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Imogen Heap’s “Last Night Of An Empire”

Imogen Heap released “Last Night Of An Empire” in 2020, and I assume she initially imagined it would encapsulate the global chaos of that pivotal year. But from the perspective of the present, its story is starting to sound timeless, as if it will come to define an era, rather than a single year. The song begins with Heap’s voice and a gentle arpeggiated synthesizer; it builds and builds and builds and eventually explodes. The intensity of the lyrical content rivals, if not surpasses, the fluttering electro-boom of the music.

Throughout the song, Heap repeats, “We should be running for the hills,” and “Why aren’t we running for the hills?” Then, she tells us to

Dance like you’re on fire
Oh, go crazy on yourself
Your Last Rites sung by the choir
you can’t control this anyway

She urges us to dance because we can’t control what’s happening around us; the world is inherently unpredictable, and we are powerless to control it, so why not dance instead?

Heap saves her most scathing observations for the latter half of the song, where she drops into the lower register of her voice and sings:

Just go and switch another episode on
and turn the world off while you twiddle your thumbs
a population toughs it out until dawn

Don’t miss your putting buddies down on the lawn

Just go and switch another episode on
and turn the world off while you twiddle your thumbs
a population toughs it out until dawn

Don’t let the serious stuff distract you from
your madness, your illness

Somebody get this guy a doctor
a doctor, a doctor, doctor, doctor!

Every time I listen to Heap’s “Last Night Of An Empire” and consider what she is saying, it gives me chills. The lyrics are both impressive and disturbing because what she is saying is painfully true: just put another episode on, ignore what is happening, fall into an abyss of existential powerlessness. Just do nothing as the less privileged and the sick tough it out for another night, lose hope, and slowly die. This song is both a catchy dance tune and a grim, brutal observation of human behavior.

Following the song’s release, Heap filmed a live, interactive VR music video which proved that she is, yet again, pioneering the integration of new technologies with art; and this time, she managed to include her fans in the process (they provided fake news headlines that stream through the music video). Heap’s dance moves and gestures are mostly minimal and understated, and sometimes the VR technology “fails” during the video: suddenly we see the blank space she is dancing in, some computers in the background, and a lighting setup. I think these moments add to the real-unreal atmosphere of both the video and the song. It also makes it clear how new this technology really is; it isn’t polished and perfected, and we get to glimpse its development.

Imogen Heap’s “Last Night Of An Empire” transforms chaos, anxiety, and inertia into punchy, thoughtful music. When Heap sings “Slam! Pow! Bang!”, she tosses the incessant stream of bad news into the sky, where it flickers and bursts into light. This song is beautiful, liberating, and terrifying. We should be running for the hills, but we aren’t and we won’t. In the meantime, the best we can do is dance.

Written by Daniel Siuba

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