Living with the virus

posted: June 20, 2020

tl;dr: Cheap Trick foretold the U.S.A.’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic over 40 years ago...

A recent story on entitled 20 essential live albums to stream while you're waiting for concerts to return brought back memories of several albums I loved as a youth. One of them was Cheap Trick at Budokan. In relistening to one of the best songs on the album, Surrender, I was struck by how applicable the lyrics, written in 1976 or thereabouts, are to U.S.A.’s overall response to the Covid-19 pandemic of 2020.

The most impactful element of that response has been the government directives for non-essential workers such as myself to shelter in place, a.k.a. the “shutdown”, with the goal of “flattening the curve”, to reduce the chances of overburdening the medical system. My employer and job have survived intact, thankfully, and I’m hanging in there mentally even though some fun and enjoyable aspects of everyday life have disappeared or become more difficult. Others are suffering to a far greater degree than myself, so I can’t complain. Yet it was clear to me from the start of the shutdown that it couldn’t continue indefinitely.

It’s a fallacy to believe that the economy can be divided into two sectors, labeled essential and non-essential, and that one sector could be told to work from home or shut down indefinitely. All companies are interrelated. Businesses are also intertwined with the non-commercial aspects of society, such as schools, care facilities, and government itself. A strict enforcement of stay at home orders would never work in this country, not with so many freedom lovers, gun owners, and the disrespect for governmental authority figures that pervades our politics. The Bill of Rights prevents the federal government from confining innocent people to their homes, forcing action to be taken at the state and local levels. Americans are taught in school about Founding Father Patrick Henry’s famous line “Give me liberty, or give me death!” We sing that we live in “the land of the free and the home of the brave”. For these and other reasons, I never doubted that Chinese Communist Party would run a tighter shutdown than the United States.

There’s also an element of quality of life that needs to be considered. Indefinite indoor confinement may keep people alive physically, but for what purpose? Life is to be enjoyed, not suffered through. It is this theme that songwriter Rick Nielsen emphasizes in the lyrics to Surrender. We need to learn to live with the virus, but to do so in a way that minimizes risks. The lyrics are more appropriate for a sexually-transmitted viral disease like AIDS, which arose a short number of years after the song was released. But they also applies to a respiratory virus such as the one that causes COVID-19.

Cheap Trick at Budokan was released in 1978

Mother told me, yes, she told me

This establishes the singer’s mother as the fount of wisdom. The singer is a young man, a teenager or thereabouts; more generally, he is a person seeking guidance.

That I'd meet girls like you

The girl is the object of the singer’s desires. We all have pleasurable activities in which we’d like to engage.

She also told me, "Stay away
You'll never know what you'll catch"

The initial advice is complete abstinence. Abstinence was one response voiced by many to AIDS, but it wasn’t the most practical. In the COVID-19 era, this advice would mean staying inside, away from people, until a cure or vaccine is developed.

Just the other day I heard
Of a soldier's falling off

There have been well-publicized horror stories of pain and suffering endured by those infected with the virus. This may motivate some to practice complete abstinence.

Some Indonesian junk
That's going round

Not all scary new viruses emerge first in Southeast Asia, but many do, as did the virus which causes COVID-19. Southeast Asia has the highest human density of any region on Earth, so this is perhaps to be expected.

Mommy's all right
Daddy's all right
They just seem a little weird

Somehow the authority figures have managed to survive for many years. Clearly they did not practice complete abstinence.

But don't give yourself away
Hey, heeeey

(end chorus)

Here’s the practical advice: surrender to the virus, surrender to your desires, but don’t do so in a way that foolishly increases risk.

Father says, "Your mother's right
She's really up on things

Here the second authority figure is reinforcing the wisdom of the first authority figure.

Before we married, Mommy served
In the WACS in the Philippines"

I did not actually know the “WACS” (Women’s Army Corps) word being sung in the second line until I looked up the lyrics. This puts the first authority figure on the front lines of where many virus threats emerge, further bolstering her credibility.

Now, I had heard the WACS recruited
Old maids for the war

The singer, being young, has several misimpressions in need of correction. It seems unlikely that the Army recruited only elderly virginal maidens. In fact, it is much more likely that the authority figure may have engaged in some risky behavior while in the viral incubation zone.

But mommy isn't one of those
I've known her all these years


Clearly the singer’s mom isn’t virginal and wasn’t that old when she first was exposed to the possibility of contracting a virus. In fact she might have been the same age then as the singer is now. The singer is again realizing that mom knows what she’s talking about.

Whatever happened to all this season's
Losers of the year?
Every time I got to thinking
Where'd they disappear?

The singer is stating that people who practice complete abstinence are losers, or nerds, or socially inept. They disappear from the view of others because they are not participating in society. The singer wants to avoid this happening to himself, so there must be a way to live with the virus.

But when I woke up, Mom and Dad
Are rolling on the couch
Rolling numbers, rock and rollin'
Got my KISS records out

Here’s the answer for how to live with the virus and still have fun. For a virus like AIDS, intimate relations within the confines of a monogamous relationship minimize risk. The risk is higher than that of complete abstinence, but it’s an acceptable trade-off because you get to experience life and pleasure. For COVID-19, we are as a people still exploring what tradeoffs to make and what public behaviors have an acceptable risk/reward ratio. It is clear that few of us desire to stay locked up until a cure or vaccine is found. We need to live with the virus and resume experiencing life outside our homes.

The reason Rick Nielsen’s lyrics from decades ago could foretell our response to Covid-19 is not that Nielsen was an uncanny prognosticator. Rather, the response was inevitable, given the fundamental characteristics of the American people, our history, our politics, and our constitution. Nielsen understood his country’s people when he penned the lyrics to Surrender - that’s why he was a successful songwriter. It’s also why the song rings true in 2020 as we battle “some...junk that’s going round”.

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