Atomic Love

April 28, 2016

By Paige O’Riordan


The Cold War brings to mind images of disillusioned soldiers, paranoid statesmen, and the threat of nuclear fallout. It was a grim time in history. Art is always influenced by the time period it was made in, and one would assume that anything from the Cold War era would be bleak. However, many musical artists turned these expectations on their head and produced topical but playful songs. They reacted to a culture of fear and paranoia in the best way they knew how: by making music.

The songs produced in this period have been called “atomic platters” by Ken Sitz, a pop culture historian. One of the main focuses of Cold War era music was the atom bomb, which was officially created in 1945. Its use to end World War II made it a household name. By the cold war, these weapons led to a threat of mutual self-destruction between the two great powers. A rash of public service announcements in the US told people what to do in case of nuclear fallout, normalizing the threat in the mind of the American public. While PSAs telling school children to “duck and cover” seem horrifying today, it was everyday life for a generation.

The idea of the protest song is fairly well known today. Many popular artists released anti-Vietnam War songs, and the Woodstock music festival was staunchly anti-war. It is easy to find a simplistic explanation for those songs: the Vietnam War only increased in its unpopularity as time went on and the purpose seemed lost. Music was an easy and catchy way to express discontent. Less obvious is why songs that talk about the atom bomb and the Cold War in a positive manner were popular. Retrospectively, we can see that the use of the atom bomb caused massive amounts of human suffering and was possibly not needed to put an end to WWII. However, at the time, the atom bomb was a scientific novelty that had brought freedom back to world. There was a belief that the bomb was only the first of many scientific innovations that lead to carefree, easier living.

The Cold War coincided with the rise in power of the teenager. Before the 1950s, teenagers were not considered to be much more than children. However, the end of WWII brought them disposable income and plenty of consumer goods to spend it on. In order to examine the relationship between atomic platters and the political landscape, it is important to note that “the people who had not yet reached puberty at the time of the bomb were incapable of conceiving of life with a future”, according to Jeff Nuttall, who performed a survey on youth culture in 1968. They had grown up with the threat of nuclear annihilation, and in a culture of hyper-consumerism, nothing was off-limits if it would make a profit.

Today’s pop songs deal with topics much less weighty than nuclear fallout. However, this does not mean that all of the songs from the Cold War were dour and dry. “Atom Bomb Baby”, by The Five Stars, was all about how a woman was “a million times hotter than TNT”. And what better way to end a lover’s quarrel than confessing that “I just can’t stand another cold, cold war with you”, just like Floyd Tillman did in “This Cold War with You”? Sheldon Allman comforted his girl that he’d “love you all your life / Although that may not be too long” in his song “Crawl Out Through the Fallout”.

Many atomic platters pair their dark subject matter with a jaunty tune and some humor. The politics of the Cold War were incredibly pervasive. Though a love song with heavy-handed nuclear metaphors may seem disconcerting today, I believe that it would have been stranger if they did not exist. When the bomb seemed to be the starting point of a bright future, these songs reflected hope for the future. As paranoia set in, atomic platters were evidence of a generation looking at what appeared to suddenly be a bleak and non-existent future and rejecting the expectation of fear. Music was a familiar cultural touchstone and it allowed people to deal with the anxieties that arose during the Cold War in a non-confrontational manner.


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