Alisha Adkins is an author, gamer, and zombie enthusiast. She is currently pursuing her dream of writing and quietly starving to death.
It's the Apocalypse. What's on Your Playlist?
Society has crumbled, and you now take your shelter wherever you can, huddling down in abandoned buildings as the dead shuffle by outside. You have little to take solace in besides the music that pumps from your headphones. What songs would appropriately set the mood?
In a post-apocalyptic scenario such as this, nihilistic art forms would undoubtedly enjoy a huge upswing in popularity among human survivors. After all, nihilism's inherent negativity blends well with apocalyptic themes.
What Does Nihilism Mean?
Nihilism (from the Latin nihil, meaning nothing) holds that traditional values and beliefs are unfounded, existence is without meaning, and there are no objective truths. Modern nihilism typically takes the form of existential nihilism, which argues that life is without objective meaning or purpose, and all human existence, therefore, is ultimately senseless and empty.
If nothing holds any meaning, perhaps a cataclysmic disaster would merely wipe things clean. After all, what does it matter? As Ministry said in The Fall, "Everything is useless, nothing works at all, nothing ever matters, welcome to the Fall."
Punk Rock and Existential Nihilism
Although there are nihilistic songs within many musical genres, no musical movement is more representative of existential nihilism than punk rock.
From the very inception of the punk movement, when Richard Hell and the Voidoids proclaimed "I belong to the blank generation, and I can take it or leave it each time," its artists were focused upon exposing the meaninglessness of society around them.
Our apocalyptic playlist, therefore, will be plucked from the most significant nihilistic works to come out of protopunk (musicians generally recognized as significant precursors to punk rock), punk, and post-punk (musical genres heavily influenced by punk such as gothic, industrial, and alternative rock).
These artists see that their world as crumbling, as Everclear alludes to in Santa Monica, suggesting that they "swim out past the breakers, and watch the world die."
They accept the emptiness of existence, as Bauhaus sings in All We Ever Wanted Was Everything. "All we ever wanted was everything. All we ever got was cold."
They welcome an end to this empty existence, as The Clash sing in the apocalyptic London Calling, "London is drowning, and I live by the river."
And these artists may even help the end along, as the Sex Pistols suggest in Anarchy in the U.K. Negating the aspirations of the British masses as meaningless ("your future dream is a shopping scheme"), they proudly proclaim "I wanna destroy passersby!"
Dancing as the World Burns
In The Banalization of Nihilism (1992) Karen Carr asserts that “cheerful nihilism," characterized by an easy-going acceptance of meaninglessness, is the current societal trend. The following songs, which are not necessarily odes to despair or desolation, superbly illustrate this banalization of nihilism.
Read More From Spinditty
It is rare for any work of art to lyrically capture an ideological concept. Whether simply welcoming personal negation or embracing a full-scale apocalypse, the following songs artfully embody modern existential nihilism.
10. "Killing an Arab"
Released in 1978, The Cure's "Killing an Arab" is an adept summary of Camus' The Stranger in musical form. Robert Smith sums up the protagonist's existential angst, the feeling of trepidation that arises from the experience of human freedom and responsibility, in the lines "I can turn and walk away, or I can fire the gun. Staring at the sky, staring at the sun. Whichever I choose, it amounts to the same. Absolutely nothing. I'm alive, I'm dead. I'm the stranger, killing an Arab."
In "Schism," Tool captures a strong sense of nihilistic hopelessness. It begins "I know the pieces fit, 'cause I watched them fall away." This song, which was released in 2001, is about relationships that inevitably crumble due to lack of communication. It concludes "cold silence has a tendency to atrophy any sense of compassion between supposed lovers, between supposed brothers."
Many of Tool's other songs also have a nihilistic bent that makes them worthy of mention here. "Aenima," for instance, opens with the lines, "Some say the end is near. Some say we'll see Armageddon soon. I certainly hope we will. I sure could use a vacation from this."
Velvet Underground's "Heroin"
The Velvet Underground is one of those bands that was way ahead of its time. Its frontman, Lou Reed, is one of a handful of seminal artists credited as a "godfather of punk."
In 1967, Velvet Underground released "Heroin," an influential and highly lauded song that overtly describes heroin use while seeming to revel in the glory of negation. "I have made the big decision; I'm gonna try to nullify my life." Lou Reed sings. Here, heroin is the agent that allows him to accept the meaninglessness of things. As he says, "'Cause when the smack begins to flow, then I really don't care anymore. Ah, when the heroin is in my blood, and that blood is in my head, then thank God that I'm as good as dead. Then thank your God that I'm not aware, and thank God that I just don't care."
"Smells Like Teen Spirit" Video
7. "Smells Like Teen Spirit"
Although starting out as a garage band, Nirvana achieved superstardom, becoming the poster children of the 1990s Seattle grunge movement before lead singer Kurt Cobain committed suicide in 1994.
Nirvana became the musical icon of its generation—Generation X, a cohort characterized by its apathy. Apathy, anarchy, self-loathing, and nihilism were themes the band repeatedly touched upon, particularly in the form of personal negation. Released in 1991, "Smells Like Teen Spirit" unexpectedly shot up the charts, becoming a generational anthem. "I feel stupid and contagious. Here we are now, entertain us." captured the times.
6. "Search and Destroy"
Iggy Pop, lead singer of The Stooges, is the other innovative artist most typically credited as the "godfather of punk." In 1973, The Stooges released "Search and Destroy," an apocalyptic masterpiece to which rebellious teenagers still listen today.
Here, we really can hear "cheerful nihilism" in action as Iggy sings, seemingly with a certain joy, "I'm a street walking cheetah, with a heart full of napalm. I'm a runaway son of the nuclear A-bomb. I am a world's forgotten boy, the one who searches and destroys."
Iggy Pop has had more than just the casual run-in with existential nihilism. For instance, his song "The Passenger" is frequently described as "an existential pop masterpiece." In fact, the title of his debut solo album, "The Idiot," was inspired by novel of the same name by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, who is widely regarded as one of the first existential writers.
Iggy & Stooges: "Search and Destroy" Video
R.E.M.: "It's the End of the World..."
5. "It's the End of the World as We Know It (and I Feel Fine)"
When thinking about nihilistic bands, the Athens, Georgia-based alternative group R.E.M. does not immediately leap to mind. However, they have produced several culturally significant cheerfully nihilistic songs that have permeated American culture including "Losing My Religion" and "What's the Frequency, Kenneth"?
As "It's the End of the World as We Know It (and I Feel Fine)," released in 1987, blithely states, "It's the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine... (It's time I had some time alone)."
4. "London Calling"
The Clash was a politically conscious British punk band. The lyrics of their song, "London Calling, "released in 1979, were partially influenced by the accident at Three Mile Island earlier that year and also touch upon unemployment, racial conflict, and drug use in Britain. The end result is an apocalyptic, nihilistic masterpiece that has stood the test of time: "The ice age is coming, the sun is zooming in. Engines stop running and the wheat is growing thin. A nuclear error, but I have no fear. London is drowning -- and I live by the river."
"Bullet With Butterfly Wings"
3. "Bullet With Butterfly Wings"
The 1990s was a decade rich with musical nihilism. As Generation X came of age, Pearl Jam, Marilyn Manson, Alice in Chains, and Smashing Pumpkins were just a few of the bands pumping out songs about the hopelessness and meaninglessness of life.
Smashing Pumpkins' "Bullet with Butterfly Wings," released in 1995, begins by establishing the emptiness of existence. "The world is a vampire, sent to drain. Secret destroyers, hold you up to the flames. And what do I get, for my pain? Betrayed desires, and a piece of the game." The haunting chorus, "Despite all my rage, I am still just a rat in a cage." reiterates the futility of action. And finally, the song concludes, "And I still believe that I cannot be saved."
Other Smashing Pumpkins songs worthy of a listen during an apocalypse include "Disarm," "1979," and "Zero," which contains the unforgettable line "god is empty just like me."
Nine Inch Nails: "Wish"
Nine Inch Nails's catalog contains an abundance of nihilistic fare. Choosing only one to represent Trent Reznor's body of work here is a difficult task because you can really take your pick: "Heresy," "Zero-Sum," "The Day the World Went Away," "Wish," "Terrible Lie," "Last," "March of the Pigs," "Piggy," and "Only" are just a few of the NiN compositions that fit the bill.
"Wish," released in 1992, stands out as a haunting lament of life's emptiness. Reznor wails, "Wish there was something real, wish there was something true." Other tracks recommended for their nihilistic lyrics include "Heresy" ("God is dead, and no one cares. If there is a hell, I'll see you there.") and "Piggy" ("Nothing can stop me now -- I don't care anymore.").
1. "Anarchy in the U.K."
The Sex Pistols claim the number one spot because it is their rightful place historically. They launched the punk rock movement and, although their initial career lasted only two-and-a-half years, are considered as one of the most influential acts in the history of popular music.
"Anarchy in the U.K." created a storm of controversy when it was released in 1976. The song enthusiastically endorsed violent anarchy and captured the frustration and social alienation of a generation of disenfranchised British youth. Almost 40 years later, Johnny Rotten's snarling lyrics still feel fresh and authentic as he sings "I am an Antichrist, I am an anarchist. Don't know what I want, but I know how to get it. I wanna destroy passersby."
Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols is an album chock-full of angry nihilistic sentiment, from God Save the Queen's nihilistic chorus of "no future" to the apathetic lines of No Feelings. In case of a sudden zombie apocalypse, consider taking the whole album with you.
More Nihilistic Artists
Ten slots is woefully few for an apocalyptic playlist, so many deserving candidates, by necessity, had to be omitted.
Others artists of note who were, regrettably, excluded include Generation X / Billy Idol, Joy Division, and the entire hardcore movement of the 1980s (with special apologies to Black Flag).
In case an apocalypse should tear our world asunder, be sure to prepare yourself with nihilistic tunes.
teddy on February 23, 2019:
this music hardly has anything to do with nihilism, nihilism isnt about violence, loss of morality, Armageddon, or chaos. this is just stupid
Tony on January 10, 2017:
Icona Pop, "I Don't Care; I Love It"
Big Ma on July 05, 2016:
Aenema is another great nihilist jam from Tool
Alpha Seed on May 25, 2016:
Nihilist by Architects... now we're talking serious
This is the great esoteric depression
We sold our souls but couldn't buy salvation
We are all the shades of misery
The reigning champions of tragedy
They use their faith as a weapon
They count our sins by the seven
Blackwater at the GATES OF HEAVEN!
All hail the corporatocracy
The word of God written in binary
All hail our apostasy
The dying notes in an unholy symphony
MetalHead on May 05, 2016:
Lamb Of God Blacken The Cursed Sun
Ralph Schwartz from Idaho Falls, Idaho on February 19, 2016:
Nice collection of historical favorites.
gsurvivor on July 25, 2013:
Some gloomy tunes you've got here, very fitting to the article topic I have to say. The Velvet Underground track i s my favorite, can't get any more ominous than that. Loved the hub, a vote up from here :)