5 Music Recommendations Based on These Popular Dystopian Novels

This article is for those who read lyrics like books! Keep scrolling for a unique music recommendation for each of these five dystopian novels!

Art and Music Book Culture Fiction Just For Fun Lifestyle Opinions Pop Culture Recommendations
Graphic of an atomic bomb wasteland.

Dystopian novels serve as a way to critique one’s contemporary world. Like these novels, many of my favorite musical influences have created concept albums that offer critique to the world that they are performing for. Each novel contains a profound insight into the human condition, and each album shows how those ideas remain relevant today. Whether you’re into pop, rock, folk, alternative, or just like the idea of a musical dystopia, I’ve got a book/music pairing recommendation for you!

1. 1984, George Orwell (1949)

Album: Disposable Everything, AJJ (2023)

Left: 1984 Book cover, red with an eyeball. Right: Disposable Everything album cover, picturing a baby panda skeleton and baby hybrid and a wasteland.

Something that Winston Smith, our 1984 protagonist, and AJJ frontman Sean Bonnette have in common is the internal struggle that ensues from trying to discern the existence of an objective reality. Winston tries to maintain what he knows to be true in the face of the reality-altering Party, while this AJJ album rises as a symptom of the polarized political climate of today’s America—one which contains so many conflicting ideas of right and wrong.

The second track on AJJ’s latest album, titled “Dissonance,” feels like the perfect theme song for Winston. When I hear Bonnette sing, “is there anybody out there who knows / when even was our last objective reality? / I wanna buy them a drink, I wanna pick on their brains, / I wanna hear all the things that we once held in common,” I instantly flash back to Winston’s foray into the prole pub. The whole of the album grapples with the crushing weight of all the bad that happens in our rapidly developing world, conveying a sense of omnipresent anxiety and an awareness of the inability of the lone individual to affect wide-scale change.

2. Brave New World, Aldous Huxley (1932)

Album: Probably Nothing, Possibly Everything, Pat the Bunny (2014)

Left: Brave New World book cover featuring humans in test tubes. Right: Probably Nothing, Possibly Everything album cover with a stick figure mob approaching a precinct.

When I listen to this album, I find myself reading Pat the Bunny as an anarchist John the Savage. On the track “The Hand You Reach Out Is Empty, As Is Mine,” he sings, “Show me peace and I’ll run from that hell / I’ll head up the mountain and never come down / Show me utopia I’ll call it a jail / We’ll pick up the pieces to snap them in half,” which reminds me a lot of John’s reaction to the society he discovers in London. Like John, this album seems concerned with free will over the idea of universal happiness. In Brave New World, World Controller Mustapha Mond tells John that by reclaiming his free will, he is essentially “claiming the right to be unhappy.” Even after Mond adds a slew of other calamities, John replies defiantly, “I claim them all,” because he has come to an understanding that free will is more important than guaranteed stability.

The album itself gives off a sense of hopelessness, asserting in more ways than one that society has advanced too far in the wrong direction. The singer seems to feel his own rejection of the establishment is pointless in the face of this. However, like Huxley, for all the grimness that his work entails, Pat the Bunny sprinkles in a glimpse of hope. In spite of recounting the experiences that have made him so jaded, he still sings:

If I have to tell you that we are beautiful

Maybe you’re in the right place

And if I ever forget that we are beautiful

I hope you remind me

-Pat the Bunny, Probably Nothing, Possibly Everything

3. Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury (1953)

Album: Nanobots, They Might Be Giants (2013)

Left: Fahrenheit 451 book cover, red and black with a matchbox that is also a book with a bookmark. Right: Nanobots album cover, a collage piece featuring a painting of a woman in a blue dress with her arms crossed.

I would consider this album to be a dystopia in and of itself. It contains many elements present in the novels featured in this article, such as blind allegiance and a lack of individuality as in “Replicant” and “Hive Mind,” the use of technology for corrupted means in “Tesla,” disappearance of language in “Nouns,” and much more.

The track that I had originally connected to Fahrenheit 451 is titled “Stuff is Way,” as I feel that it holds the same sentiment as the speech that Captain Beatty gives to Montag when he explains in his own words how their society came to be. Beatty gives a punchy, long-winded explanation that makes it seem as though he is saying something of stock when really it feels more like he’s telling Montag, “This is the way things are, and whether that makes moral sense or not is irrelevant.”

In addition to grim, futuristic, technological visions, the album also comments on the loss of agency and interconnectedness that seems all but inevitable in a too-fast-paced, highly mechanized society. I believe that the feeling that Montag has in the absence of Clarisse, and essentially his own humanity, is captured in the essence of this album.

4. Feed, M.T. Anderson (2002)

Album: Worry, Jeff Rosenstock (2016)

Left: Feed book cover, the back of a bald head in yellow coloring overlayed by a multicolored, multipatterned design. Rigth: Worry. album cover, a man in a white button down laughing and holding a camera, in the back a dancing crowd with pixelated faces.

Through their respective creative mediums, singer/songwriter Jeff Rosenstock and author M.T. Anderson each have a way of highlighting the dystopian elements that underlie our contemporary society. While Anderson’s novel predates the invention of the iPhone, the perpetual state of ignorance and anti-social tendencies created by the feed in his novel are eerily similar to the negative impacts of smartphones and social media today. “We are the binge-watch age,” sings Jeff, “and we’ll be stuck in a screen until our phones fall asleep.” This is true, too, of the citizens in the America presented by Feed. In fact, the only time in the novel when any of the characters are truly without their feeds is when they are hacked and are forcibly taken offline.

As I listen to “Festival Song,” where Jeff struggles with the dissonance between his career as a performance artist, something often funded by advertising and big corporations, and his desire to fight what he believes to be corrupt establishments, I picture Violet from Feed. Violet had tried to resist the feed by creating an unusual consumer profile, but her efforts were both futile and fatal in the end. In accordance with her beliefs about the society she lived in, it could just as easily be her malfunctioning body ringing out the tune:

A long look at the billboards
That smother the air till you can’t ignore ’em
And glamorize department store crust-punk-chic
‘Cause Satan’s trending up and it’s fashion week
But this is not a movement, it’s just careful entertainment
For an easy demographic in our sweatshop denim jackets
And we’ll wonder, “What just happened?”

-Jeff Rosenstock, Worry (2016)

Like Feed, Worry does contain glimpses of romance, as in “I Did Something Weird Last Night,” and the idea that emotional connection between human beings may be the thing that saves us all from the extreme of becoming mindless hordes of consumerist robots. Also, like Feed, the ending of Worry. leaves you feeling ambivalent at best. “…While You’re Alive” sounds like it could be Violet, lamenting from beyond the grave, while “Perfect Sound Whatever” almost mimics the crushing guilt that Titus feels by the end of the novel. But does his guilt mean that he will become a better person, and does awareness of our state mean that we are capable of change?

5. The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood (1985)

Album: Ancient Dreams In a Modern Land (Deluxe Edition), MARINA (2022)

Left: The Handmaid's Tale book cover, a black background with a woman in a red dress and a white head covering. Rigth: Ancient Dreams In a Modern Land (Deluxe Edition) album cover, Marina in all black skirt and shirt in front of a blue backdrop surrounded by vines.

Ancient Dreams in a Modern Land (Deluxe Edition) is both a sociopolitical commentary piece and a testament to personal heartbreak. Offred and Marina are related not only by the emotional loss of their lovers, but by their deep disdain for the patriarchy. Marina’s lead single track, “Man’s World,” all at once admires female power and admonishes the world’s, and particularly America’s, history of perpetuating male-dominated society. She sings, “Mother nature’s dying, nobody’s keeping score / I don’t want to live in a man’s world anymore,” which I’m sure Offred could agree with. The title track, “Ancient Dreams In a Modern Land,” expresses the same idea as the parallel realities that Offred maintains during her narrative. While Offred’s society forced her to repress herself, she maintained memories of the freedoms and connections that she once had or her version of ancient dreams.

Aside from the obvious comparisons, another track that reminds me of The Handmaid’s Tale is “Purge the Poison,” which appears to be written from the point of view of mother nature, or something of her likeness. This song contains a similar trope as many revered literary works, in which the hubris of man causes him to fall in the wrong direction. The commander from the novel, whether or not he is consciously aware, landed himself in a similar position. The historical notes in the novel insinuate that he had a large role in ushering in Gileadean rule. Yet he consistently acts against the professed ideals of the nation, and his persistent need to show affection towards his handmaids proves his lack of life satisfaction. What Marina says in her song could also be said to him:

It’s your own decision

but your home is now your prison

-MARINA, Ancient Dreams in a Modern Land (Deluxe) (2022)

While dystopian novels and ideologies can often reflect disheartening conclusions about humanity, I believe it is important to maintain hope. It helps to listen to the music and remember that we’re not alone in the chaos of the world.

To read an article about music inspired by books, click here!