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Not With The Band: When A Song Makes Us Think More Than Usual

E=MC2 -now that’s thoughtful




A large number of pop-rock songs are vaguely about science, cosmos exploration or even science fiction, but I am more interested by songs making more or less direct allusions to big ideas and important discoveries in science. These songs are subtle and they don’t pretend to be educative, I am not talking about They Might Be Giants’ ‘Here Comes Science’ type-of-thing here, which is also great, but I am talking about the sort of songs that slip in your ear some essential idea or fundamental scientific discovery without warning and pretension, and in such a subtle manner that the big idea becomes effortlessly part of the songwriter’s universe, as if it has always been there.

Didn’t Nick Cave write a song about the Higgs boson lately? It is featured on Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ last album ‘Push The Sky Away’, and this is exactly what I am talking about. It is not surprising that Cave found this particle, nicknamed the ‘God particle’ at the horror of all physicists… it was only named like this because it explains why other fundamental particles have mass, but particle physics is highly complicated, and I wouldn’t even try to go there. However, this highly powerful boson, which seems to act upon matter, has fascinated mainstream media, although almost nobody understand anything about it. So Nick Cave wanders his blues down to Geneva, home of the large Hadron Collider where the particle was identified and scientists made another step to pierce the big mysteries of our universe… but in Cave’s fantastic song Geneva morphs into Memphis, African Savannah and Amazonia or even Toluca Lake (in Los Angeles) and it is a meandering tale between god (or the denying of the existence of god or the scientists playing god?) and the devil (with Robert Johnson). All along the song, you feel the heavy heat of the bayous, the assassination of Martin Luther King (‘In Memphis now in the Lorrain Motel’), and the weigh of the original sin on your shoulders, but only Nick Cave could make a link between Peter Higgs and Miley Cyrus, to may be tell us how hard it is to rescue the essential from the confused soup that our media culture has become.

Remarkably, Arcade Fire had a song called ‘Supersymmetry’ on their last album ‘Reflektor’, which is also making a reference to particle physics! Ha again, they want to make it very intellectual and complicated! It looks like the song refers once again to the constant theme of the album, Orpheus losing his Eurydice, with many repeats of ‘Supersymmetry’ in the chorus but without telling us much more about it. Supersymmetry is a theory which attempts to unify all forces and says that every fundamental particle should have a superpartner, a ‘massive shadow matter particle’,… so far no supersymmetric particles have been discovered, but it is a very convenient love imagery not unlike the Greek philosophers’ idea of the quest to find our lost half. It’s also very seducing that, interestingly, we may never know if these superpartners exist, a sort of non accessible shadow/behind the mirror idea, lost forever in the mystery of science or the kingdom of the dead.

It’s already an old song, but Gogol Bordello’s ‘Supertheory of Supereverything’ was also touching these very complex physics’ big ideas, as the lyrics were name-checking the SSC (the Superconducting Super Collider), the Superstring theory, the acceleration of the protons and other particles predicting the Higgs Boson before its discovery! Of course, it’s also an anti-religious song (‘I think it may started rumor/That the Lord ain’t got no humor’, ‘I don’t read the Bible/I don’t trust disciple’) while chanting the glory of science and the super theory of super everything,… this song has some guts and humor!

Then you have José González who doesn’t get close to physic particles this time but touches our human nature. He has such an interesting path: he studied biochemistry but quitted the field before finishing his PhD when he became a successful songwriter-musician. He has being very clear that his solo album ‘In Our Nature’ was inspired by his reading of books by Richard Dawkins and Peter Singer, and his atheism because of science. His early adventure with music was very different from what he does now, as the first band he played in was a hardcore punk band, Back Against the Wall, so this tells you about his punk protest spirit. If I had to pick a song off the album, I would say the lyrics of ‘Abram’ are a direct inspiration from Dawkins’ The God Delusion’: ‘Not much of what you say makes any sense/Cook up some myths, then ask for obedience/Even though you mean well, well most of the time/you’ve aided delusion and created bias in our minds/Oooohh, go to sleep’. If he doesn’t talk about science (in this song) it’s a clear rejection of these very old and irrelevant stories, inviting us to consider our choice, going back to bed or waking up!

Listen to these beauties below:

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