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‘Everybody Wants to Rule the World’ Defined the 1980s. And Then It Wouldn’t Let Go

Certain songs sum up their era more than their creators could have possibly anticipated. “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” is one of them. At the time, it was just another big hit, but from the perspective of more than 35 years later, it now might as well be the 1980s. That synthesizer. That drum machine. Those sleek guitars. That vague tension between a pleasant melody and some vaguely menacing undertones. Is “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” a threat or a wail of despair? A celebration or a warning? Can it be all of the above?

Tears for Fears are back out in the world, promoting their first album in nearly two decades, and they’re not opposed to playing their old songs, like they did the other night on Late Show. There are hits of theirs I like better — this is a “Head Over Heels” household — but nothing defines the band or its moment as much as “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.” It’s still catchy, but more importantly, it’s still — in some ineffable way — true. “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” can be about a whole host of things, and those things remain relevant. War, power, control, greed, consumerism, even the unreality of everything — somehow, Tears for Fears knew.

Co-founders Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith have been buddies since they were growing up in Bath as teenagers. They’d been part of another group, and when they left that band, they formed Tears for Fears. “Curt’s antenna’s always up for new forms of music,” Orzabal recalled recently about those early days. “We were in his apartment when Gary Numan got to No. 1 with ‘Are Friends Electric?’ and it was like a punch in the face.” 

Embracing a New Wave, synth-heavy sound, Tears for Fears were all about their feelings on their 1983 debut The Hurting, which featured what appeared to be a bereft child, his hands covering his face in sorrow, on the minimalist cover. Tracks like “The Hurting” and “Mad World” (later reinvented by Gary Jules and Michael Andrews, who covered the song for Donnie Darko) dealt in youthful angst and trauma. “I think when you’re making that transition from childhood into adulthood and you’re leaving a lot of things behind, the world is a scary place,” Orzabal said last year. “We’d previously been in a very lightweight mod band together, and then both of us had embraced Janov’s primal theory, and we discovered what we do best: stick out some messages, hidden, cleverly, in a whole bunch of electronica. And then we were off, because we had something to say.”

The pain of unhappy childhoods powered The Hurting, connecting with listeners who were digging other moody U.K. acts like Joy Division. But by the time of the follow-up, Tears for Fears were already tired of being pigeonholed as sadboys. “It’s hard to listen to now — it seems like what was on our minds so long ago,” Smith said of The Hurting in a 1985 interview. “We made it when we were 20, and it had a lot to do with our emotions between 10 and 15. Recording it wasn’t fun — it was hard to listen to just after we did it. It was hard dealing with those feelings. Maybe we were taking ourselves a bit too seriously then.” 

But because The Hurting had been a commercial success, their label pushed them to record new material as soon as possible. “We started an album at the end of 1983 but we didn’t like it,” recalled Smith. “It was too much like the first one, and we were determined to do something different.” Taking a break from recording yielded surprising results when they got back together. “The material on the album is basically straight pop,” he declared, “the kind of stuff played on the radio all the time.”

Released almost exactly 37 years ago, Songs From the Big Chair didn’t shy away from weighty themes. The opening track and lead single “Shout,” often misinterpreted as being inspired by primal-scream therapy, dealt with disillusionment and the sense of a world spiraling out of control. As for “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” which came together late in the recording process, Orzabal credited Songs From the Big Chair producer Chris Hughes (who’s also listed as a co-writer) for insisting the band turn the idea into a track. “[I]f it wasn’t for Chris, I don’t think ‘Everybody Wants to Rule the World’ would even be a song,” Orzabal said years later. “He pushed that, 100 percent — I didn’t like it, even though I came up with the main body of the song.”

Initially, Orzabal had a different title — “Everybody Wants to Go to War” — but the central concept was always basically the same. “You still had a threat of nuclear war then,” he told The Economist in 2019. “It was Russia versus America but in a very different way than the [release of] emails and underhanded methods now.” But he didn’t want the song to just be about global politics, focusing on the personal as well. “[It could be about] personal dictators,” Orzabal offered, “like the man at work who may be dictating everything you do.”

The Cold War, and the fear of nuclear devastation, was a popular song topic in the 1980s, with everything from “Games Without Frontiers” to “Russians” stridently denouncing war. But there was a naivety to those protest songs, as if identifying a problem was the same as doing anything about it. By comparison, “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” had a little more swing to it. And that’s thanks in part to Orzabal screwing around with a drum machine when the tune came to him. “The shuffle beat was alien to our normal way of doing things,” Orzabal said in 2014. “It was jolly rather than square and rigid in the manner of ‘Shout,’ but it continued the process of becoming more extrovert.”

Orzabal was always a big Talking Heads fan, and it’s hard not to think of that band’s signature song “Once in a Lifetime” when you hear the opening lines of “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”: “Welcome to your life / There’s no turning back / Even while we sleep / We will find you.” David Byrne’s ability to weave seemingly banal statements together with paranoid sentiments informs Orzabal’s lyrics, although there were also some snotty inside jokes included as well. (The lines “So glad we’ve almost made it / So sad they had to fade it” was a reference to the band’s frustration that their label made them fade out the end of “Shout” to make it shorter in order to ensure more radio play.) But by staying away from specifics, the song could apply to any modern ill.

Acting on your best behavior 
Turn your back on Mother Nature 
Everybody wants to rule the world

It’s my own design 
It’s my own remorse 
Help me to decide 
Help me make the 
Most of freedom 
And of pleasure 
Nothing ever lasts forever 
Everybody wants to rule the world  

But even though Orzabal wrote the bulk of “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” it was Smith who sang it. “I came in one day, and they’d actually written this song around this beat and it was very commercial,” Smith later recalled, “so they said, ‘Here it is, you’re singing it, go and do it.’ So I did.”

“There was no life to the song when I sang it,” Orzabal admitted recently. “Curt went in and did the vocal, it’s like fuckin’ hell, night and day. I am under no illusions that the two biggest songs in our catalog, and the biggest earners for me, are ‘Mad World’ and ‘Everybody Wants to Rule the World,’ and that’s Curt singing them. He does something to a song, and we are kind of spoiled for choice as to who sings what.”

Indeed, while Orzabal’s voice has more bite — he gives the album’s other two smashes, “Shout” and “Head Over Heels,” their emotional oomph — Smith’s vocals on “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” lent the song a bit of mystery, a dash of chilly resignation, with Orzabal adding extra grit with his background vocals, especially during that impassioned bridge: 

There’s a room where the light won’t find you 
Holding hands while the walls come tumbling down 
When they do
I’ll be right behind you

Tears for Fears’ debut had done okay in America, but Songs From the Big Chair went to No. 1, racking up quintuple-platinum sales. In the U.K., “Shout” had been the first single, but in the States, the label insisted that “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” be released to radio first. They both hit the top spot in America, with “Head Over Heels” peaking at No. 3. Suddenly, those two guys from Bath were as big as Prince, Bruce Springsteen and Phil Collins

As for the video, well, “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” was also very 1980s in its visual concept, the band working with a relative newcomer, Nigel Dick, who helmed several of their early clips. (He’d go on to direct videos for Guns N’ Roses, Def Leppard, Oasis, Britney Spears and R.E.M.) The video cut between Tears for Fears playing on a soundstage and Smith driving around in the desert in Southern California. Of course it was cheesy, just like every other video of its era. “The downside of videos is, they’re a reminder of all the bad fashion you went through,” Smith said in I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution. “Tears for Fears videos are kind of embarrassing, especially ‘Shout,’ but they’re an endless source of amusement for my children: ‘Oh my god, you’ve got braids in your hair!’ They laugh hysterically.”

Tears for Fears toured relentlessly, not putting out their follow-up record, The Seeds of Love, until 1989. It was a far more ornate, fussed-over album, lacking the pure pop kicks of Songs From the Big Chair. “You’ve got to do whatever feels comfortable, and we will get accused of being self-indulgent, of being overly fussy, but you have to feel comfortable making music,” Smith said around the record’s release. “I have to be happy doing it. I’m not happy just going in and banging it out. So it seems a stupid thing to do just so that I wouldn’t get accused of being the other way.” 

“Sowing the Seeds of Love,” their ode to Sgt. Pepper’s-era Beatles, was a big hit, but in the early 1990s, Smith left the band, with Orzabal continuing on as Tears for Fears while Smith pursued a solo career. (“I thought of using a different name when I came back, but I decided against it,” Orzabal said shortly after the acrimonious breakup. “Tears for Fears is something that represents my life’s work. Roland Orzabal? He’s just a bloke. But Tears for Fears means something. Why shouldn’t I keep the name? I was always the musical director and I’m still doing that.”) Neither musician’s albums were chartbusters, and the two men didn’t speak for nearly a decade, their moment in the limelight behind them. “You still write music, but you do other things,” Smith told The Guardian last year. “I was very much the stay-at-home dad, because my wife has a career and is very busy.” He focused on raising his kids, discovering that they didn’t know what Smith did for a job. As his daughter put it when asked about her parents’ lives, “Mama goes to the office, and papa goes to the gym.”

Orzabal and Smith finally got back together for 2004’s Everybody Loves a Happy Ending, but they couldn’t recapture their previous popularity. Still, the band members talked about how grateful they were to put the animosity behind them. “[T]hat’s not good for your psyche,” Orzabal said. “It’s not good for you to be barred from traveling to certain places in your head because some skeleton is in the closet. So it was very important that we confront each other.” 

Bolstered by the Donnie Darko cover of “Mad World,” Tears for Fears were more relevant than they’d been since the late 1980s, although they didn’t finally make another record until this week’s The Tipping Point. (However, it’s worth noting that they’ve toured together in the interim — and that Orzabal’s wife Caroline died in 2017, inspiring several of the songs that appear on the new album.) Orzabal and Smith now live close to one another, the old animosity apparently a thing of the past. “I feel he is an important part of my entire life,” Orzabal told GQ. “It’s kind of like we have a blood bond.”

Still, the group understands that fans coming out to see them will want to hear the familiar hits. And one of those is certainly “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” which has been featured in movies fairly frequently over the years. Gen-X kids remember it fondly from Real Genius, but the stranger inclusions are far more memorable. And at the top of that list has to be Tesla, the superb, experimental 2020 biopic that starred Ethan Hawke as doomed inventor Nikola Tesla. At one point in the film, rather randomly, Tesla does a little karaoke, performing the Tears for Fears song, which came out more than 40 years after his death.

“I remember, [writer-director] Michael [Almereyda] was always kind of hunting for the perfect zen koan to end a film on Nikola Tesla,” Hawke later said. “And I can’t explain it, but I remember when he told me, ‘What about this idea of Tesla performing karaoke — Tears for Fears?’ And my whole body just went, ‘Yes!’ It seemed sphinx-esque to me, which is the way that Tesla feels.” In that same interview, Almereyda admitted that he hadn’t even secured the rights to the song when they shot that scene: “We were reckless. It was kamikaze. It was a late-blooming idea, and we filmed it near the last minute. We hoped that we could reconcile the price tag, and I was lucky to recruit a great music supervisor named Randall Poster, who deserves deep credit for negotiating with their management.”

Almereyda is an indie filmmaker known for his provocative ideas — his modern-day Hamlet, which also starred Hawke, saw the actor deliver the famous “To be or not to be” monologue in the middle of a video-rental store — but using “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” spoke to the fluid interpretation of the song’s lyrics. While Orzabal always viewed “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” as a cynical anthem, Tesla showed how, from Tesla’s perspective, the song could be a lament for all his thwarted ambitions — a cry from a man who had been bested by his rival Thomas Edison in imagining what the future of electricity could be. Partly a stunt but partly a way to connect Tesla’s plight with the song’s pop urgency, the scene argued that, whether it’s Nikola Tesla or just some ordinary dude worrying about the state of things, “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” seemed to contain some bitter wisdom buried inside that perfect melody.

That mixture of killer hook, total cultural ubiquity and generally ominous message has made the song an awfully attractive option for artists looking to do a cover, with everyone from Weezer to Patti Smith taking a stab at it. “I’m a big Patti Smith fan … but her version of ‘Everybody Wants to Rule the World’ didn’t move me at all because it was just like the original,” Curt Smith told Vulture this month. “People who cover it and don’t attempt to change it is where I have the issue. You should put your own interpretation on it.” 

I like Patti Smith’s version better than he does, but the truth is most of the memorable covers of “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” stay fairly reverent to what Tears for Fears came up with. And when they don’t, they can be disastrous — look no further than Lorde’s oh-so-serious version from the soundtrack to The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. (Note, however, that the band seemed to approve: They’d play her take over the loud speakers at shows before playing the song themselves.)

Anyone covering “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” has to contend with Orzabal’s lyrics, which are more an attitude than any sort of coherent political stance. But that’s also their saving grace — unlike the didacticism of a U2, Tears for Fears’ hit seems to swim with the tide of the corruption and cynicism endemic to its era, sighing at the greed and injustice rather than getting hyperbolic about it. There’s a shrug to the way Curt Smith sings the song, as if he’s acknowledging the decade’s ruthless ambition that everyone else can see, too. When he declares, “​​Nothing ever lasts forever,” is he being hopeful that this attitude won’t last — or is he saying goodbye to the optimism and sense of community of the counterculture? Like so much of “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” it’s hard to know for sure.

Just don’t ask the man who masterminded “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” to explain its staying power. “That track has just got a life of its own,” Orzabal said in early 2020. “It’s crazy, I mean, it was always popular, but then… I did an interview with Reuters or something like that, a while back, with this lady who went on Spotify and worked out that there are about 140 cover versions of that song; I mean, from Don Henley to Patti Smith, to Weezer, to Lorde, obviously. It’s crazy, it’s one of those songs, isn’t it? I remember from my childhood, there’d be songs like ‘Lola’ by the Kinks, it just, you know, it’s always going to be around; it’s a classic. I don’t get it, and I didn’t get it at the time.”

And it still sells: Last year, “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” went to the top of the Alternative Digital Song Sales chart due to its placement in the heavy character drama Land. Robin Wright, who directed and starred in the film, said, “Erin Dignam, the writer, was actually frustrated, saying we need levity. And she just came up with that idea that [Demián Bichir’s character is] just singing an ‘80s tune. And when you’re doing a low-budget movie, you only have so much in the kitty. … We had a choice between that one and I think two other ‘80s songs that I just went with that one. … We just could not stop laughing.”

Is “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” a nostalgic lark? Or does it still speak to us? As the Russian invasion of Ukraine got underway, I had “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” on in the background and, yeah, it sorta fit the mood. Thinking about Greg Abbott’s gross attacks on trans children in Texas? Sure, it kinda applies there, too. Tears for Fears came up with an anthem that can pertain to anyone who sees oppression in the world and feels powerless to do anything about it. But with its danceable beat and cool vibe, “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” is also just a blast of great pop music. You can think about it more deeply, or not.

And that may, ultimately, be the most 1980s thing about “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.” There was a lot of awfulness that decade, but people just accepted it, boosted by a booming economy and a sense that everything was generally pretty great. Does that sound like a glib simplification? Well, it’s embodied in “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.” The soothing passivity of the song — the swaying breeze of keyboards and ear-catching guitars — helps mitigate the darkness at its core. We know things are terrible — possibly even more terrible now than they were then — but if a pretty song can make things a little better, maybe that’s enough. 

Welcome to your life, there’s no turning back.