Utopia and Dystopia in Music: Two Sides of the Same Coin
Author: Maya Morriswala
When people are asked what they think the future will look like, they are either wildly optimistic or wary and pessimistic. A utopia is a perfect world with peace and equality. In contrast, a dystopian society is often post-apocalyptic or war-torn, containing various injustices and violence. These descriptions can lead to two very different pictures and interpretations of the world. But what if I were to tell you that they’re one and the same — two sides of the same coin?
Keeping the definitions I’ve given of dystopia and utopia in mind, you may think I am joking. How can a world be both unfair and equal — both violent and peaceful?
The answer: it’s all about perspective.
We find stories about dystopian worlds so interesting because of their complexity. Things are not all that they seem. My generation grew up on dystopian fiction: The Hunger Games, Divergent, The Maze Runner, and so many more. Many of these books have been brought to life as films, allowing people to immerse themselves in broken universes, twisted politics, and black-and-white ideals.
However, some of these universes — those of Divergent and The Giver come to mind — may seem utopian at first. After all, before the hero fights the system, they often have to come to terms with the deception they were raised on — deception used to manufacture feelings of contentment and peace.
I mentioned books and movies, but the medium that receives arguably less attention in its depiction of utopias and dystopias is music. With many wondering what the future is going to look like, it is no surprise that many songs centre on utopias and dystopias. While there are verbal descriptions in the form of lyrics, there are also soundscapes created through instrumentation and tone.
Two songs — “Your World Will Fail” by Les Friction and “Euphoria” by BTS — present interesting depictions of dystopia and utopia. On the surface — sonically — the songs could not be more different. However, digging a little deeper lyrically, there are many parallels, indicating that, perhaps, utopias and dystopias are not so different after all. Much like supposed utopias themselves, everything seems clear at first glance — or at first listen — but maybe, just maybe, complexity and grey areas lurk in the shadows.
So, what are these songs anyway?
“Your World Will Fail” is a song by Les Friction, a musical group that writes rock operas. As such, their music is epic and aims to tell stories. In particular, “Your World Will Fail” centres around someone who has been disillusioned by the dystopian world they live in. This person warns someone whom they care for that they are being silenced by the cruel world.
Contrastingly, “Euphoria,” a song by BTS that is performed by BTS member Jungkook, depicts a dreamlike utopia. While BTS utilize many musical styles in their discography, “Euphoria” has a bright, futuristic pop sound that starkly distinguishes itself from the darker orchestral sounds in the aforementioned “Your World Will Fail.” Furthermore, unlike the narrator of “Your World Will Fail,” who warned their loved one to run away from the world because it was sinister and evil, the narrator of “Euphoria” wants their loved one to stay with them in their dream — the utopia — in order to escape a difficult reality.
Upon first inspection, both songs seemed to oppose each other. However, I discovered that in considering both songs as two perspectives on the same society, music can flesh out the differences — and similarities — between utopias and dystopias.
Sonically speaking, how do these songs compare?
There could not be two songs that are more sonically different than these two.
“Your World Will Fail” is an epic rock opera that is very dark and heavily orchestral, and the singer has a low and deep vocal tone that almost makes him sound like a villain. The song begins with very few instruments and uses heavy echo on the vocals to emphasize the speaker’s loneliness and to perhaps highlight the emptiness of the world in which he lives. However, occasional bass hits and the gradual buildup of guitars, more voices, and more instruments hints at how sinister the speaker’s world is and reflects how underneath the peaceful silence at the beginning of the song, there is chaos and evil. In short, behind the peaceful, harmonious utopia hides a violent, discordant dystopia.
Interestingly, the song begins in silence and crescendos, but suddenly, there is a moment of complete silence before the cycle of crescendoing begins again and successfully reaches a peak at which all the orchestral instruments play loudly and the singer sings more intensely. This can indicate that the tension in that world was temporarily silenced; however, eventually, the tension won out, shattering the illusion of utopia and showing the world for what it was — a dystopia.
“Euphoria,” on the other hand, has a much happier and lighter tone than “Your World Will Fail.” I’d classify “Euphoria” as feel-good electronic pop, with the light synths, guitars, and Jungkook’s high and poppy vocals creating a very summery atmosphere.
While it may be easy to ignore emotional shifts within this song because the lyrics are in Korean, the shifts are also difficult to find because they are communicated through changing chord progressions, not changes in dynamics. In fact, “Euphoria” has very little dynamic change compared to “Your World Will Fail,” conveying stability and peace despite the trials the lyrics describe. The narrator of “Your World Will Fail” sees how his world is a dystopia masquerading as a utopia, but the narrator of “Euphoria” wants to stay in his perfect dream world to avoid facing the dystopia that is the real world.
Of course, there is no reason to think anything sinister is going on in “Euphoria” purely from a listening standpoint. However, lyrically, “Your World Will Fail” and “Euphoria” are not talking about two opposing worlds — they are talking about two perspectives within one world.
Lyrically speaking, how do these songs compare?
Both songs have lyrics that focus on world-building and correspond with sonic changes. “Your World Will Fail” begins with gentle lyrics about how the broad world looks and works, and these calmer lyrics happen when there are relatively few instruments and sounds being heard. However, the lyrics become wary and angry as the singer begins speaking directly to the person they love about how the world is more evil than it seems. Coincidentally, the climatic lyrics, “Your world will fail my love,” occur at the sonic peaks in the song at which the multitude of orchestral instruments play loudly and strongly. It’s almost as if all the noise in the song itself is meant to try and wake up the people in the dystopian world who are “controlled,” “alone,” “silent,” and “empty souls.”
“Euphoria” also describes a world, except it does so in a positive light. The singer paints a picture of “a green oasis” in the middle of a desert, the sun rising, and an ocean heard in the distance past a forest. The most clear indications that the singer views this world or dream as perfect are the lines, “You are the cause of my euphoria” and “When I’m with you I’m in utopia,” which are repeated throughout the song. Euphoria is a state in which someone is extremely happy or excited, and if a utopia is a perfect, peaceful world, it makes sense that people would feel such a great emotion.
Examining the surface-level meaning of each song, one comes to wildly different conclusions. The world in “Your World Will Fail” is a dystopian and violent one masquerading as a quiet and peaceful one. Contrastingly, the world in “Euphoria” is dreamlike, eliciting a euphoric state. However, looking at the two songs together, I see each as a different point of view about the same world.
“Your World Will Fail” comes from an outsider’s perspective: the speaker is disillusioned by the broken world they see the person they love living in. On the other hand, those who actually live in that world are “controlled,” quiet, and content with the way things are. Before the song becomes more intense, the singer acknowledges how peaceful and utopian things seem at the surface: “And inside this realm of shared understanding / Everyone floats when ideas are landing.” The “shared understanding” could be the complacent mindset of those in the dystopia. Furthermore, the concept of people floating indicates that there is not much ‘weighing’ on their mind — in other words, they are not thinking about anything of substance. The “ideas,” however, have a lot of weight; hence, they are “landing.” Therefore, while people in the dystopia are living happy — albeit ignorant — lives, they are missing out on the benefits of thinking for themselves and really trying to understand that their peaceful situation is simply the “calm before the rage.” This is further supported by the speaker begging their loved one to “run for [their] life” as the song intensifies.
“Euphoria” comes from an insider’s perspective: the singer is in a dream world and doesn’t want to leave. However, while the speaker would like to believe that they are in a utopia, it becomes evident that the physical world they live in is far from it. Jungkook sings, “Even if the earth crumbles / No matter who shakes this world / Don’t let go of my hand / Please don’t wake me up from this dream.” Essentially, these lyrics communicate that even though the world is a dangerous place — a dystopia, perhaps — being with someone you love makes that place a “dream.”
Here lies the point that connects these two very different songs. In “Your World Will Fail,” there are hints that the dystopian world is utopian for the people in it. In “Euphoria,” there are hints that the supposed utopia is fake or a mirage covering something more sinister. One could argue that the failing world in “Your World Will Fail” is also the real world of “Euphoria.” The singer of “Your World Will Fail” sees that place for what it is and urges the person he loves to fight it, but the singer of “Euphoria” seeks an escape from that world and encourages the person he loves to escape with him because that person is his utopia. Hence, ‘dystopia’ refers to the challenging, violent, and evil physical world in which people live: in both songs, the physical world could be dystopian. However, ‘utopia’ is not a physical place; rather, it is a state of mind or dream outside of one’s reality. In “Euphoria,” the singer feels like he is in a utopia when he is with the person he loves, regardless of any struggles in the real world.
Why should I care?
An interesting question to consider is: which song advertised the ‘right’ solution to surviving a dystopia? There are two options: fight or flight. “Your World Will Fail” encourages people to find out the truth about their world and fight the violence or evil within it to try and create a more equitable and peaceful physical world. Contrastingly, “Euphoria” conveys the idea of flight — that mental escape and sticking close to loved ones can get you through crises, even if your reality itself is falling apart.
Dystopian novels typically support the idea of ‘fighting the system.’ The Hunger Games’ Katniss Everdeen must fight the Capitol that rules over the districts, Divergent’s Beatrice Prior must battle against the five-faction system in her world, and The Maze Runner’s Thomas must escape a maze and figure out why he and other children are being experimented upon. Of course, the reason we probably see more support for fighting is because it is the more entertaining choice for readers and movie-goers everywhere.
However, this isn’t to say that trying to mentally escape a dystopia is always a bad idea. The COVID-19 pandemic has reduced society to a dystopia of sorts, and preserving mental health has been one of the most important things we can do since there is no way to fight the virus other than to avoid it before the vaccines are distributed. Surrounding ourselves with loved ones and finding bright sides is what keeps us going during our many months in lockdown. We are technically escaping the reality of our situation, but the key is to not delude ourselves into thinking that reality isn’t real.
“Euphoria” acknowledged that reality was difficult and that utopia was a dream. Maybe you think that it is cowardly to run from problems, but I think that there has to be some solace that ordinary people seek while the heroes go and fight. So long as people acknowledge the truth of their reality, there is hope for the future. In fact, if we have learned anything from “Your World Will Fail” and “Euphoria,” it is that there are utopias within dystopias. And perhaps, flight can be a form of fighting, so long as people live and understand the same reality and truths of the world.
We must be careful not to make dichotomies where they do not exist. Just like fight and flight can be different responses to the same scary situation, dystopia and utopia can be different interpretations of the same world. Even utopia itself can be formed from different motives: I think that “Your World Will Fail” describes a mentally asleep, ignorant populace that is forced into a false utopia, while “Euphoria” describes someone who creates utopia for himself. Hence, utopia can either be a delusion forced upon people to mask the presence of a dystopia, or utopia can be a form of escapism in order to get through difficult times.
Therefore, while “Your World Will Fail” sounds purely dystopian and “Euphoria” sounds purely utopian, I think there is actually a fair share of both dystopia and utopia in both songs. Furthermore, knowledge that one lives in a dystopia elicits a fight or flight reaction. Those we typically classify as heroes are fighting, while those looking to cope with their situation when they either choose not to fight or cannot fight are escaping. Importantly, people who know the truth about reality and choose to escape are creating a utopia of their own free will, which is different from when a utopian mindset is implemented by force.
The speaker in “Your World Will Fail” is a fighter in a dystopia trying to wake up their loved one who is brainwashed into believing they live in a utopia. The speaker in “Euphoria” is also in a dystopia but is choosing to escape by building a utopia with the person they love. If we as a society ever encounter a similar situation, what would we do? What should we do? I cannot answer those questions, but perhaps through listening to these two songs I discussed, you can figure out the answers for yourself.