"Forever Young" and Nuclear War
Since I originally posted it in June 2006, the most read article on Memes is one called Forever Young and the Politics of Meaning, a short meditation on the way in which context and personal experience change the meaning of a text. It generated a reasonably brisk debate at the time, but then I moved on, and most of the commenters did also.
But for the last three and a half years we have had an average of four visits a week from people googling something like “meaning of forever young.” I’ve visited other sites that come up in this search, and I think that it is time I added my view on the song, because I don’t think many people get it.
The song was originally written by German synth-pop outfit Alphaville, and “Forever Young” was the title track on their 1984 debut album. For me the clue is in the date of the original release: 1984 was smack in the middle of the Cold War and the song captures the sense of existential dread and fatalism that afflicted many young people at that time:
Let’s dance in style, let’s dance for a while
Heaven can wait we’re only watching the skies
Hoping for the best but expecting the worst
Are you going to drop the bomb or not?
This isn’t a political song; there is no advocating about arms reduction or political solutions, just the plea to forget politics and go out dancing. While the songwriters don’t want to die, anything seems better than waiting around for an apocalypse that ordinary people felt they didn’t have a way of stopping.
Let us die young or let us live forever
We don’t have the power but we never say never
Praising our leaders we’re getting in tune
The music’s played by the madman
It is hard to remember what things were like at that time, but the threat of nuclear war wasn’t just an academic question: it hung over us all the time. For an indication, try and find a copy of the 1983 nuclear holocaust film The Day After, or the completely devastating graphic novel by Raymond Briggs, When the Wind Blows. Dying young didn’t seem so bad, given the alternatives.
It’s so hard to get old without a cause
I don’t want to perish like a fading horse
Youth is like diamonds in the sun
And diamonds are forever
There were plenty of people writing anti-nuclear songs in those days: Sting’s Russians Nena’s 99 Luftballons, and of course, pretty much the whole of Red Sails in the Sunset, the 1984 album by Midnight Oil, but few caught the terror as well as Alphaville.
While the 2005 cover by Australian band Youth Group is probably the better-known version, I’m starting to like the original better. The combination of the fatalistic lyrics and the synth-pop beat creates a slightly chilling juxtaposition that neatly captures the 1980s zeitgeist. The song has been covered many times, by people as diverse as Laura Branigan and metal band Atrocity. It is even currently featuring in an Australian television commercial for New Zealand tourism.
None of the covers come close to capturing the chilling sense of desperation subsumed into dance of the Alphaville version. This is no “Working Class Man” or “Born in the USA” railing against political injustice: this is a particularly northern European drink-yourself-to-oblivion response to the issue. I wasn’t aware of the song in 1984, and I probably wouldn’t have approved—I liked political songs better. But from this perspective, I’m understanding where they are coming from, and I love the melancholy.
But now I see that Jay-Z has released a cover, so I might have to write about it again soon…