Not unlike many memorable singles of the 1980s, Genesis’s “Land of Confusion” remains lodged in the collective memory because of a notable presence on MTV. Even those who were just babes in arms when the music video was released have most likely stumbled upon it, perhaps down a YouTube rabbit hole or during an insomnia-induced turn to the video flow of MuchMoreRetro, and the wide-ranging cast of characters it features, all in the form of nightmarish puppets.
Those who appear, including the three members of Genesis, are a veritable Who’s Who of 1980s pop culture and geopolitics. Ronald Reagan, in bed beside both a chimpanzee (a direct reference to Fred de Cordova’s blithe 1951 film, Bedtime for Bonzo, in which Reagan starred) and an inattentive Nancy (engrossed in an unauthorized biography of Ol’ Blue Eyes), falls asleep and enters a nightmare in which a dictatorial march through an untamed swamp-world is interspersed with the band performing. The heads of world leaders of the Cold War era – Jimmy Carter, Henry Kissinger, Margaret Thatcher, and Reagan himself are easy to pick out – are torn from the muddy ground.
After the appearance of notable nemeses of the West, such as Muammar Gaddafi and the Ayatollah Khomeini, who fascistically address chillingly welcoming citizenries, Reagan dons the costume of none other than Superman, only to quickly lose interest, focusing instead on a variety show before falling into an Inception-like dream-within-a-dream in which he finds himself alongside Nancy in a prehistoric verdure. Returning to the first dream, Reagan, now dressed in Western attire, rides on a dinosaur through an abandoned urban environment while Collins, in a separate scene, telephones other pop musicians, most likely to organize the We Are the World-like concert that takes place towards the song’s conclusion, at which celebrities such as Michael Jackson, Madonna, and Elton John sing along. “Land of Confusion”, the soundtrack to this multi-tiered and disorienting oneiric plotline, concludes as Reagan ambiguously arrives at a door, most likely to save the day, before waking up in a pool of sweat.
At its core, “Land of Confusion” is a wide-reaching condemnation of leadership. In the music video, by tightly juxtaposing a confused and costumed President of the United States and the country’s supposed allies with many of the well-known maniacal threats to the hallowed tenets of democracy and freedom, Genesis questions the competence of Western leadership by underscoring both inspiration and practice. That said, by moving away from the 1980s worldview in the music video, emphasized by Reagan’s accidental detonation of an atomic bomb after waking up from his nightmare that is both humorously and distractingly populated by caricatures limited to one particular period, it becomes easier to proceed to a general understanding in order to better conceptualize the timeless quality of Genesis’s inquiry.
Consider the first two verses. Collins first alludes to a frightening yet unspecific threat: “I must’ve dreamed a thousand dreams / Been haunted by a million screams / I can hear the marching feet / They’re moving into the street”. He develops this anxiety by conveying a feeling of endlessness that is worryingly unmoved by external realities: “Now did you read the news today? / They say the danger’s gone away / But I can see the fire’s still alight / Burning into the night”. Even if a threat is non-existent, Collins articulates an interminable desire to identify and combat it, fomenting an environment of perpetual fear and surveillance. The first chorus echoes this perspective by highlighting the overwhelming amount of unease and the obscurity it generates: “Too many men / Too many people / Making too many problems / And not much love to go around / Can’t you see / This is the land of confusion?”
As a point of contrast, Collins uses the second chorus to express a sense of optimism. The first two lines admit inescapability: “This is the world we live in / And these are the hands we’re given”. However, the second two allow for a hopeful takeaway by pleading for action: “Use them and let’s start trying / To make it a place worth living in”.
Much like the ambiguous threat initially established, the determination to which Collins gestures is not specified, until, as a reaction to the abovementioned perpetual unspecific threats, the third verse makes a direct plea for help: “Oh Superman where are you now? / When everything’s gone wrong somehow / The men of steel, the men of power / Are losing control by the hour”. At this point a costumed Reagan inevitably comes to mind. However, the fourth verse takes that heroic image and sets it in an atemporal environment in which the song, in a resilient first person voice, takes on an individual and collective leadership role: “I won’t be coming home tonight / My generation will put it right / We’re not just making promises / That we know we’ll never keep”.
In terms of its musicality, the track’s forward churn does not betray its lyrical content that situates it alongside contemporary attitudes towards political movements and their leaders. However, in contrast with many politically motivated singles of the 1980s hidden in the trappings of bubblegum pop – Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”, anyone? – Genesis is not afraid to embrace urgency: Ensconced in the cacophony of electronic drum machines and industrial synths that span the entirety of the recording, a snarling guitar hook introduces and signposts. Tony Banks’s keyboards soften only when punctuating Collins’s delivery of the first chorus with string-like flourishes. Many will look for Collins’s drum work, which emerges unencumbered on one occasion, seamlessly surfacing to rupture the song’s solitary pause, its bridge that recalls the innocence and awe of youth.
When considered apart from the well-known music video, the pleas found in “Land of Confusion” for a Superman-like figure seem remarkably relatable to contemporary contexts. Many political campaigns that have taken place well after the single’s release come to mind, in which candidates – Justin Trudeau in Canada; Barack Obama, Donald Trump, and Bernie Sanders in the United States; Syriza in Greece; and Podemos in Spain surface as relevant examples – attempt to, often while embracing (or manipulating) a populist mood, underscore the singular importance of the political contest in which they find themselves. When assured that the election is “the most important in a generation” or a contest labelled in equally hyperbolic terms, much of the public responds with an understandable expectation of its own Superman: This candidate is unlike any other that has come before. This time things will be different. This time things will change. Yet, more often than not, it is disappointment that ensues.
There is no blame to assign here nor is there reason to assume that every leader is incompetent to the level of accidentally activating atomic weapons. It is entirely understandable that each generation looks to its potential leaders with unreasonable and unmoored hopes and expectations. Nevertheless, recent history does seem to reveal a pattern, captured specifically in the music video that accompanies “Land of Confusion” and ambiguously in the song’s detached lyrical content: Threats and fears and accusations, as real or asinine as they may be, are pointed out and repeated for a public that seems to become more connected with each passing year. Consequently, new Supermen and Superwomen emerge as the “only” choice to steer us through such times. Are we to trust our pessimistically pragmatic histories, or our not-yet-so-jaded hopes? The sole constant for each electorate is still, appropriately, confusion.
“Land of Confusion” – Genesis
Music and lyrics by Mike Rutherford, Tony Banks, and Phil Collins
B. Stafford is the 14th Floor’s Annex-based music critic.