How I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb

Mommy, why does everybody have a…

I wasn’t a big fan of Prince. That’s not to say that I actively disliked him – I didn’t – or that I thought he was overrated – no way – or that I wasn’t blown away when I finally saw footage of him performing. Like most women my age I nursed a teeny, unfathomable crush in the 80s, and after his unexpected death last month I was watching the clips and reading the analyses along with everybody else. But unlike when other musical heroes have passed on – I devoured my just-left-home soundtrack Hunky Dory  again when David Bowie died –  I did not want to wallow in the music I knew best. Specifically, I didn’t want to listen to  1999. Of course, Facebook had other ideas and I was forced to confront it.

The song was released late in 1982, but it would have been later than that in New Zealand. I associate it with being 19 or so, maybe 20. I have a very clear memory of being at someone’s house when this album was being played, feeling strongly that something was wrong, but unable to articulate what. I now recognise this as a flare-up of the kind of depression I’m prone to, which had landed me in hospital four years earlier and continued to dog me till I discovered SSRIs in the mid-90s, which have kept me more or less well ever since. At the time all I knew was that I was unhappy and uneasy, unreasonably so.

But it’s 1999 specifically – not Little Red Corvette, say, which is on the same album – that sparks this feeling. And I can’t just put this down to my Henry James-level sensitivity to music.  Sure, Christopher Cross’s Sailing makes me feel agitated and cold, not because it is deeply uncool pop rock with a seasick-making noodly riff – when it was released in 1980 I, too, was deeply uncool – but because it was charting shortly before my psych admission that year and played constantly. To this day I cannot so much as think about Wayne Newton’s 1972 track Daddy Don’t You Walk So Fast without tearing up, and my dad didn’t even go anywhere. It was just the concept. 



Pitchfork’s Maura Johnston calls 1999 the greatest album ever made about partying as a way of staring down oblivion. Well, I was far too scared of oblivion to stare it down. The idea of people partying in the presence of small children while carrying bombs that they presumably intended to detonate soon was too horrifying to contemplate. It should feel far worse today in these times of suicide jackets but it doesn’t. It just seems low-grade hedonistic in the way the early 80s were, with our DIY fashions and limited access to serious luxury and drugs.

It’s been sixteen years since two thousand zero zero and we did not, after all, run out of time. Or if we did, I didn’t get the memo. The Millennium Bug proved to be nonexistent and microwaves everywhere continued to function. Subsequently lots of things happened – pseudo love, true love, heartbreak, London, more love, more heartbreak,  my  town falling  down,  and yet somehow I am  doing all right. Life is insecure and possibly short. Good music, good food and good company will not change that, but they surely ease the path.

I exited high school very literal. Like most A students I couldn’t bear the idea of anyone thinking I didn’t know something or that I was bad, so the idea that someone might deliberately create an unreliable narrator, write a first-person take on a challenging character or just explore something they didn’t actually believe in took a while to sit well with me. Combined with that always iffy mood and its close relative, obsessive thinking, it meant songs and artworks that I now appreciate sometimes scared me. I laugh at and feel sorry for Past Me now in equal measure. (In the sixth form I became very worried that I might get stigmata, which would mean I would have to be holy and therefore not have sex. You have no idea.) I’m glad that, unlike Prince’s mates, nobody I knew was predicting the end times when that album surfaced. Perhaps it was because we were nuclear-free, at the bottom of the world, or not particularly Protestant, or just never read any newspapers.

Today the obsessive thinking issue has largely subsided, remaining only as a susceptibility  to earworms. The more unsettled I am, the more earwormy I become. Visiting New York City I was beset by Famous Blue RaincoatTake The A-Train and  the theme music from The Nanny – horrifyingly,  in that order – because I took said train to meet someone in Clinton St and subsequently rode another line several times that ended in Flushing, Queens.

It’s a pretty good trade-off.



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