In February, 1958, in Palo Alto, California, a teenaged Joan Baez stayed in school while the rest of her classmates took a half-day off and went to house parties. Baez’s school had a civil defense drill that day, practicing evacuating in the event of a warning that nuclear missiles were on their way from Russia. Baez thought the exercise would be futile in the event of an actual nuclear conflict, she explained to the local paper. "I don't think it's a method of defense,” Baez said. “Our only defense is peace." Even her teachers had taken the afternoon off, so Baez sat at her desk by herself for the rest of the day as the sole "conscientious objector" to the mock evacuation.
Protesting civil defense drills at the peak of the atomic age was exceptionally rare, and would have been remarkable from anyone, let alone a high school student. Participation in such drills was required in many cities, and their value was heavily propagandized by the U.S. government. The Civil Defense Administration’s cartoon character Bert the Turtle taught children to “duck and cover” through a catchy jingle. Pamphlets were distributed to the public detailing post-apocalyptic plans with grisly specificity. At a young age, Baez understood that these preparations were built on a perverse premise: that the policies that could lead to nuclear conflict were immutable, and all the populace could do was try to make nuclear war slightly less devastating.
Still, I wonder what the house parties were like that Joan’s less precocious classmates attended. Prince’s 1999 wouldn’t be out for another few decades, but the late ‘50s had its own escapist pop about the coming nuclear apocalypse. Baez chided her classmates in the newspaper for not thinking more critically about the drill. I think she was a little harsh. To this day, the whole world lives under what JFK described as “a nuclear sword of Damocles, hanging by the slenderest of threads.” It isn’t easy to cast off the intense feelings of alienation and numbness that come from knowledge of the precarity of humanity’s survival. One can be forgiven for going astray.
The song “1999” acknowledges that its message is unrefined. Prince and his bandmates know that their escapism is an indulgence, and even one that could cause harm—though they want you to know from the outset that that’s not their intent. They oscillate between preemptively apologetic and defiant—”forgive me,” “sue me”—about the impact of throwing a top-charting party when their minds say prepare to fight.
When we accept the full weight of the reality of our nuclear peril, what must we do? For decades, Catholic activists have been breaking into nuclear facilities to enact the words of the prophet Isaiah about a one-day peaceful world: “They will beat their swords into plowshares.” In 1982, a few months before Prince’s 1999 was released, a group of nuns was arrested after they canoed out to a submarine armed with Trident ballistic missiles and beat its missile hatches with hammers.
There are no institutional checks on President Trump’s authority to launch nuclear weapons. The US has 1740 deployed nukes, about 400 of which are ready to fly within just five minutes of Trump's order. About a 100 nuclear detonations would kick up enough dust into the atmosphere to kill two billion people through famine. Knowing this, must I forgo all proverbial half-days of school, pick up a hammer and start hopping fences at nuclear facilities?
The path of those who respond to the threat of nuclear annihilation with proportionate urgency seems solitary and Sisyphean—and the constant, dull hum of anxiety we bear individually when we think about existential threats seems disproportionate to our ability as individuals to address those threats. We aren’t physically equipped to handle the levels of dread and social atomization resulting from problems like climate change and nuclear brinkmanship, and we all listen to our bodies over our minds sometimes.
I found myself listening to music about nuclear war often during and after the 2016 election. At the lowest depths of my political malaise, I would listen to Jeopardy, a 1980 post-punk album by a british band called the Sound. “Who the hell makes those missiles,” screams lead singer Adrian Borland on one track, “when they know what they can do?” It’s an album about knowing that the forces making the world worse are comprised of individuals, but feeling powerless to reach them.
I think this particular sort of hopelessness is what Prince is talking about on the song “Free,” when he warns: “Never let that lonely monster take control of you.” There’s a monstrous misanthropy in the words “who the hell,” that precludes any chance of understanding.
I used to think “Free,” a ballad about the responsibilities of living in a free society, was out of place among the funk jams of 1999, but now I think the title track and “Free” are an inseparable pair. Nobody should look to Prince for policy specifics, but together these songs present a clearer message about how to contribute to saving the world from climate change or ridding the world of nuclear weapons without losing yourself to despair, apathy or cloistered, futile zealotry.
In both “1999” and “Free,” despondency and escapism are sins, but “sinners all are we.” Forgiving ourselves and others the occasional indulgence of despair or forgetting is an aid to change, rather than a hindrance. All of the burdens of changing the world should be shared widely, including the burdens on our mental well-being and happiness.
Between “1999” and “Free,” prophecy is an enemy of progress. If nuclear war is inevitable, why not dance one’s life away? If Isaiah’s words will someday come true, what does it matter if anyone is convinced? To win others over and keep ourselves sane, the ideals and possibilities of the world we want to build should be visible in how we build it. Prince’s utopia would certainly include lots of dance, music, sex, and romance, so in between grappling with the fate of the world on “1999” and “Free,” he fills the album with plenty of each. I want to live in a world without nuclear weapons, but I don’t want that world or the path to get there to be joyless.
In her interview with the local paper about her protest, there’s a moment where Joan Baez drops the wise-beyond-her-years protester persona and appears endearingly teenage. While scolding her classmates for taking advantage of the civil defense drill to hold house parties, she is sure to clarify, “I was invited to one myself.” Joan was right of course about the propagandistic nature of the drill, but what good is being right to a teenager if it comes at the cost of social suicide? I hope she met up with her friends after her lonely half-day at school and partied like it was 1999.