Music is present in many aspects of our daily lives. Sometimes it is relegated to background noise while doing other activities; other times it contains deeper meaning and can be a way to process pain. However, how often do we actually listen deeply to the lyrics of the songs we listen to? Music today often tries to appeal to a range of tastes and preferences to reach a broader audience with a catchy chorus with the goal of maximizing profits and online interactions, often at the expense of the lyrics, as in Justin Bieber’s recent song “Yummy”: “Yeah, you got that yummy, yum” (“Justin Bieber – Yummy”).1 The purpose of this project is to investigate whether certain topics, such as Chernobyl, deserve a degree of reverence when put into songs, possible right and wrong ways of doing this, and how much the the passage of time or proximity to the event affect the ability to do this appropriately.
“Magic Lantern Days” (2015)
At almost 40 years old, the lead singer of mewithoutYou, Aaron Weiss from Philadelphia, was too young and too far away to be greatly impacted by the immediate effects of the Chernobyl disaster. This doesn’t mean that artists like him shouldn’t be allowed to make songs about Chernobyl. They just need to be extra attentive when creating songs so that they are respectful of the people who were and are still being affected by the disaster.
Just the mention of Chernobyl in lyrics today helps keep the disaster in recent memory. As time progresses, people grow less sensitive to the disaster and forget that there are still thousands of people being affected by radiation from the explosion. In a conversation with our class, Weiss also mentioned that the band’s use of the “1985 Chernobyl heart” lyric is used, first, to add a point of connection for the listener and, second, to remind people of the fragility of everyday life. Referencing 1985, the year before the disaster, honors the unsuspecting citizens going through their daily lives. Weiss compared it to the day before a devastating car crash, the moments before life as it was once known is completely uprooted.
“Can’t Run But” (1990/2018)
Another American artist, Paul Simon, must reckon with his temporal and geographic distance from Chernobyl, but unlike Weiss, Simon was at the height of his career when the Chernobyl explosion occurred. After gaining popularity in the famous duo Simon and Garfunkel, Simon—now as a solo artist—received a Grammy Award for album of the year in 1987. “Can’t Run But” appeared on his next album, The Rhythm of the Saints.
“Can’t Run But” didn’t earn Simon any particular attention for his lyrics about the disaster and actually flew under the radar for the album. However, in 2018, Simon remade a collection of songs that he said were “overlooked the first time around” so that he could have “time to clarify in my own head what I wanted to say, or realize what I was thinking and make it more easily understood” (quoted in Leight).2 This again brings Chernobyl back into the minds of the public from a more renowned artist. The adjustments made to the song add to the erratic, almost stressful nature that enhance the feelings that go with the descriptions of the radioactive rain and the food and water that the residents now have to debate eating or drinking.
Lyrics (in Spanish)
Patricio Rey y sus Redonditos de Ricota is an Argentinian band led by a vocal political activist. “Jijiji” is arguably their best known song. This is probably in large part due to the song’s upbeat tempo that fits the characteristics of popular songs and masks some of the more serious lyrics.
Additionally, the fact that this song is in Spanish affects the perceptions of the song in the former Soviet Union. In Ukraine, the most commonly taught foreign languages in schools are English and German, so many would be unable to understand “Jijiji.” Alternatively, in the United States, Spanish is the most common foreign language learned in schools so the song would be received differently. The lack of Spanish speakers in Ukraine points out a fundamental difference between the English and Spanish depictions: the audience. The purpose of writing “Jijiji” was not for the people directly affected by Chernobyl. It was to memorialize the event for a Spanish-speaking audience and to inform those who weren’t affected by it, using the platform in the geographical location available to them.
Lyrics (in Russian)
Domestic artists are inherently held to a different standard when it comes to the ethics of referencing disasters into their songs. Personal connection and proximity to tragedy more often leads to an ethical treatment of the tragedy because the artists are better able to portray the gravity of the loss. Sergei Uryvin writes in the Russian Bard style of playing, which focuses more on the lyrics with a simple solo guitar accompaniment; these lyrics are often political in nature.
Sometimes, protesters are accused of being opportunists, attaching to the most recent political protests to further their own political agendas. While often given the benefit of the doubt, there is the chance to face even more scrutiny, as artists’ songs do not properly respect the disasters they depict.
Uryvin does this appropriately. His lyrics highlight the cowardice and corruption within the Soviet Union as well as the government’s failure to act in the aftermath of the reactor explosion. He emphasizes the sacrifice of the liquidators and further emphasizes that the sarcophagus, while physically covering the remains of the disaster, can’t conceal those left in the wake of the catastrophe.
All these songs are part of the broader portrayal of present-day Chernobyl. In comparing them to each other, the distance from Chernobyl seems to be the largest contributor to their effectiveness in honoring the disaster through their songs. The international artists, while importantly continuing the conversations about Chernobyl outside the former Soviet Union, are obviously still extremely removed from the disaster and its effects. The most impactful rendition came from Uryvin; the proximity to the event allowed for a more impactful depiction of the unfairness of the Soviet Union’s treatment of its people and gave him more authority to talk about the citizens affected by the disaster.
The reasoning behind this project was was twofold. First, the translations3 are intended to bridge a gap in understanding the deeper meanings behind certain songs that would otherwise not be available for an English-speaking audience. Second, it was to discuss ways to bring awareness to subjects like Chernobyl while treating them with the respect they require even when personally removed from the subject itself. Music is a way we can remember Chernobyl and is a medium that every person can relate to.
I would like to thank Grace Sewell for the translations of the Russian and Spanish songs. ↩