges (the SCOTUS case that legalized same-sex marriage across the US), but it shows that music and protest movements in the US have their work cut out for them to affect meaningful change.
This explains why political movements didn’t get off the ground in the 1990s, despite pop culture being rife with literal screaming at the tops of their lungs for a revolution. During the 1990s, hundreds of songs condemning police brutality and racism blared from boomboxes across the country, but the anti-racism and police accountability movements resulted in little meaningful change. Institutional rigidity made the movements essentially futile, even if future hard-lined conservatives screamed the anti-cop refrain along with Zach de la Rocha, “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me!”
To make it all make sense: There’s a reason why “Right Here, Right Now” perfectly illustrates the view from the end of the Cold War. Chapman’s protests against the structural forces creating and perpetuating poverty in America were meaningless against a generation that felt smug, knowing the US had emerged victoriously against a Communist regime. Even with more influence than any of the singers mentioned in this essay, Prince failed to get people to take his revolutionary grievances seriously. Seal’s vision that we should experiment is good, but it isn’t meaningful against the rigidity many American institutions enjoy.
I don’t want to end on a depressive note. So I won’t. Hope for protest movements is not lost. We continue norm-building exercises through song. In the first two decades of the third millennium, singers and musicians like Beyonce, Nine Inch Nails, Propagandhi, Lupe Fiasco, and Janelle Monáe continue to shape the minds of young listeners, reinforcing acceptable models of human behavior and pushing the envelope a little.