Worldbuilding Songs

Perhaps it’s because I love and appreciate implied storytelling following a childhood of reading probably the worst bestselling book in history that, while supposedly full of crucial information that’ll keep you from being infinitely tortured forever, is nonetheless so fantastically obscure that the vital tenent of the trinity that makes it a monotheistic text and not just another fantasy novel of fake bullshit isn’t even in there and you have to kind of guess around the edges and read the supplemental materials to get what the fuck it even means that means alternate history narratives are oftentimes wonderfully interesting to me. The problem with them, and we’re not going to talk about how long that sentence was, Dad, is that alternate histories are also extraordinarily boring works, usually penned by extremely thudding individuals and strangely, tend to attract audiences that are pretty, well, let’s just say it’s not that these communities are overwhelmingly racist, it’s just that they clearly haven’t done enough to make sure racists feel uncomfortable enough to fuck off.

But what if instead of churning through a civil war era novel that wanted to explain in detail how it went about handling the difference in Ironclad technology, there was some kind of short, fun, punchy way to get alt history, in increments of say, five minutes or less? Well, they’d have to be really good, because then you’re talking about worldbuilding for a real world history in a tiny amount of time. Maybe you’d need something to string it all together, like, you know, music and rhythm and wordplay and all that.

Two songs got me thinking about this – originally this was going to be a listicle with a bunch of links to songs in this vein that I liked, but it was surprisingly hard to find legitimate versions of songs in this style that I really liked.


Billy Joel sung about what was at the time to him an alternate future, and now it absolutely is not. It’s a 2017 that didn’t happen, which makes it alternate history to me. This one actually really weirded me out when I first heard it because I was still tangling with a lot of really damaging mental weirdness from the cult background where I saw all music and art as very literal, which meant I was honestly kind of unsettled that someone could talk about the future year 2017 like it was in the past.

There’s a funny detail that we’re now in a time when the lights have gone out on broadway – the theatres closed while the Coronavirus epidemic rolls across the world. There’s this strangely… nice… vision of a failed future there. Just everday 1980s thoughts about what might make the world worse. Criminal conspiracies becoming stronger and stronger, failures of businesses and then… the collapse of skylines and cities.

The thing that’s weird is that the loss of buildings and life was all seen as the problem. Not the collapse of economic structures and a war literally and deliberately squandering everything that the country had been, had been for.

It’s a little weird. The building fell, but the collapse came after.

Speaking of collapses,

Really, I could make a list of just ‘songs They Might Be Giants did that are full of weird worldbuilding,’ because those guys have been excellently weird for longer than I’ve been alive. Their discography is also enormous, which means you can play your way through a hundred songs and find new things just by going on a sort of audio walk.

I learned about this Dial-A-Song called By The Time You Get This, which – content warning, this is some apocalyptic stuff. I thought I owuldn’t handle it, but I keep listening to it because it has a strangely elegant beauty to it, a sort of wonderfully optimistic stupidity of an apocalyptic log.

The narrative of the song is it’s a sort of time capsule story: It’s a message from a civilisation that has, for some reason, died out. The way it’s framed in the video clip implies a sort of frantic action, some sort of dreadful event, and that event wasn’t unforseen. It speaks of the far off, future year of 1937, about how the speakers are definitely dead, how their end was unfortunate, but it was worth doing, because it would save us in the future from something. It was an apocalyptic solution to grand, society-wide problems, problems they were usre they were about to fix with this drastic action.

Now it might just be I’ve been reading a lot of apocalyptic horror logs lately, but it’s beautifully tight. Less than three minutes to talk about the optimistic, last-minute expressions of a society that stopped existing under waves of …. what, falling stars? Black smoke? Who even knows, a thousand-and-more years ago.

They were.

They’re not.

And they think they’ve solved the problem of babies crying.

Thinking about the music of a culture is great fun, and one of those worldbuilding details that drives home just how many worldbuilders are for lack of a better term, word geeks, or map geeks, or mainly, the people who don’t play musical instruments. We’ll invent whole language systems, but imagining pop songs, oof, that’s hard. Fictional universes, even the best made ones, tend to have the most garbage music and poetry. Which is amazing, because musicians, often in the format of a pop song, do an amazing job of creating fictional worlds, not just the fictional worlds of ‘this world, but I’m dating a girl named Molly,’ but songs that reflect another version of our world.

A thing I keep recommending students make, if their primary interest is in composing music for games, is that they should make a soundtrack for a game that doesn’t exist. Just come up with what you might want the music for, and then put that music together in an album, and use that as a way to express your world.


I want to put up an honourable mention here, by the way, of an album that I once owned, cannot find, and the internet seems to have no meaningfully useful way to find. I once was given a bootleg version of an album by Origa, a Russian vocalist who you might know from the Ghost in the Shell Standalone Complex soundtracks. The premise of the album was that it was a concert from an alternate ‘now’ (2005ish, I believe), and Origa was a pop singer in that world doing a charity concert for people and talking in bits between the songs about the narrative of current events. It was given to me along with a copy of Music For Freelance, an album of Cowboy Bebop remixes which framed the album as a pirate radio station. Both owned, but I can’t find the Origa album anywhere.

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