Songs That Make Me Think: ‘Higgs Boson Blues’, by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds

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Nick Cave’s life story alone — even without his influential music career, his novels, and his screeenplays — is probably enough to warrant a biopic. He has battled an addiction to heroin, has travelled the world, and has lived to see the death of his 15 year old son. Even without the exploits that make him famous, Cave’s life is intriguing enough.

But the biopic will certainly not leave out the fact that Cave has become an important social figure with his songwriting. For years to come, perhaps decades (or longer?!), people will discuss Cave’s influence on his contemporaries, and his influence on whoever follows in his footsteps. For years to come, people will discuss his legacy.

This article, though, will barely scratch the surface of the phenomenal figure that is Nick Cave. It will focus on ‘Higgs Boson Blues’, the penultimate track from his critically acclaimed album Push the Sky Away (2013). The song is a mere fragment of Cave’s vast discography, yet it is probably possible to write an entire book about it alone.

What is Higgs Boson?

There’s a lot to talk about, but I’ll start with the title. The Higgs Boson particle — also nicknamed the ‘God particle’ — is a subatomic particle (that means it’s really really small). The particle has been discovered to give mass to atoms, therefore allowing matter (things we can see and touch) to exist — thus, the ‘God particle’.

The possibilities that arise from such a discovery are extraordinary. Theoretically, understanding this particle could help scientists to learn more about dark matter (things we can’t see or touch), as well as (again, theoretically) enabling us to create particles of our own …  like magic.

The discovery is arguably the most significant breakthrough in modern science. The implications of the discovery, though, are yet to be truly understood. This lack of understanding is the central theme to my reading of this groundbreaking song.

I interpret Nick Cave’s ‘Higgs Boson Blues’ as the ‘blues’ suffered by Western society in its lack of understanding. Not only our depression in understanding the ‘Higgs Boson’ particle, but in understanding many things. After all, this isn’t a science-education song.

What Is Going On?!

For me, this song serves as a commentary on modern life. In this age of the internet and social media, we are overwhelmed with information. Our access to knowledge is virtually infinitely easier than it was in the age of books and newspapers (an age which, by the way, wasn’t very long ago at all).

The sheer speed at which society has changed in the last decade or two has not really sunk in (for me, at least). We’re all so busy with and focused on our everyday lives that we don’t have the time to reflect on the significance of how much our world has changed.

One thing is for sure: historians will look back on this era as being an industrial revolution of sorts. I don’t know what this technological boom will mean for humanity’s future, but I’d willing to bet that this boom will have historical relevance, 100 years from now (you can get your winnings from my will, if I turn out to be wrong).

The discovery of the Higgs Boson particle, I believe, is analogous to this. It’s too much information at once for us to process/comprehend.

Are We There Yet?

Modern life is, in many ways, like a collage of seemingly unrelated things all squeezed into the same space. On the internet, we can engage with soap operas, Taoist philosophies, and baking recipes simultaneously. We can access everything at once, with the click of a button, or the tap of a few keys.

Furthermore, with nanotechnology, we can hold thousands of books, songs, and photographs into tiny devices (I wonder if the discovery of the Higgs Boson particle will make these devices smaller, still).

In the song, Cave repeats the line “Can’t remember anything at all” a couple of times. Perhaps Cave is unable to attribute a positive message to the speed at which we are progressing.

It’s worth mentioning, too, that in one of the album’s earlier tracks, ‘We Real Cool’, there is this potent lyric: “Wikipedia is Heaven when you don’t wanna remember no more.”

For me, this represents humanity as a species which is progressing, but a species whose individuals are regressing.

I often wonder where we are heading as a species. We can’t possibly know how these rapid developments will affect our living conditions … so what is our mission here? Where do we want to go? Are we there yet? I don’t know the answer; but I’m not sure that the answer is a positive one, if I’m completely honest.

Hannah Montana

Back to the song, where Cave’s lyrics describe Hannah Montana, the fictional alter-ego of Miley Cyrus, travelling the world:

“Hannah Montana does the African Savannah …
she curses the queues at the Zoo Loos 
then moves onto Amazonia, and cries with the dolphins.”

‘Higgs Boson Blue’

Africa and South America (where ‘Amazonia’ resides) are, of course, on opposite sides of the planet. Once upon a time, visiting both places was impossible! Today, however, with cheap flights and globalisation, it’s far from impossible. The ability to jump from one to the other so easily is another reflection of the absurdity of modern life.

Moreover, Cave’s Hannah Montana comes across as a cliché American girl visiting cliché landmarks. Her “cursing the queues at the Zoo Loos” pokes at a lack of knowledge about ‘Zulus’, which is certainly more symbolic than it is literal.

That an average, possibly ignorant Western girl has been afforded such privileged opportunities suggests an underlying cynicism. Similarly to humanity’s inability to understand its technological boom, Hannah Montana doesn’t really seem to understand what it means for her to visit such enigmatic places.

At the end of the song, Cave leaves us on a cliffhanger:

“Miley Cyrus floats in a swimming pool in Taluca Lake”

‘Higgs Boson Blues’

It’s unclear to me whether Miley Cyrus is floating dead on the swimming pool, or if she is floating leisurely. This ambiguity, once again, represents humanity’s uncertain destination. Will it be bliss, or will it be apocalyptic?

Final Thoughts

The meaning behind this song is certainly not limited by my thoughts about it. There are many more layers that I’ve left unpacked!

For example, there are many surreal, dream-like lyrics which I haven’t even begun to discuss:

“Flame trees line the street…”

“Here comes Lucifer with his canon law
And a hundred black babies
running from his genocidal jaw…”

“All the clocks have stopped in Memphis, now…”

“If I die tonight, 
bury me in my favourite yellow, patent, leather shoes
With a mummified cat
and a cone-like hat that the caliphate forced on the Jews…”

‘Higgs Boson Blues’

Wow! I love this sort of imagery. Slightly unsettling, yet deeply satisfying! There is, no doubt, a ton of meaning that I could dig out of these rich lines. I love reading them as much as I loved hearing Cave sing them in that sombre tone.

But this article is not really an interpretation of the song; it is a reflection of my reaction to the song. Music such as this is like food for artists. Nick Cave, therefore, is one of my favourite chefs. This song is only a single ingredient in his kitchen.

In a world of uncertainty, Nick Cave has provided this writer with a dose of satisfaction. I am grateful to him for that.

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