Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Pop Culture Pervasiveness: George Orwell's 1984

You know those lyrics in the Rage Against the Machine song Testify that go "Who controls the past now, controls the future / Who controls the present now controls the past"? (And then it rocks your face off!) Yeah, those are direct quotes from Orwell's 1984. And the line in the Muse song Resistance that goes "Kill the prayers for love and peace / you'll wake the thought police"? Obviously "thought police" is another 1984 reference. Radiohead wrote a song titled 2+2=5 and the Incubus song Talk Show On Mute invites us to "come one, come all into 1984."

And those references are just off the top of my head — which, I'm sure, means the above is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of references to the novel 1984 in music specifically, but also in general pop culture. (Just so we're clear, I'm not even mentioning the idiotic show Big Brother.)

It's a pretty influential novel (...states Captain Obvious). If you've never read it, give it a try. It's not nearly the slog some "classics" are. There are slower parts where there's no "action," per se, but if you're like me, and you're interested in politics and philosophy and the philosophy of politics, even the slow parts are fascinating.

One example: Orwell spends 30 pages showing us Winston Smith reading a book about the counterarguments to the Party's ruling philosophies (Ingsoc, or English Socialism) and slogans (i.e., War is Peace). It takes some brain work, but unpacking the arguments is rewarding. So is reading the epilogue in which Orwell describes Newspeak — the invented language of the Party that reduces the number of words in order to reduce critical thinking and opposition to the Party.

And you get to learn about solipsism — which, if you don't remember your Phil 101 course, is the notion that reality exists only in the mind. So once you get that, then you can sound smart at cocktail parties by saying things like, "You know, Greg seems like a reasonably intelligent person, but his solipsistic views and the fact that he rejects the objective nature of reality, make me want to brain him with blunt object."

Finally, here's this: A little tongue-in-cheek thought experiment on Book Riot to determine which was better, Orwell's 1984 or real 1984.

So, what other 1984 pop culture references have you noticed?


  1. This was an interesting post, thanks for sharing your thoughts. There is of course also the Big Brother TV show, not exactly a highbrow reference but something lots of people will know.

    I love 1984, but think I prefer Animal Farm.

  2. I really need to re-read 1984. I last read it when I was 15 and it scared the hell out of me. Sticking with the music reference, the band Propagandhi has a song titled "War is Peace, Slavery is Freedom, May All Your Interventions Be Humanitarian"

  3. I just finished a re-read of 1984 a few days ago. I'm afraid I didn't enjoy it as much the second time as I did the first. Maybe it's because I'm older and more used to the dystopian references...who doesn't quip off with 'big brother' reference now and again :)

    But it is/ was/ and always shall be (unless Orwell happens to be vaporized) a very important book!!

    My favorite parts are the psychology of words and the creation of newspeak. :)

  4. Maybe you guys are too young to remember either the David Bowie song "1984" or the Apple "Big Brother" commercial with the hammer-throwing Olympic athlete?

    ~scott bailey

  5. Also, in 1979 or so Hazel O'Connor had a song called "Big Brother," as featured in the movie "Breaking Glass."

    The film "Brazil" is clearly influenced by Orwell.

    ~scott bailey

  6. In 2003 I was living in Bloomington, Indiana. The residents selected "1984" as their One Book/One Bloomington book that year. It is a darkly compelling novel that lends itself to many approaches and interpretations. Thus, it is a fabulous book to read and discuss with others. In fact, as I read, I couldn't wait to hear what other people thought about the book. It's a love story and a thriller. It's a political treatise and a rumination on totalitarianism. As other reviewers have said, against the backdrop of the war with Iraq, it is timely. But it is also timeless. The themes and issues explored in "1984" will be relevant every year. I couldn't put it down!

  7. Some years back, I tried reading 1984 and failed. This was mainly because of the show 'Big Brother'... when I finished reading my part of it in the afternoon, and switch on the television, I'd be bombarded by the stupid show. So, unfortunately, I put the book down.
    Now, I want to read it again, and guess what? They want to pick up the stupid show again and call it 'Big Brother: Secrets' using the same stupid house, at the same the stupid location (Dreamworld) and this time, the people who take part are all going to have their very own deep dark secret they must not share with anyone around them.

    I hated the show then, so did most of Australia, so why bring back something that will destroy the ratings more? Not to mention put me off reading a great classic?

  8. I have been meaning to read this since reading Animal Farm last year. I had mixed feelings about that Orwell classic. Scary and clever it was, but somehow dry. Your review of 1984 is anything but dry :) many thanks.

  9. @Sam - I haven't read Animal Farm in awhile, but I remember really enjoying it, too. Maybe it's time for a re-read of that one as well.

    @Red - Nice one! Hadn't heard of that band/song before...

    @Laura - Yeah, I really liked the description of the three types of Newspeak words, too - and how the words themselves influence thought. Really interesting!

    @Scott - I don't remember that commercial actually being on the air (I was 8, but not allowed to watch TV...boo.), but of course, I've seen it since. Hadn't heard of the O'Connor song either - thanks for point that one out!

    @Anonymous - Yeah, exactly - it's a love story, thriller and political/philosophical treatise. And so, yeah, like you, I couldn't put it down either. It really is a fun book to discuss, and Orwell's prescience is amazing!

    @Mozette - It's a shame that idiotic show Big Brother is the only way many people (kids these days) even know what 1984 is. I wish it would go away/be disappeared.

    @Mel - Well, fair warning, if you thought Animal Farm was dry - there are parts of 1984 that, by modern standards, might be considered dry, also. But they're so thought-provoking, I don't consider them boring at all. It's a fantastic read!

  10. I agree with you Greg. I think if the television stations were to do something like the book; it would be best to show the movie of the book instead of making the whole thing a hammy show.

    The worse thing about 'Big Brother' is that when it comes on here it takes over all of the other television programs that are scheduled. This is why nobody likes it and why it was eventually taken off the air.

  11. Was this a solipsistic review, and have you found any "solent green" in our food supply, yet? ;]
    I'm concerned about the new-age-looking cameras set up in my town on the slim towers at traffic intersections, which take white-light
    flashing pictures if anyone goes through a yellow or red light so the police dept. can impose large fines.
    I'm also miffed that a sheriff's office, huge mph counter is set up in my neighborhood to make larger than life calculations on the small loop in my "private" gated community! What's up with that!? Big Brother's alive and functioning in Naples, FL

  12. The modern parallels I saw in the book were frightening, that being said the world and characters George Orwell created were very believable. I really enjoyed this book and it is one the people should read.