October 11, 2010


Down for the Long Count

Jordan Strauss
Jordan Strauss

You don't hear Prince's "1999" too often on the radio any more, for pretty much the same reason you don't hear David Bowie's "1984": it's a prediction of future disaster keyed to a specific date in the past. Originally released a solid 17 years before its target date, it's got a glimmering good-time hook, surrounded by nonstop dread and foreboding. Prince's dream brings forth the song; his waking life is where he sees the apocalypse — specifically the bombs that bring on 2000, the millennialist apocalypse. "Can't run from the revelation," he ad-libs.

Bits of the song have reappeared in one guise or another ever since. (The first hit rewrite of "1999" was arguably Phil Collins' "Sussudio," whose chord progression and arrangement echo Prince's without quite recapitulating them.) And, around New Year's Eve 1998 and 1999, the Revolution's revelations were inescapable; Prince seems to have made some serious bank. He even released a re-recorded version of the song, "1999: The New Master," about which the less said the better.

It was a smart idea to give the End Times a date and a theme song — as far as I can tell, nobody wrote any pop hits about the Rapture that some Jehovah's Witnesses had figured was going to happen in 1975. The next apocalypse up is December 21, 2012; the urban legend is that that's either the end of time or the point of some kind of grand transformation, because it's the day the ancient Mayan "long count" calendar runs out. In fact, that date is almost certainly not even particularly significant, even in the context of Mayan timekeeping — but let that pass. If people believe the world stands some chance of ending on a given day, then they're probably going to act differently as it approaches, and in pop music, "acting differently" usually means a hedonistic bash.

Hence Jay Sean's "2012 (It Ain't the End)," which is built on the template of "1999," even including the "party like" idea that makes it acceptable to dance to for the next year and a quarter. Jay doesn't linger over the buzzkilling idea of catastrophe, and instantly contradicts himself whenever he touches on it: "Let's play make believe it's the last 24 hours/And this whole world is ours eternally." He offers a few sops to liquor manufacturers and bottle-service clubs, as well as mashup DJs ("turn it up/mash it up"), but he doesn't quite suggest what he imagines happens when 2012 is over, other than "Break Your Back" kicking in. (Nicki Minaj turns up here, too — that girl's everywhere! — but her verse only checks in briefly with Jay's carpe-diem theme before it spirals off into a shout-out to Lil Wayne.) Even so, Prince's song haunts "2012," especially in its music: the breathy synthesizer tones that open "1999" and provide its central riff became the galloping turbine of Eurohouse in the past decade, and they turn up in their clipped, speedy modern incarnation near the end of Jay Sean's song.

And the end of the world is whenever you think it is. The best hit song ever written about the subject was released in December 1962, mere weeks after the world arguably came as close to ending as it ever has (the Cuban missile crisis had brought the U.S. and U.S.S.R. within hours of nuclear war in October, and its listening audience knew that everybody had a bomb; they could all die any day). Skeeter Davis's "The End of the World" was a triple-threat hit, top five on the pop, country and R&B charts; the song, by Arthur Kent and Sylvia Dee, is all about how she's the only person who experienced the apocalypse.

The birds are still singing; the sun shines; Skeeter Davis is alive, and so is everyone else, and she doesn't understand why. The world, she says, "ended when you said goodbye." What happens after Jay Sean's game of pretending it's the last 24 hours? When the party's over, oops out of time, and somebody picks up the empty bottles, and the man who seemed so urgent about seizing the moment last night has wandered off muttering about how "life ain't always easy" and how the world keeps spinning?