Songwriters: Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson, Neil Peart
Original Release: Signals
Definitive Version: Live Grace, 2004. The Count Floyd introduction is quintessential. I always have to hear this song start with it now.
My sophomore year at Wabash, when I was listening to Signals a lot, the must-see-TV show was The Day After. I steadfastly—pointedly even—refused to watch it and hid in the library as Ed and Jim and more than 100 million of their closest friends huddled around TVs watching it. At the time, there was nothing more terrifying than the prospect of nuclear war, and I didn’t want to watch a movie about it, because I knew how bad it would be. What was the point?
Many years later, after my curiosity at how others depicted the end of the world developed, I realized I had to see it, and it was really cheesy. Of course, considering that it was a TV movie from 1983, what was I expecting? The thing that grabbed me the most about seeing it for the first time in 2005 was how it was far less tense and horrifying than I had expected it to be.
I suppose this was partly due to the cheesiness factor—the more cartoonish something looks, the easier it is to discount it. But I think it had more to do with the fact that my existential fears had changed. Nuclear war and global annhilation no longer was the scariest thing I could imagine.
Two decades after The Day After, I was flipping through the TV one evening and stumbled across a documentary proclaiming the top 100 moments in televised history. As I started to watch, I mentally made my own list and tried to guess the top 10. Let’s see … Apollo 11, the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, the Challenger, JFK’s assassination, 9/11, the start of Desert Storm, Nixon’s resignation …
I was pretty close as it turned out, and I nailed the No. 1 moment. It wasn’t my No. 1 moment, but as soon as I saw the black title screen showing No. 2 as Apollo 11, I knew No. 1 was going to be 9/11.
Part of that no doubt was due to the newness of the event. 9/11 wasn’t 3 years old yet; Apollo 11 was 35 years old. The average TV viewer barely remembers what happened last week, let alone 35 years ago. When in doubt, OF COURSE, it would be the more recent event. It was like ESPN’s countdown of the top athletes of the 20th Century in 1999. There was no drama, because there was no question that No. 1 was going to be Michael Jordan, because no one remembered Jim Thorpe, and TV (let alone ESPN) didn’t exist back then anyway.
As soon as the segment on 9/11 ended, another title screen came up that said “A Rebuttal,” and the show gave the final word to Walter Cronkite. Cronkite said that in time, after the visceral impact of 9/11 eroded, Apollo 11 would regain its spot atop the rankings, because Apollo 11 represented man’s greatest accomplishment to date. Apollo 11 was about hope and achievement—the best that we could be—and 9/11 was all about fear and destruction—the worst that we could be. In the end, Cronkite said, hope and achievement always win out.
I hope he’s right, but … I don’t know. Given another decade of perspective, it’s clear that the United States not only still hasn’t recovered from 9/11 but that man’s lesser qualities seem to be winning the day.
This country has regressed steadily, starting with requiring passports to go in and out of Canada, to trying to build a wall blockading Mexico, to surveilling online correspondence without a warrant, to allowing invasive body scanners in airports, to flying unmanned drones over our own country and backing politicians openly advocating torture, er, enhanced interrogation, and pre-emptive assassination of U.S. citizens, er, targeted killings of terrorists.
How could this possibly happen? There’s only one explanation: Since 9/11, the United States has become a nation ruled by fear—fear of death, fear of those who look or think different, fear of a lack of control.
At the time of The Day After, I thought this song had a literal meaning—The Weapon was a nuke. It wasn’t until years later, after I finally read 1984, that I realized I was wrong. This song isn’t about 1984 per se, but it doesn’t take a genius to envision Room 101 in Neil Peart’s lyrics.
I’m certain I’m closer to the day I will die than the day I was born. I don’t have a death wish, but—now closer to death—I’d rather lose my life than my dignity, and it’s becoming apparent that I live in a nation where a majority definitely would choose the former over the latter. It’s Patrick Henry turned on his head.
1984, the year, was 29 years ago, but it seems the possibility of Oceania remains firmly in the future, and the future is a lot closer than it ever has been before. Nuclear war? To me, there’s nothing scarier than the totalitarian scenario of 1984 coming to fruition—where every facet of your life is under surveillance and control, including your secret heart. That’s the unthinkable.