Monthly Archives: August 2014

Sunny Day- Sesame Street

I think the simplicity of the song definitely speaks to its Utopian nature. The lyrics ask us to imagine we are on our way to where the “air is sweet”.  I think it describes a place that is based on the Utopian impulse, that is, for us to imagine a place that is better than the one we now live in. The composer of the song is Joe Raposo. He wrote the lyrics with two other men, Jon Stone and Bruce Hart.   “Stone considered the song a musical masterpiece and a lyrical embarrassment” [Michael Davis (2008). Street gang: The complete history of Sesame Street. Viking Penguin. pp. 159–160.] 

When I think of Sesame  Street I think the entire idea is bases on a Utopian society based on education, fun, singing, friendship, and learning among children, adults, and animals and creatures unknown. In this society problems are solved together and the theme song for Sesame is a great representation of Utopian music in contemporary society. It is based on “utopianism”,  as described in the Utopian Reader as “social dreaming”.  The words of the song describes the search for the place- a magical one. The listener understands that Sesame Street is a happier place, a better place than the one they are in now. 

Domanique Borges

“Xanadu” by Rush

The lyrics to Xanadu are taken from the poem “Kubla Khan” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

According to Coleridge, the poem came to him in a dream after reading about the summer palace of the Mongol ruler Kublai Khan and then taking opium.

It’s a very trippy poem and a very trippy song.  The theme of the song is a paradise similar to Eden where  the protagonist can “taste anew the fruits of life/the last immortal man” and “dine on honeydew/and drink the milk of paradise.”

The song doesn’t talk of a community or of other people but it can be inferred that one of the utopian themes of this song is ecology: beautiful, rich, fertile nature unspoiled by the touch of mortal man.

In this paradise he will become immortal.  However, when the protagonist finds it, he is the only one there.  While the utopia doesn’t exactly become a dystopia, (Can you have a dystopia that consists of one person?) it becomes a nightmare because the protagonist “taste my bitter triumph/ as a mad immortal man/nevermore shall I return/Escape these caves of ice”

In Eden there were two people, Adam and Eve and it was paradise because they were immortal together.  In “Xanadu” by Rush the person has gone mad because he is an immortal man all alone.

This songs talks about the quest for utopia and a mythical promised land where people become immortal and the dangers of being the only one who finds it.

Utopias are meant to be a communities and you can’t have a community of one.

Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds by The Beatles

I chose this song because the lyrics create a vivid image of a completely different world. At first listen to the song, and rumors surrounding it, you would think it is a song about an acid trip and it was actually banned from some radio stations when it came out because it seemed so obvious that it was about LSD. The song was released in 1967 by The Beatles on their album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. In the 60’s and 70’s, the fear of communism was ubiquitous among westerners, the Vietnam war was still being fought, and young adults were increasingly desiring a life filled with sex, drugs, rock music… and peace.

As the 60’s brought increasing tension between young people and the adults in power, it makes sense that so many young people related to this song, amongst many songs by The Beatles. The song portrays a world that is care free and happy. Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds paints a picturesque world filled with “tangerine trees and marmalade skies… cellophane flowers of yellow and green towering over your head”. It easy to imagine a colorful world where every aspect is aesthetically pleasing. A place “where rocking horse people eat marshmallow pies, everyone smiles as you drift past the flowers that grow so incredibly high”. This is a place that is filled with happy people who have no worries. Overall, this song depicts a utopia that is filled with smiling faces and bright colors.

John Lennon wrote the song for the group. Although Paul McCartney stated in an interview that the song was about LSD, Lennon stated in an interview (posted below) that it was not. Lennon was inspired by a drawing that his son brought home and had nothing to do with drugs… instead it was based off a picture of a beautiful girl flying in the sky with lots of colors surrounding her.

“We Will Become Silhouettes” by The Postal Service

“We Will Become Silhouettes” presents an extreme contrast between lyrics and sound, reminiscent of Master Pangloss’ reality versus perspective from Voltaire’s Candide. Despite what appalling disasters befall him, even in the midst of an extreme earthquake, Pangloss stubbornly holds true to his view that “all is for the best in the world.” The events being described in this song are likewise horrific, to say the least: “Because the air outside will make our cells/Divide at an alarming rate until our shells/Simply cannot hold all our insides in/And that’s when we’ll explode…And it won’t be a pretty sight.” The music video depicts what appears to be a post-apocalyptic scene, with a band member uncontrollably giggling as he rides his bike through a large tumbleweed in what used to be a busy street, a contrasting attitude to an ominous picture. I related to the song by connecting it to modern times, particularly the line “But all the news reports recommend that I stay indoors,” satirizing the news we are constantly hearing of damaging sun rays, borderline poisonous food, storms, terrorist threats, and even the end of the world.

Yet The Postal Service’s frontman Ben Gibbard takes on a matter-of-fact and cheery tone while describing the dystopian chaos surrounding him consisting of empty streets, deceased friends, and a very lonely time spent in a fallout shelter. With an almost ridiculous sense of optimism, vocalist Jenny Lewis happily bobs her head to the catchy beat, idly singing “Ba…ba…ba…ba.” (Meanwhile, the “ba’s” likely refer to the sound our bodies make when they “finally go.”) Even the children in the video are excitedly bobbing and tapping their feet to the upbeat tune as they prepare for a bike ride through a bleak landscape and an equally unappealing picnic of preserved food.  Though there seems to be some sort of presence of imminent death due to the fact that the world fell apart, the incongruous bubbly attitude taken here almost seems to overshadow that destruction. Though it may be extreme and out of touch with reality, how else does one survive in such a tumultuous place? Even in the midst of destruction, life goes on. Dystopia is what you make of it, a hopeful message for us today in a world full of global warming and nuclear bombs. Maybe it will somehow all work out.


“Where is the love?” by The Black Eyed Peas

The Black Eyed Peas – Where Is The Love? – YouTube

The song “Where is the love?” by The Black Eyed Peas primarily exemplifies the theme regarding human rights through the relationship between the individual and society. In their song, The Black Eyed Peas describe many of the tragedies constantly occurring throughout the world. These tragedies include violence both domestically and internationally. They describe “nations dropping bombs,” “children hurt,”and  “people killing, people dying.” They cite the lack of love throughout the world as the cause of these pitfalls. For example one section of a verse argues, “if you only have love for your own race then you only leave space to discriminate and to discriminate only generates hate.” This verse implies that to achieve a perfect society or to at least overcome the pitfalls of society, love for one another must come to the forefront of human relations. This would in turn end the cycle of violence and pain inflicted by humans on one another throughout the world.

They also place blame on the overwhelming desire by individuals to make money without care for others. Further, they state that the world was not always this way and in order to return to a more “utopian” society we must abandon greed and turn away from the negative images and wrong information produced by the media. Ultimately, their song exemplifies their desire to return to a world with fairness, equality, and humanity. In other words, “instead of spreading love, we’re spreading animosity.”

Professor Hoffman’s Top Utopian and Dystopian Songs

Download: utopian songs

“The Rainbow Connection,” by Kermit the Frog. This might strike some as an odd pick, being that it captures more of what Frederick Jameson calls “the utopian impulse” than any particular utopia, and also because it is sung by a Muppet.   “Rainbow Connection” offers no blueprint for a better world, no program of reform, only the hope that there is something better to be had, somehow. But, isn’t the vague, never-specified “better world” at the other end of the rainbow a true vision of the “good place/no place” signified by the term utopia? Isn’t the debate staged in the song (between those who think that rainbow’s end is an “illusion” and “the lovers, the dreamers, and me”) actually the perennial debate about whether one should work for a better world, or just work to maximize one’s own gains in this world. So, for all those who are not quite satisfied with the “way that things are,” who aspire to be more than the hedonistic maximizers of economic theory, this is for you. There is no better version of the song, for my money, than this Muppet Show duet between Kermit and Blondie singer Deborah Harry.

“Zion Train” by Bob Marley. Long before Thomas more wrote Utopia, Zion was a Promised Land that played an important role in many utopian aspirations. Here Bob Marley taps into this strain of religious utopian imagining.

I.G.Y. by Donald Fagan. The initials of the title stand for “International Geophysical Year,” an event of international scientific cooperation between from 1957 to 1958. The song presents a retro-future vision of a technological utopia, the closest thing that I have found in popular music to an earnest song about a “traditional” utopia. But it must be said that technology solves all the problems here. Human unhappiness disappears in the plenty that is brought by science, without any thought given to political or social considerations. Fagan’s retro-future world is less like what Wells calls a “utopia of organization” (in which human problems are solved by means of superior social and political organization) and more like the Land of Cockaygne, the Middle English version of Big Rock Candy Mountain that J.C. Davis has taken as the exemplar of one his five types of utopia, one of unlimited abundance fulfilling unlimited desire.

“Nothing but Flowers,” by The Talking Heads. OK, this is not a “straight” utopian song without irony (and who knows what the heck David Byrne is talking about when he says he was that as an angry young man he would pretend he was a billboard who fell in love with a highway). In this song, the suburban commercial sprawl has, for reasons unknown, been left to revert to its natural state. The narrator, however, misses the old life (“if this is paradise, I wish I had a lawnmower”). The song captures the tension between the Rousseauian primitivist that haunts so many of us (who tells us that we would be better off with a little less “civilization”) and the hopeless consumer, who will forever crave “cherry pies, candy bars and chocolate chip cookies.” I sometimes think that it would be cool if all these annoying cars, shopping malls, parking lots, discount stores and 7-11’s just ceased, and the flowers covered over everything. But could I really do without them? Probably not. Ironically, it is the impulse to “get away from it all” that drives the sprawl in the first place: so many of us want both to live in the country and near an Outback Steakhouse that we keep expanding the development we are trying to escape. The whole situation is a bit of a catch 22. How long can we keep running away from ourselves?

 Alternate Takes: David Byrne’s song can be viewed as a reaction to less ironic calls to return to a “garden of Eden” such as “Woodstock” (“we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden”) and “They’ve Paved Paradise and Put Up a Parking Lot” (the title says it all). The song was written by Joni Michelle. Here is the Counting Crows version:

 “Imagine” by John Lennon. I’m sure there are those who wish that this was #1, but Kermit and flowers come first in my book. It is my firm belief that what Lennon is talking about here is an anarchist utopia, in spite of the recent splicing of the song into a montage of scenes from George Lucas’ THX-1138 which strongly suggests that Lennon’s vision is totalitarian. Lennon? Totalitarian? Come on…let me quote: “If you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao/ You ain’t going to make it with anyone anyhow” (“Revolution”). Think Emma Goldman, not Joseph Stalin. In this song, Lennon simply suggests that government, organized religion and property are the sources of all human misery, and asks us to imagine a world without them. Lennon displays more faith in human nature than I have, but, after all, he himself admits he is a bit of a dreamer…

“What a Wonderful World” by Louis Armstrong. Herein LA simply says, “You are living in utopia, silly.” Once you get beyond your own personal BS, the world is a beautiful place. Few could have said this with more credibility than Armstrong, who came from extreme poverty and had ample reason to look at the world as a not very wonderful place at all, had he so chosen. Yet, in 1968 he came out with this incredible tribute to the global life-force.   One implication that can be drawn is that we don’t need any fancy planes for government re-design or radical plans to start all over again, we just need to work on our own attitudes a bit. I’m not so sure that nothing needs to be changed in the world, but I am sure that my own selfish attachments often prevent me from seeing what a wonderful world it already is.

 Alternate Takes: One way of making the argument that, despite all the hardship of life, we live in the best of all possible worlds is to suggest that all the good and bad is part of a bigger plan that is beyond our human ability to comprehend. In this plan, there is a time, place and purpose for everything that we everything that we experience, even the most awful things. This idea is expressed in “Turn, Turn, Turn,” a song adapted from Ecclesiastes 3:1 by Pete Seeger in 1959. The most popular recording has been that of the Byrds in 1965.

 “Utopia (Genetically Enriched)” by Goldfrapp. As near as I can tell, in this song Alison Goldfrapp is a superhuman (“I know everything…I am superbrain”) created through some kind of eugenics program (see title) in love with a Nazi (“Fascist baby…”), and all she wants is for her dog to be gifted with similar abilities (“give my dog new ears…make his eyes see forever”). Although this is, to my ears, a beautiful song, in a trip-hoppy kind of way, it is definitely the darkest selection on the list, reminding us that National Socialism (Nazism) was also a utopian movement of sorts, one that perhaps met the destiny of any utopian vision pursued too rigorously: the drives for purity and perfection can be the most dangerous in the human heart, which can become, to quote a phrase from Kenneth Burke, “rotten with perfection.” So call this song the dark side of “The Rainbow Connection.”

Or, try the live version (Veronica Lake w/ the Bavarian Resistance):

Bonus Dystopian Songs

“Subdivisions” by Rush. In this classic tale of utopia gone wrong, “perfect” suburban subdivisions turn out to be a living hell of “misfits” and “dreamers,” because they offer no “charms” to sooth the “restless dreams of youth.” This song is really an Orwell-style critique of a conformist society brilliantly applied to North American suburbs. But the controlling force is not the government: it is one’s own peers. Shades of Alexis de Tocqueville.

“Welcome to the Jungle” by Guns and Roses and “The Messages” by Grand Master Flash. Both present the “timeless old attraction” of the city as a Hobbsean jungle. Who substituted a Hobbsean war of all against all for a socially coherent city? Who knows, but here are two great urban dystopian visions.

“The Sound of Silence” by Simon and Garfunkel. Ultimately, this song argues that dystopia is caused by lack of communication…