“Everybody wants to rule the world”

August 14, 2022 • 1:00 pm

Everybody wants to rule the world“, released by “Tears for Fears” in 1985, is to me one of the few great pop songs to come out of the mid-Eighties. It was written by band founder Roland Orzabal along with Ian Stanley, and Chris Hughes. The lyrics, which you can see here, are mostly opaque, but strongly remind me of looming doom, particularly when Winston Smith shacks up with Julia before the hammer comes down in Ninteen Eighty-Four. 

But the lyrics, while a bit haunting, are what you make of them. Here’s what Wikipedia says:

The song’s lyrics have elicited different political interpretations. A writer for The Economist called the track “a Cold War anthem” and noted its “timeless message”, stating that “the song’s lyrics speak to the anxieties of every age”. Marc Ambinder from The Atlantic used the lyrics “Say that you’ll never, never, never need it / One headline, why believe it? / Everybody wants to rule the world” in his article about the United States government’s use of “original classified authority” and the abuse of power between the branches of government. Dominic Pino of National Review described the track as a “conservative pop song”, noting the lyrics’ tension between “personal ambition” and “channeling that personal ambition to good ends”, comparing these themes to James Madison’s concerns about private interest in the Federalist Papers. Curt Smith challenged this interpretation.

I have no interpretation—only the emotion reaction mentioned above. The song is great almost entirely because of its complex melody, though the voice of the lead singer, Curt Smith, is a major plus. The guitar solos and drumming are also fantastic. It made it to #2 on the British charts, and all the way to #1 in America. (It’s also got a good beat and you can dance to it.)

I’ve put up two live versions, the first from 1985 when the song had just become a hit:

This one, with three backup singers and an orchestra, is from 2007—22 years later. It’s more harmonious, and the guitar solo longer, but I love the energy of the earlier version.

The song is extraordinarily complex in melody; the more you listen to it (as I do on my iPod Nano while walking), the more you hear in it. In this video, song analyst and musician Rick Beato breaks it down.  I urge you to watch the video, as it will show you why this is really a work of musical genius. (Beato-s series of “What makes this song great?” is wonderful.)

42 thoughts on ““Everybody wants to rule the world”

  1. Rick Beato also regularly does “10 Best” lists like best acoustic guitar intros, strange (but good) guitar solos, etc. Always fun to watch.

    One video Beato did was of the 3 best two-chord songs. What? This made me think of a recent WEIT post asking if there are any pop/rock songs out there known only for the words, and not the music. Well, maybe these are candidates. I only remember two of the three songs: “Dreams” by Fleetwood Mac and “Horse with No Name” by America. When you think about it, the music in those songs is banal for the most part (although “Dreams” has some good licks in there, I assume from Lindsey Buckingham), so it must be about the lyrics and/or performance…

    1. Oy vey! I think that “Dreams” has great music and good words, while “Horse with No Name” sucks in both its lyrics and melody. Look at the lyrics for Horse with No Name:

      On the first part of the journey
      I was looking at all the life
      There were plants and birds and rocks and things
      There was sand and hills and rings
      The first thing I met was a fly with a buzz
      And the sky with no clouds
      The heat was hot and the ground was dry
      But the air was full of sound
      I’ve been through the desert on a horse with no name
      It felt good to be out of the rain
      In the desert you can’t remember your name
      ‘Cause there ain’t no one for to give you no pain
      La la la la la la…
      After two days in the desert sun
      My skin began to turn red
      And after three days in the desert fun
      I was looking at a river bed
      And the story it told of a river that flowed
      Made me sad to think it was dead
      You see I’ve been through the desert on a horse with no name
      It felt good to be out of the rain
      In the desert you can’t remember your name
      ‘Cause there ain’t no one for to give you no pain
      La la la la la la…
      After nine days I let the horse run free
      ‘Cause the desert had turned to sea
      There were plants and birds and rocks and things
      There was sand and hills and rings
      The ocean is a desert with its life underground
      And a perfect disguise above
      Under the cities lies a heart made of ground
      But the humans will give no love
      You see I’ve been through the desert on a horse with no name
      It felt good to be out of the rain
      In the desert you can’t remember your name
      ‘Cause there ain’t no one for to give you no pain
      La la la la la la…

      Doesn’t get much worse than that!

      1. I second. Horse With No Name is easily one of the most annoying songs that is occasionally on the radio. Only Supertramp’s songs are worse. I truly detest those.

      2. THANK YOU! That song is just awful. The lyrics are what a kid in third grade might write, if he was especially precocious! “There were plants and birds and rocks and…things…” That’s like my three-year-old niece coming back from the zoo and excitedly telling me all the cool stuff she saw!

        And the song isn’t much better musically. You could plug in deep, meaningful lyrics, and it would still be standard bog-standard 70s tripe.

      3. I’m afraid I often can’t predict what poem or (song) lyric will be considered great/deep and which will be considered lame/banal.
        Probably says something about my modest level of intelligence and/or artistic sense.
        Even one of my favorite poems, Ozymadias, by Shelley, I mean, why is it considered great rather than banal? I have no idea. I mean, it says little more than things, especially power, are ephemeral. Like that was some wonderously novel insight!

      4. You apparently haven’t listened to the lyrics of other songs back in the day. This song is a masterpiece considering some of the other songs, like anything KC and the Sunshine Band put out. I still cringe when I hear those mindless lyrics if you can even call them that.

      5. “Doesn’t get much worse than that!”

        No, it gets far, far worse: “She got a big booty, so I call her big booty.” (Actual rap lyric)

  2. Dominic Pino of National Review described the track as a “conservative pop song” …

    National Review would say that, wouldn’t they?

    I recall when “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” was the closing theme on Dennis Miller’s HBO show in the ’90s — back when Miller was still funny and an equal-opportunity satirist, before his act got stale with an endless loop of ’80s sub-references, and he started showing up as one of Bill O’Reilly’s resident right-wing loons.

    1. God I lived Dennis Miller’s show back then. He exited dramatically as if being pulled up by a helicopter. I remember one of his funny lines referencing Waiting for Godot and him asking. “Any Becket fans in the house?” I loved him then.

    1. Haha I had the same reaction. I looked at my latest playlist from when I hosted some company last weekend and found 22 great 80s songs in that list alone.

    2. I’m with you. I was 21 at the end of 1984, so as far as I’m concerned, most of the best songs come out of the ’80s.

      1. Whether the 60’s or the 80’s were better is a matter of opinion. But that either was better than the music of today is simply an objective fact…

    3. Indeed, absolute blasphemy for those of us who grew up in the 80s. Can we call out a fatwa on that comment?

  3. There were a number of goofy science comedy films in the mid-80s. Real Genius stands out to me for Val Kilmer’s fantastic comedic timing and for featuring this song.

    1. I can’t find anyone that saw this movie.
      I loved it.
      I want to live in a closet – as a closeted genius.
      Val should have been much greater than he was, based on this movie.
      Thanks for reminding me.
      “Is that a design problem, or a lauch problem?”

  4. I honestly think Tears for Fears is one of the most underappreciated bands in history. Their songs are deceptively complex, and the breadth of their work is surprising to anyone who only knows them from this song alone. I encourage people to take a deeper dive into their discography!

    1. Me, too. They have been my favorite band since the 80’s. I actually cried when they split up. I have seen them 4x in concert. The latest was in June. They have a new album called The Tipping Point. All the songs are great! This last concert was absolutely one of my favorite concerts of all time. The whole audience stood and sang the entire concert. Everyone knew all their new stuff, too.

  5. I love this song, especially the original because it was back in “my day”. However, when the cat realized it was going to keep going, he left the room. He came back when it was over.

  6. This is a great song, but then there’s “Shout.”
    I had a friend who used to just say the lyrics as if he were reading an instruction manual. It was frickin’ hilarious, and it showcased just how stupid those lyrics are. C’mon. I’m talking to you. C,mon.

    Oh man!

    The music is cool though, especially the percussion.

    1. I can’t say you are wrong, but I actually like Shout better. Like they say, “There’s no accounting for taste.” I’d add, “Especially mine.” Of course, I think I have great taste.

      1. And I usually don’t get too hung up on bad lyrics if the music is really good. I don’t think I’d even think about Shout’s lyrics if it weren’t for the friend.

    2. Mark R. – sorry to say this – but not really… You seem to be a dumb ass around the song “Shout”. There’s actually more lyrics outside of the chorus. and more than that… Oh I’m not even gonna bother wasting my energy on a person like you… Just another ignoramus out of the millions. you probably just belong to the genre who loves “a horse with no name” type music. Tears for Fears music and lyrics are way over your head and intelligence!

      1. Whoever you are, you’ll never post here again. Your incivility and name calling violates the roolz. And I’m not going to waste any energy reading comments from a rude person like you.

        You are GONE!

    3. My favourite Tears for Fears song is Mad World. I had The Hurting album on tape and back then and this song really spoke to who I was. There have been a lot of remakes of it; some really fantastic.

  7. Agree that it’s a great pop song; never seems to get old! Fascinating discussion of its writing in the Tears for Fears episode on the “Classic Albums” series (you may need to log in to see):

    t=2590s

  8. I prefer Tears for Fears first hit “Mad World”.

    The cover by Gary Jules is also very good and gives the song a whole new vibe.

    🙂

    1. This is also my favorite Tears for Fears song.

      Gary Jules’ version was used to great effect in the movie Donnie Darko. I don’t know if it was covered specifically for the movie or not.

      Actually, I just googled it, and indeed, it was covered specifically for the soundtrack of Donnie Darko.

  9. According to Rolling Stone, the song was written late in the recording of their album Songs from the Big Chair. and was nearly scrapped a few times. Everything only clicked when the song was retitled:

    Orzabal initially feared that the dreamy passage would be too out of place amid the emotional intensity of their prior tracks, which drew inspiration from the psychological drama Sybil and Dr. Arthur Janov’s theory of primary scream therapy. For counterbalance, he gave the piece an appropriately heavy name: “Everybody Wants to Go to War.” Unhappy with the results, he nearly scrapped the song entirely until both his wife and Hughes pressed him to continue. Eventually Orzabal landed on the final title and the rest of the track quickly fell into place. “Once we got those lyrics, it was a joyful song,” Orzabal explained.

  10. I know I’m late to the party, but I just got around to watching Beato’s YouTube on Everybody Wants to Rule the World. Wow! I had no idea, even though I liked the song, how much complexity there and how creative. It’s difficult to create something so simple! Thank you for turning me on to Beato’s channel. He’s as amazing as the music he talks about.

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