How is it that a catchy melody, solid groove, or infectious hook can make you want to dance to even the darkest and most nihilistic of thoughts? Prince’s “1999” is a certified banger that just so happens to be set on the edge of nuclear armageddon. “Everybody’s got a bomb / We could all die any day,” he sings. Nevertheless, he’s still going to dance his life away with the help of some funky guitar licks.

Modern English’s “I Melt With You” is one of the best-known new wave hits from the ‘80s, so much so that it once appeared in a Burger King commercial. According to singer Robbie Grey, however, the song is actually about a couple having sex in the middle of a nuclear war. 

Notice a pattern? Not surprisingly, the ’80s were replete with songs influenced by nuclear anxiety.

Any such nihilism can contain echoes of a yearning for a world and an existence that really do mean something, for a universe that isn’t vast and random.

Nihilistic impulses are nothing new in pop music, to say nothing of more outré genres like goth, industrial, and heavy metal’s various offshoots. Who can forget Robert Smith wailing “It doesn’t matter if we all die” in the opening moments of The Cure’s Pornography or Depeche Mode’s Dave Gahan intoning “Death is everywhere” on Black Celebration? But I realized this anew via two recent singles that exist at opposite ends of the musical spectrum.

Sometime in late 2023, Instagram’s algorithms chose to inundate my feed with clips from Juliet Ivy’s “We’re All Eating Each Other.” Released on Ivy’s playpen EP, it might just be the most joyous ode to nihilism I’ve ever heard.

The song is undeniably catchy thanks to its dreamy textures and Ivy’s breathy vocals, but it’s also shot through with such sentiments as “We validate our fantasies to feel like we are special inside” and “We don’t know how to accept we’re just a product of a chance.” And then there’s the chorus, which Ivy sings with pure jubilation and wild abandon:

But we’re all gonna die
Decompose into daffodils and dandelions
The bees will use our flowers for whatever they like
Make the honey that our grandkids will put inside their morning tea
It’s the thing of life

Many of Ivy’s lyrics oppose the Christian view. Even so, her song is not without some truth. When she sings, “We paint our face with intellect / Pretending we’re not curious,” she nails our modern tendency to rationalize the wild world around us to make it safer and more manageable. And though the Christian should undeniably reject Ivy’s assertion that we’re all just products of random chance who are “less like gods but more like plants / Who can’t stop making up reasons we’re alive,” she hits a nerve there, as well. Specifically, our desperate scramble to find some semblance of meaning in our lives, an impulse that often leads us to find solace in sex, relationships, money, careers, and material possessions—all good things, but hardly capable of providing any true sense of meaning or purpose. (It’s not for nothing that Qohelet tells us in Ecclesiastes that God “has put eternity into man’s heart.”)

As for the song’s chorus—which gets catchier the more I hear it—I find it humbling once I push through the nihilism. Whether this was Ivy’s intent or not, her flowery (no pun intended) lyrics are a reminder that I don’t live a singular, atomistic, autonomous existence. I’m not disconnected from the world, but rather, am subject to its cycles, to entropy and decay, just like all of my fellow creatures—on this side of eternity, anyway. I will die someday, and my body will decompose. And though I may not become the honey for my grandkids’ morning tea, my hope is that I’ll still be connected to them even long after I’m gone.

While Juliet Ivy finds a sense of release, even euphoria, in embracing life’s meaninglessness, Beth Gibbons adopts a more somber perspective. Gibbons is best-known as the vocalist for Portishead, one of the leading lights of the ’90s trip-hop scene thanks to their haunting blend of hip-hop, jazz, electronic music, and cinematic soundscapes. And of course, through Gibbons’ own world-weary voice, which constantly sounds like she’s on the verge of collapse and can imbue any lyric with an ocean of emotion with little more than a whisper.

Portishead has only released three studio albums in the last 30 years, all of them masterpieces, but Gibbons is poised to release her first proper solo album, Lives Outgrown, later this year. (2002’s Out of Season was actually a collaboration with Rustin Man, aka Paul Webb of Talk Talk fame.) A decade in the making, Lives Outgrown comprises ten songs inspired by Gibbons’ experiences with aging, motherhood, menopause, and bidding farewell to friends and loved ones who’ve passed on.

These experiences manifest themselves in the album’s pastoral first single, “Floating on a Moment,” with Gibbons realizing and ultimately embracing the frailty of existence. She sings of being “a passenger on no ordinary journey” and “traveling on a voyage where the living / They have never been.” As for the song’s chorus, it’s nowhere near as ebullient as “We’re All Eating Each Other,” but still conveys a similar outlook:

I’m floating on a moment
Don’t know how long
No one knows
No one can stay
All going to nowhere
All going, make no mistake

As the song fades out, Gibbons leaves the listener with a final thought that’s part lamentation and part acceptance: “It’s not that I don’t want to return … It just reminds us that all we have is here and now.”

As with Ivy’s song, Gibbons’ “Floating on a Moment” may be discomfiting for the Christian. After all, her statement that “all we have is here and now” seems to contradict any belief in an eternal life. But that interpretation may be too simplistic. Again, Gibbons’ song seems to communicate a truth, albeit a partial one.

Because we believe in heaven, Christians often face the temptation to denigrate this world: as the great Larry Norman famously said on 1972’s Only Visiting This Planet, “This world is not my home / I’m just passing through.” But doing so risks dismissing the precious earthly existence that God has given us as part of his good creation, an existence where—because of our eternal nature—every single moment counts.

These words often attributed to 19th-century Quaker missionary Stephen Grellet were in the back of my mind as I listened to Gibbons’ single: “I shall pass through this world but once. Any good therefore, that I can do or any kindness I can show to any human being, let me do it now. Let me not defer or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.”

There’s nothing nihilistic in those words, but rather, an admonition to recognize the importance of our lives in this world and act accordingly. Not because this world is all there is for us, but the exact opposite—and it’s against that backdrop of eternity that our lives ultimately have any meaning or significance.

Perhaps because I’m nearing fifty myself, Gibbons’ somber song resonates with me on a much deeper level than Ivy’s upbeat pop. I can feel my own body (and metabolism) slowing down; I feel more aches and hear more cracks and pops then I did even this time last year. And my wife and I are keenly aware that we’re entering the stage of life that entails seeing time catch up to our parents and their generation. The dissonance of Ivy’s song, on the other hand, due to its seamless blend of nihilistic absurdism and irrepressibly cheery tone, is only possible to maintain—and only sounds appropriate—when you still have your whole life, with all of its dreams and possibilities, ahead of you.

Nihilistic impulses in music, be they from Prince and Modern English or Juliet Ivy and Beth Gibbons, don’t upset or scare me. Nor do they represent dangerous challenges to my faith. Rather, I find them helpful, even illuminating. And dare I say, inspiring. And not just because the songs themselves are great. Any such nihilism can contain echoes of a yearning for a world and an existence that really do mean something, for a universe that isn’t vast and random. Which is precisely the sort of existence—and universe—that have been given to us.