By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Everybody Wants to Rule the World’ is one of the most famous songs by Tears for Fears. But what is the meaning of this anthemic mid-80s song? Written by one of the band’s founding members Roland Orzabal, along with Ian Stanley, and producer Chris Hughes, the song reflects its time in numerous ways, while remaining ‘timeless’, in other respects.
Let’s start with the title before we get to the meaning of the lyrics. According to the late Joe Strummer of The Clash, he later confronted Orzabal, claiming that Orzabal owed him a fiver because he had ‘borrowed’ the song’s title from a line in The Clash’s song ‘Charlie Don’t Surf’. Strummer claimed that Orzabal simply reached into his pocket and gave Strummer five pounds, as if to acknowledge the influence (or debt).
But anyway, so much for the title. What about the meaning of the song itself?
‘Everybody Wants to Rule the World’: song meaning
The song, in a nutshell, is about how political leaders around the world all want more and more power. The context for the song is important: during the mid-1980s, when the track was written, the Cold War was still raging, and Gorbachev’s Perestroika and Glasnost were yet to develop into fully-blown policies in the Soviet Union.
By the end of the 1980s, just a few years after ‘Everybody Wants to Rule the World’ was written, the Berlin Wall would come tumbling down, and by 1991 the Soviet Union would be broken up, and the Cold War would be over.
But at the time of the song’s composition and release, nuclear war was still a distinct possibility. Other 1980s songs bear witness to the extent to which this idea was embedded in the popular consciousness: Duran Duran’s 1983 hit ‘Is There Something I Should Know?’ contained the memorable line ‘as easy as a nuclear war’, while Sting’s ‘Russians’, one of the most remarkable pop songs directly inspired by the Cold War, was, like ‘Everybody Wants to Rule the World’, a 1985 track.
Indeed, the original title for the song, when Orzabal played just two chords from it for Hughes during a recording session, was ‘Everybody Wants to Go to War’ (a title which was eventually picked up, perhaps unconsciously, by Nerina Pallot for her 2006 song ‘Everybody’s Gone to War’, which, oddly enough, contains the line ‘for every man who wants to rule the world’).
And ‘Everybody Wants to Rule the World’ is about how both superpowers – the capitalist West and communist eastern bloc – have got it wrong. In their struggle for power, to outdo the other side and win the ‘world’, they have created a nightmare dystopian world of industrial (or post-industrial) misery and decay.
The ironic opening word of the song, ‘welcome’, ushers in this dystopian vision of the present: there is no turning back from such a world of surveillance and tyranny (where ‘they’ will find you, even when you’re asleep: the Cold War was, in a sense, the first information war in which ‘intelligence’, espionage, and watching both one’s enemy and one’s subjects became a ‘watchword’, if you’ll forgive the pun).
Everyone must be on their best behaviour in this (post-)industrial hell, where citizens, in their cities of concrete and steel, have left the natural world behind.
Such a world is one we have designed ourselves, leading us to feel regret or ‘remorse’ for having played a part in it. Participating in capitalism, especially, is a good example of this, and this has only become more obvious with time: if we buy smartphones which can monitor our every move, we are, in a sense, trading our freedom in order to obtain convenience or pleasure (or both, depending on what one uses one’s smartphone for).
So all we can do is endeavour to make the best of this trade-off, and enjoy the freedom and pleasure one has, making the most of living in a prosperous nation.
And like anything, this world won’t last forever: the end of capitalism has long been forecast (often prematurely), and certainly communism in the Soviet Union was already in its death throes when Tears for Fears released ‘Everybody Wants to Rule the World’.
The section following the second chorus suggests a kind of underground resistance: a room where the authorities won’t find you, and you can connect with other likeminded individuals while the political structures around you come tumbling down. This could be communism or capitalism: we could be in the east or west.
But of course the title is ‘everybody wants to rule the world’. We are, the title suggests, all complicit. It’s not just about the political leaders, but about individuals who want more and more.
So Americans complicit in capitalism who turn a blind eye to its evils (one possible allegorical reading of, for instance, Ursula Le Guin’s great 1973 short story, ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’) do so because they, as much as Ronald Reagan, want to live in a United States which ‘rules the world’. The song is not just about the authorities versus everyone else. It is about the authority, especially in a capitalist nation, that every citizen has.
Perhaps the most puzzling lines in the song’s lyrics are towards the end: what is it that people say they will ‘never need’, and what is the ‘one headline’ that we are encouraged not to believe?
One obvious answer, which ties in with the song’s Cold War context, is nuclear weapons: the idea of mutually assured destruction was that Russia would never bomb the US (or vice versa) because to destroy the enemy would be to destroy oneself as well, since the invader would in turn be invaded by the enemy’s retaliative missile strike.
Which headline – if a specific one was intended – is being summoned here is difficult to pin down, but there was plenty of speculation in the mid-1980s about the developing of nuclear weapons which, political leaders stated, they would almost certainly ‘never need’ to use.
‘Everybody Wants to Rule the World’: analysis
After the runaway success of their debut album The Hurting in 1983, Tears for Fears began working on a follow-up album, which became Songs from the Big Chair in 1985. This album proved to be an even bigger success than the previous one, and contained a number of tracks which became chart hits: ‘Mothers Talk’, ‘Shout’, and ‘Head over Heels’.
But of all the tracks on Songs from the Big Chair, it was ‘Everybody Wants to Rule the World’ which attracted the most attention, not least because it received considerable exposure on MTV and became a huge hit in the United States.
But ‘Everybody Wants to Rule the World’ almost never appeared on the album at all. It was a last-minute addition to Songs from the Big Chair and was only composed and recorded towards the end of the recording session for that album. What is it about this track that makes it not only such a significant Tears for Fears song, but an iconic eighties hit?
In the last analysis, its anthemic melody, strident electric guitars, and ‘big’ 80s sound tell only part of the story. These are all there to support the even bigger theme of the song, which is the desire or urge within all of us to be winning, to be ‘on top’, regardless of what that might mean for those who are on the bottom. The song suggests that, in such a society, even those on top are, in a sense, losing out.