Panic in Absence of Evil

“Panic on the streets of London, Panic on the streets of Birmingham… Because the music that they constantly play – it says nothing to me about my life!” Those are Morrissey’s famous lyrics of The Smiths’ 1986 song “Panic”. At first they seem to be strangely aloof vision of an artist: People going to the streets, simply because the music selection played on the radio makes them unhappy? Not becasue of the ruling class, not because of the bread prices – Just because of the music?

The Smiths – Panic (1986):

And yet, perhaps Morrissey’s prediction may not at all be remote from reality. The recent uprisings in parts of the Arabic speaking world can indeed be interpreted as a collective frustration also with the information conveyed via mass-media such as radio. As censorship presumably is very stringent, it is very likely that both the music and the words transmitted by state-controlled radios has nothing to do with the lives of the people their – thereby fueling their frustration to a degree that gets them on the streets. In any case, it definitely is extremely unlikely that the music playing on oppressed radio stations says too much about the lives of the listeners.

Curiously, it turns out that the real-life claims of protestors are less gruesome than in the song: Protestors in Tunisia wanted, and protestors in Egypt still want to merely send their respective dictators into exile, whereas Morrissey wants the “blessed” DJ to be hung, famously supported by the chanting of schoolchildren (“Hang the DJ!”). Most likely the people of Tunisia and Egypt would be fine with simply replacing the DJs of their radio station.

The lyrics do not start with “Panic on the Streets of Tunis, Panic on the Streets of Cairo..” though – instead they refer to English cities. Allegedely, The Smiths wrote their song after listening to British radio, where the news of the Chernobyl disaster was followed by a random love song that had no connection whatsoever with the disastrous implications of the nuclear accident. Had the Smiths been listening to radio in 2001, perhaps they never would have written their song, as many critics felt that the DJ’s made wise choices by making Enya’s “Only Time” and U2’s “Stuck in a Moment” the soundtrack to the aftermath of the September 11 attacks.

What is characteristic for both contemporary revolutionaries and for the Smiths is that they focus on an easily identifiable symbolic “bad guy” to blame: Ben Ali and Mubarak or “the DJ”. The unraveling of grand epics appears to be greatly aided by the presence of undeniably evil villains – just think of Darth Vader, Sauron and Voldemort. Perhaps the reason that the Smith’s prediction did not fulfil itself in England but rather in Egypt was because “the DJ” isn’t that clearly identifiable after all.

Twenty-three years after the Smiths, Olvia Ruiz in her chef d’oeuvre “Elle Panique” (“She panics”) reworks the topic of panic in its modern variation – panic in absence of a clearly identifiable single menacing source of evil.

Olivia Ruiz – Elle panique:

In her French lyrics, Olivia Ruiz recounts why an unknown other “she” panics – most likely she is referring to herself, as part of the lyrics use an I-persona trying to fight off the panic. The heroine of the song is plagued by “being worried about her little brother” as well as “being worried about her behind”, in addition to being worried about working too much, aging too early, being bored even for an instant, being worried about not being worried about by others, and so on and so forth. All of these reasons are listed on an equal footing.

Which makes the revolutionary struggles undertaken by so many nowadays all the more admirable: Because according to Oliva Ruiz, what awaits you after overthrowing an existing overriding external threat that had driven you to panic is only an endless plethora of small and large new reasons to make you panic.

Have a panic-free week!


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