Tears for Fears’ Curt Smith on why Cold War classic ‘Everybody Wants to Rule the World’ resonates in the Trump era

Tears for Fears’s Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith (Photo: Universal Music)
Tears for Fears’s Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith (Photo: Universal Music)

Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” deservedly remains a favorite pop anthem today, a singalong smash in concert and a staple on every radio station’s best-of-the-’80s playlist. The group’s Curt Smith, who is revisiting that song with the release of TFF’s new greatest-hits compilation, Tears for Fears Rule the World, (out Nov. 10), says the 1985 chart-topper is as politically relevant today as it was three decades ago, and maybe even more so.

“I think a lot of these songs, now that I’ve listened back to them, are kind of just as poignant as they were then, but just towards different people, different areas of the world. Back when we were doing Songs From the Big Chair and ‘Everybody Wants to Rule the World,’ we were really discussing the Cold War,” he says. “But it was the U.S. and Russia then, and now the concern is more the U.S. and Korea. I find that fascinating.”

Smith, who’s lived for almost 30 years in the States — 10 in New York, and 19 in L.A. — is among the many musicians out there who are not fans of America’s current president. “I am one of those people that as soon as I hear Trump talk on the radio, I have to turn it off,” he says. “I feel like I am in a different reality when I hear him and realize he is president of the United States. I feel like I’m in the upside-down world of Stranger Things.”

Still, Smith, who grew up in England and was not a fan of the Brexit vote for the U.K. to leave the European Union, finds room for optimism in these trying political times.

“I say this about America and I say this about England, which are the two groups I obviously have close ties to … looking at the younger generation here and the younger generation in Britain, my optimism comes from the fact in my demographics of voting in the U.S. and in Britain, the younger generation overwhelmingly here voted for Hillary, and in Britain voted to stay in Europe,” he points out. “I think that most of these things — the whole build-a-wall, keep-the-Mexicans-out, white nationalist fervor in America and Brexit in England — are driven in large part by old white men desperately trying to keep the power and scare-mongering. And I think you can fool people once, but now that they’ve seen what the consequences are, certainly directly in America, and how they will feel on the consequences, things will change.”

Smith is also heartened by the election results in much of the United States this week, which included wins for five transgender candidates. “When I was watching CNN, as one does, or listening to the news in the car to find out what all the results were, yeah, it was cause for optimism,” he says. “It’s a little too soon to extrapolate from that yet, but there was a certain joy in the fact [Danica Roem] won in Virginia. I certainly felt more optimistic than I have in a long time. But of course, [the next day] you read the news and see that Trump said they lost because they did not embrace him. I feel he lives in a different reality than everyone else.”

Looking back on Tears for Fears’ catalog, Smith says they were never an overtly political act, but realizes, “I think that consciously or subconsciously, [politics] always affect you. A lot of songs we’ve written have been political, but they’re also personally political. … Obviously, a lot of our songs are kind of political, ‘Seeds of Love’ or ‘Mad World,’ even though that’s kind of personally political. I think people do relate to them more. And we’re finding a younger generation live that relates to our music. That’s something new for us that’s happened over the last few years, and that’s very gratifying and wonderful.”

Like so many songwriters whose music has endured for decades, Smith and musical partner Roland Orzabal have crafted songs that capture a universality by blending the political with the personal. So when Smith listens to their new compilation, which also includes two new songs, he hears more than 30 years of his life. That brings up many memories of TFF mingling with their heroes, whether it’s David Bowie, Paul McCartney, and Stevie Wonder (with whom Smith sang at Wonder’s 40th birthday at London’s Wembley Arena), or the duo’s very surprising place in hip-hop and R&B, something Smith did not expect at all when he moved to the States initially.

“When I first moved to America, what I was shocked by and amazed by [was] the amount of people in the R&B world that were fans,” he says. “And I guess you noticed that when you see Kanye [interpolate] ‘Memories Fade’ from The Hurting, or Nas sample ‘Everybody Wants to Rule the World.’ Even meeting the hardcore rap groups like Gang Starr in New York, [who are] huge Tears fans, was just weird and wonderful.”

However, Smith knows that it is not always a blessing to meet one’s heroes. That’s why, when asked who he’d like to tour with — similar to the trek Tears for Fears did this year with Daryl Hall and John Oates in America, and will do next year in the U.K. with Alison Moyet — he is unsure how to answer.

“Oh God, I don’t know. It’s hard to really know when it comes to touring, because it could be one of your favorite ever bands and they could be a**holes. So you don’t really know, and I’m very aware of that, because some of your heroes you meet, you’re like, ‘Oh wow, wish I never met you, it’s ruined everything.’”

So, did Smith ever meet Kanye West or Nas and get a chance to ask them about what makes TFF’s music so sample-worthy?

“No, I have not met them,” he says. “Kanye, I fear, would be on that list of people you don’t want to meet.”