Even before the advent of videos, pop music did a decent job of educating the youth. As Bruce Springsteen sang on “No Surrender,” he and his fellow baby boomers “learned more from a three-minute record” than they ever did in school. The Boss is a sharp guy, but had he come of age in the MTV era, he’d be about a hundred times smarter.
That’s because once videos took hold, well-meaning musicians finally had the ideal forum for disseminating their wisdom and molding young minds. One subject that rock and pop stars have always excelled in is, of course, world history. Thanks to YouTube, someone with virtually no knowledge of the past can watch a series of music videos and get a pretty good understanding of what’s been going down on Planet Earth for the last, eh, 4.5 billion years.
What follows is a narrative of world history based on 15 music videos. It’s a fair and balanced journey through the centuries, and according to math skills we’ve also picked up from pop music, it’s 93 percent accurate. Let the learning begin.
PART 1: THE ANCIENT AGE (i.e. facts are fuzzy)
“Tropico,” Lana Del Rey
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. He then made Elvis and Marilyn Monroe, and under the watchful eye of John Wayne, they begat a beautiful daughter with dad’s lips and mom’s insatiable curiosity. And it was good — at first. Then, this golden child ate from the Tree of Knowledge and Pretentiousness, and mankind went tumbling down a path toward tattooed hooliganism, strippers humping brass poles, and ponderous 27-minute music videos. The takeaway: apples are shady.
“Walk the Dinosaur,” Was Not Was
Of course, some contend there is no God, and here’s the evolutionist’s perspective on man’s early years. Forty million years ago, thanks to a string of genetic mutations and the process of natural selection, apes gave way to Neanderthals, or Cro-Magnon Man, or whatever. In this funky species of early humans, females excelled at dancing suggestively in groups of four.
“Do You Remember the Time?” Michael Jackson
Whatever his origins, man soon developed language and built impressive civilizations. Among the most majestic and powerful was the one in Ancient Egypt, where only one thing could challenge the mighty pharaoh’s rule: choreographed dance numbers led by androgynous mystics.
PART 2: MIDDLE AGES, RENAISSANCE, DISCOVERY (i.e. mankind is killin’ it)
“Holy Diver,” Dio
From the deserts of Africa and the Middle East, man spread far and wide, growing luxurious manes of hair as he made his way to Europe. From roughly 500 to 1500 AD, he celebrated his achievements by forging swords, battle-axes, and guitars — long, hard apparatuses he gripped with both hands and used to thwack away at whatever evil demons God or evolution had not yet stricken from the planet.
“Safety Dance,” Men Without Hats
When the last of the demons had been slain, mankind rejoiced and spent the remainder of the Middle Ages skipping through the streets with buffoonish glee. For the first time in history, men could dance if they wanted to, and they could leave their cares behind. And they didn’t have to wear hats.
“Rich Girl,” Gwen Stefani
After the Middle Ages came the Age of Discovery, wherein European nations got drunk on ambition, built tall wooden ships, and set sail for the furthest reaches of the globe. This led to piracy on the high seas — and more choreographed dancing. The most vicious of all pirates were yellow-haired sirens blessed with firm abdomens and emboldened by cultural secrets borrowed (or stolen, according to some scholars) from the trendiest villages of Japan.
PART 3: ARISTOCRATS & YANKEES (i.e. women in hoop skirts)
“Rock Me Amadeus,” Falco
As pirate warfare raged in places like the Caribbean, there was a flowering of art and culture back on mainland Europe. One of the era’s key figures was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, inventor of the synthesizer, the rainbow wig, and — contrary to those who would credit African Americans — rapping. Mozart was also responsible for further innovations in the field of choreographed dancing.
“Walking on Broken Glass,” Annie Lennox
England’s aristocracy was similarly infatuated with powdered wigs and group dancing, and in these, the stuffy days before air conditioning, handheld fans were a corseted lady’s only protection from the fainting spells often brought on by fervent shunning of societal outcasts.
“Some Nights,” fun.
As Europe enjoyed something of a golden age, the great American experiment was put to the test. In the 1860s, the nation found itself in the grips of a Civil War, a bloody conflict that would have ended much sooner had the fighting not happened in slow motion. Part of that was due to the woefully uninspiring bands of troubadours that often accompanied the men into battle.
PART 4: INDUSTRIALISM FIXES EVERYTHING (i.e. a few more hoop skirts)
“Lovers On the Sun,” David Guetta
When the Civil War ended, Americans hadn’t yet tired of hats and gunplay, so they headed West, where the general lawlessness allowed women to assert themselves as never before. As cowgirls began using mirrors to melt pistols, men everywhere instinctively crossed their legs in fear. Fortunately, the Wild West was still America — always a bastion of gender equality — so men resisted the urge to enact laws that would restrict women’s property or reproductive rights. How big of them.
“A Little Party Never Killed Nobody,” Fergie
In the Jazz Age of the 1920s, America was a paradise of racial harmony and sexual freedom. No one looked askance at interracial coupling, and the heady joys of hedonistic spending proved once and for all that capitalism is the greatest thing ever.
“Shadows of the Night,” Pat Benatar
Runaway capitalism had nothing to do with World War I or II, and in fact, the second of these global skirmishes only created new opportunities for upward mobility. A woman working in an airplane factory could legitimately dream of climbing behind the controls of a P-51 Mustang, flying into the heart of Nazi Germany, and planting the bomb that turns the tide. America = freedom + equality. Everywhere else = tyranny + oppression.
PART 5: SLOUCHING TOWARDS MODERNITY (i.e. we finally get YouTube)
“Two Tribes,” Frankie Goes to Hollywood
Still, not everyone was sold on the benefits of capitalism, and following World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union engaged in a Cold War that lasted until the 1980s. After flare-ups in Vietnam and Afghanistan, things were finally settled in 1984, when US President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Konstantin Chernenko agreed to a televised wrestling match. There was a lot of biting and crotch-grabbing. Naturally, that convinced everyone to be friends.
“Wake Me Up When September Ends,” Green Day
In the aftermath of 9/11, America invaded Afghanistan and Iraq. The enemy was stealthy and often unseen, and a lot of well-intentioned young people braved hellish desert war zones to carry out missions they believed would rid the world of terrorism and extremism. Evidently, Osama bin Laden declined Frankie’s invitation to wrestle George W. Bush live on the Internet.
“Digital Witness,” St. Vincent
In the second decade of the 21st century, as American adventurism in the Middle East wound down and the Internet lulled everyone into a gentle stupor of forgetting about it, the US government had little difficulty convincing everyone to wear drab jumpsuits and march through the streets. It was a little dystopian and dull, but on the bright side, the NSA was able to call off all domestic spy programs. People were simply too boring to watch.