This is the fifth post in a yearlong series. Read about it here and see the list of all songs in the series here. A new post about a different song will be posted each Monday throughout 2016. You can listen to the songs in a Spotify playlist.
The Razor & Tie compilation “Totally ’80s” was a staple of my middle and high school years. My brother had given me the two-CD collection for Christmas in 1993, and spent the next seven years replaying it long after its scratches caused it to skip. There were many great songs on there, but Tears For Fears’ “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” always stood out.
I had always assumed it was about adolescence and coming of age, but that’s probably because I was an adolescent coming of age. I listened to “Totally ’80s” and specifically “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” approximately 37 million times between the ages of 12 and 18. It was the soundtrack for sleepovers, Science Olympiad, homework sessions, and driving to school. That band members Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith had any ideas of what the song was supposed to be about was just not a possibility, because for me, the song was always about my teen years and my friends with whom I listened to that song.
But of course, the song is bigger than just my memories of it and it has an actual history beyond what I’ve projected onto it. “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” is one of Tears For Fears’ most recognized songs, but Orzabal and Smith were not fans of it originally. It was the last song recorded for the band’s second album, “Songs From The Big Chair.” Though producer Chris Hughes had long liked the song as an album contender, Orzabal and Smith had been lukewarm toward the song, in part because of the lyrics and original title. It was originally called “Everybody Wants To Go To War.” With some tweaks, the song became “Everybody Wants To Rule The World,” and that song became one of the biggest hits of the band’s career.
Smith is quoted as having said, “The concept is quite serious — it’s about everybody wanting power, about warfare and the misery it causes.” Upon revisiting the lyrics, the words do lend themselves to war imagery.
There’s a room where the light wont find you
Holding hands while the walls come tumbling down
When they do I’ll be right behind you
I had assumed that room was something metaphorical, but taken literally, the lyrics could be about a safe room to get away from enemy troops. Maybe that’s too literal of an interpretation, but’s certainly possible.
When I learned the song had been called “Everybody Wants To Go To War,” I reexamined every word to see what I had missed. And for a few days, I mourned. It sounds silly to say that I mourned, but I felt like my deep-rooted attachment to the song had been compromised by Smith saying it was about war. That song was too full of meaning and memories for me. I couldn’t make room for it to be about anything else, even for Tears For Fears.
I got over that, of course, because my love for that song never came from Smith’s opinion about the song. He may have helped create the song, but its meaning and significance will vary from person to person. And that’s how art should be. After all, if the person who wrote or first recorded a song got to dictate what the song was about and what we thought of when listening to it, why would we even have covers?
Thankfully, my sentimentality for “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” has not ruined my ability to enjoy covers of the song. Perhaps it’s because the songs sound so different from the original. Patti Smith’s 2007 cover album “Twelve” featured a version of “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” that sounds more straightforward than any other cover she’s done. She didn’t radically change the lyrics or add any characters. The instrumental parts don’t sound as polished as the keyboards on the Tears For Fears version, nor would I expect them to sound that way. Her music has always had a rawness to it complements her vocal style. On this track, there’s a melancholy to her voice but also a bounce that makes it kind of hopeful in the way the way the original was.
Lorde recorded a version of the song that appeared on the soundtrack for “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” in 2013. Had Lorde not changed the pacing and arrangement of the song, it might have been too obvious and on the nose to pair with a movie about an oppressive government that forces children to fight to the death. Luckily, her take was not a note-for-note remake. She disrupted the pacing of the original, inserting starts and stops that transformed it from a danceable track to a cold meditation. Lorde’s restraint and quiet delivery at the beginning belied the emotion of her voice. It was a smart song to balance Jennifer Lawrence’s performance as the reluctant but headstrong heroine Katniss Everdeen.
Brooklyn-based quintet Lucius’ version of “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” features strong vocals by singers Holly Laessig and Jess Wolfe over sunny synthesizers. The melody sounds different, and slower, but happier and funkier. Laessig and Wolfe have sweet, polished voices, but they never sound sugary or innocent. There’s a pop sensibility to their voices but also a strength and depth that evokes Neko Case’s vocal stylings. The song ends with one of them repeating “nothing ever lasts for ever” while the other chimes in with “everybody.”
The Tears For Fears version was a song you could dance to, but electronic band Bear Mountain’s version recasts “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” as a dance track. The song might mention walls tumbling down, but it’s a chipper and upbeat cover that would sound perfect in “Mannequin.” Listen to it and try not to picture Meshach Taylor running to the dancefloor to this jam. Just try.
You pictured it, didn’t you? And you danced in place, didn’t you? It’s OK. You couldn’t help it.
There are many stripped down versions of the song as well. Mike Viola’s acoustic version appeared on the compilation album “Here Comes The Reign Again: The Second British Invasion.” There are a few twangy parts that are not-quite-country but adjacent to the country vibe. Bluegrass cover band Love Canon’s version is pretty faithful to the original in tone and melody, save for the fact that it’s done as a bluegrass song and not as a new wave song. Though it’s pretty straightforward and not earth shattering, it’s still entertaining.
With every one of these versions, I found myself singing along and pumping my fists. Any remorse or regret I had about learning the song had been written as a war song is gone, because it doesn’t necessarily matter what the writer was writing about or which artist is singing the song. If it’s a song we can connect with, it can be about whatever we want and we can like it for whatever reason we want.