A trip around doublethink.
What would you do if you weren’t allowed to laugh? To read or listen to music? To love someone deeply or engage in intimacy? What if you were forbidden from writing down your deepest thoughts, your innermost secrets, and ideas? Picture a society where free will and conscious decision-making are essentially banished from existence. You are no longer a person in your own right, but a puppet strung along by government propaganda. This is how the people in the dystopian novel 1984 have to live.
1984 was written by George Orwell in 1949, almost half a decade before the time period explored in the novel. In it, Orwell analyzes what it could mean to surrender our beliefs, emotions, and human desires in the name of political singularity. He refers to this government dictatorship as “The Party,” a corrupt group of propagandic leaders who perpetuate the ideology that they, along with their ruler “Big Brother,” hold ultimate power over the laws of nature and reality. Big Brother is someone no one really sees, but nonetheless are forced to idolize and worship endlessly — everyone except the main character, Winston Smith.
As the story progresses, Winston makes it increasingly clear to the reader that he is resistant to the Party and Big Brother, his resistance highlighting the rawness of our humanity once it's stripped away from us. He then meets O’Brien, a deceiving character who reveals what it's like to indulge in the darkest parts of humanity, posing questions that challenge our preconceived notions of what is right and what is wrong.
Describing 1984 as a literary rollercoaster would be doing it an injustice. It is a tsunami, a hurricane — a meteor shower, if you will. And what better way to encapsulate the meaning of this work than through the universal language of music? So, without further ado, down below is my take on the top five songs that accurately capture the essence and psychology of Orwell’s literary masterpiece. You know, if 1984 had a modern-day soundtrack.
DOOMED — MOSES SUMNEY
This eerie lullaby radiates melodrama, paralleling 1984’s illustration of existential crises. Sumney sings a poetic tragedy about the travails of human life, exploring and questioning our emotional complexity, and whether we are doing enough. He writes, “Hollow one with inverted tongue, from whence does fulfillment come?” This lyric is subconsciously validating a creature of emptiness (“hollow one”) most likely suffering from an emotional drought of certainty, meaning they are living in confusion at the moment. Will the creature ever feel fulfilled with what they have? Can they trust their own words if the nature of their truths are fluid?
“Inverted tongue” is kind of an ode to the novel’s most prominent philosophy of “doublethink,” which states that two opposing ideas can co-exist at the same time; the person in this song is obviously succumbing to ideological inversion by contradicting their past ideas. Such is the case with Winston in 1984, who continually questions and doubts the nature of his hollow reality. Eventually, he ends up going against his true beliefs by loving Big Brother, serving as a visual representation of an “inverted tongue.” There are also other powerful lines later on:
I feel you
But nobody else
Though you're someone I can't see
These lines encapsulate Winston’s own internal battle with the Party and Big Brother. Both are forces that he can’t see, although he constantly feels their presence from the reminder that individuality and self-expression are illegal.
If lovelessness is godlessness
Will you cast me to the wayside?
Well, I feel the peeling
Of half-painted ceilings
Reveal the covering of a blank sky
Since love is traditionally associated with a higher power, like religion, taking away someone’s ability to love is akin to taking away their faith. The Party’s lack of love makes them godless, in a sense, because they don’t believe in a higher power than humans.
When Sumney inquires, “Will you cast me to the wayside?”, he mirrors Winston’s own personal fear of being eliminated by the Party. Winston is scared of being discarded by society. The last three lines are the perfect metaphor for the Party’s manipulative lies which are carelessly covered (“half-painted ceilings”) by illusory aphorisms. But slowly, these lies are gradually “peeling” away in the mind of Winston, as he receives confirmation from O’Brien about what he’s always known about the world, deep down: it is a “blank sky,” void of emotion, art, knowledge, and humanity. Overall, Sumney’s repetitive question of “Am I Doomed?” throughout the song is fitting for Winston’s own fears throughout the book. In every chapter it seems like he’s faced with instances where he might meet his demise, whether it be by secretly keeping a journal, reading radical literature, indulging in sexual fantasies, plotting against the Party, or even being tortured by O’Brien. Winston lives with the perpetual anxiety of possibly facing his doom, but on a grander scale, the society in 1984 is already doomed to live under an eternal blank sky.
CREEP — RADIOHEAD
When Thom Yorke of Radiohead sang “But I’m a creep, I’m a weirdo/What the hell am I doing here?/I don’t belong here…”, it couldn’t have fit more perfectly with Winston’s own personal feelings of himself as 1984 progressed. Winston was always an outlier in the eyes of the Party — politically, socially, and intellectually. He never truly felt comfortable with the Party’s restraints imposed upon society and he also never ceased to experience a peculiar fascination with the forbidden: sex, lust, love, family, literature, and information.
In the perspective of someone complying with these rules, Winston is a “creep,” a “weirdo,” and he “don’t belong.” Truth be told, even once he finally accepted Big Brother at the end of the book, I don’t think he’ll ever belong in a world ruled by a tyrannical organization like the Party; it just feels wrong. In addition, the lyric, “I don’t care if it hurts, I want to have control” relates to not only the Party wanting to hurt society for personal gain and pure power, but O’Brien’s outlook on obtaining it in the first place as well. For instance, he doesn’t care how much Winston is hurting, he’ll still inflict physical pain on him if he says something considered “stupid”. According to O’Brien, one way to gain power and control is by torturing another human being into submission; that way, they’ll always obey what the torturer will make them do. O’Brien doesn’t care if it hurts, he wants to have control. The Party doesn’t care if it hurts, they want to have control.
COMMON PEOPLE — PULP
Pulp’s britpop single touches upon the idea of an outsider looking in, wanting to be normal and live like “common people” (I wanna live like common people, I wanna do whatever common people do). The song quickly takes an upsetting turn with lyrics like “you’ll never live like common people, you’ll never do what common people do,” like a sad wake-up call to the outsider that they’ll never have the liberty to live as they please.
Such liberties mentioned in the song consist of sexual desire, dancing freely, psychedelic intoxication, failure, education, playing sports, laughing, singing, and just the luxury of freedom. These same liberties are all prohibited in the society of 1984, where Winston is the “outsider” who desperately wants to experience the things that a common person would have before the Party established its reign. A personified version of “Common People”’s lyrical twist would be O’Brien, Winston’s daily reminder that as long as the Party is in control, he’ll “never live like common people do.”
FADE INTO YOU — MAZZY STAR
In the context of 1984, the beginning lyrics can refer to Winston’s search for truth. He wants to know the underlying motives behind the mechanics of his society: why all the secrecy? Why all the limits? Why all the thirst for power?
For once, he wanted to hear a true answer, something that made sense and didn’t disguise itself. The two following lines are examples of doublethink, for it implies how a person can see both truth and lies in their lover — or perhaps the truth is that there is nothing to their lover at all. This connects to Winston because he sees both dishonesty and logic (could be equated with truth) in the system implemented by the Party; he acknowledges and subconsciously respects it, but deep down knows it isn’t a fair nor dignified system. Ultimately, Winston did live his life in the shadows (line 5) by daring to oppose the Party and living under the fear of being caught and persecuted by Big Brother — all thought-criminals did, not just Winston. Finally, the last line,“colors your eyes with what’s not there” manages to single-handedly summarize the illusion — a spell, if you will — cast upon society by the Party, fooling them to believe that the system they built is effective for all and that it’s the only way to maintain peace and order. There’s no love in that world, no freedom of expression, no tangible relationships.
Similar to how the lead singer’s mind fades into the thought of her lover, the song fades out with a repetition of its chorus, “Fade into you, I think it’s strange you never knew.” These lyrics manage to summarize O’Brien’s betrayal of Winston, revealing himself as a member of the Party after all. But it also deals with an even worse betrayal: Winston’s betrayal to himself. He forfeits his values by declaring a brainwashed adoration of Big Brother. Were Winston’s propagandized principles always embedded deep within him?
ALL FOR US — LABYRINTH AND ZENDAYA
The lyrics in this song echo a powerful claim that some unknown force is “doing it all for us, doing it all.” The chorus relates to the same claim echoed by the Party in 1984, which states on page 262 that “the Party did not seek power for its own ends, but only for the good of the majority. That the Party was the eternal guardian of the weak, a dedicated sect doing evil that good might come, sacrificing its own happiness to that of others.” As you can see, just how Labrinth is singing about a higher power doing “good” for the vast majority, the Party is preaching the same in order to keep society oblivious to their true intentions. Additionally, mentions of slavery and prisoners in “All For Us” align with the practices of the Party — they value similar restrictions of liberty. The song ends with the following verse:
Guess you figured my two times two
Always equates to one
Dreamers are selfish
When it comes down to it
I hope one of you come back
To remind me of who I was
When I go disappear
Into that good night
The first two lines are symbolic examples of doublethink, because two times two is obviously four, despite the singer’s interpretation. This could also equate to a deeper meaning of “perception is reality,” a significant theme in 1984 — O’ Brien’s belief that the physical realm is controlled by human consciousness, the Party’s alleged authority over the laws of nature, and Winston’s initial rebellion against Big Brother’s politics). These disparate beliefs are all true in the eyes of the beholder.
“Dreamers are selfish” suggests that when you dream of happy times, you’re thinking of how to please yourself. According to all the ideas laid out by the Party, personal fulfillment and satisfaction will get in the way of their development of power. Thus, by ridiculing “dreamers,” they’re guilting them into silence. I view the remaining lines as a depiction of Winston losing himself in what he wrongly believes as “good,” and that perhaps in the distant future someone would remind him of who he used to be before he disappeared into the Party — before Big Brother. ✸
Michelle Seucan is a published poet and aspiring journalist living in New York City. She is a writer, a dancer, and a dreamer. Her goal in life is to change the world with words. (Instagram: @michelleseucan)