On this day, two days before the date that many (well, one guy, who was first wrong about this supposedly happening 17 years ago, anyway) predict will bring about the end of times, we can’t stop listening to Skeeter Davis’ 1962 pop classic “The End of the World,” the country-turned-pop star’s fine, fine contribution to the canon of fire-and-brimstone-related pop music. Though figurative in its descriptions of the apocalypse—it’s about heartbreak—the song nonetheless sounds like it should be the soundtrack to a literal apocalypse, probably thanks to the movie Dr. Strangelove, which created the cliché of using unnervingly still and unassuming songs to complement the most disturbing of events in the process. Now, you hear “The End of the World,” and bombs go off in your head. It’s a fitting, if accidental, fate for the song.
Skeeter Davis started her career as a country singer, one of the first enormously successful female singers in the genre. She scored her first hits as a member of the Davis Sisters, whose 1953 single “I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know” was one of the biggest country hits of the decade, before a horrific car accident killed her singing partner, Betty Jack Davis. A few years later, Skeeter went solo, and began recording a string of country hits in the late 50s and early 60s, including top five country hits “Set Him Free” and “(I Can’t Help You) I’m Falling Too.” But it wasn’t until 1962′s “The End of the World” that Skeeter crossed over to the pop world in a major way, with the song peaking at No. 2 on the Hot 100 in March of 1963, her biggest hit before or since.
“The End of the World” was a heartbreak ballad written by the team of Arthur Kent and and Sylvia Dee, given a lush production job by legendary producer Chet Atkins, credited with having invented the “Nashville sound.” The song was fixed around the lyrical device of Skeeter expressing disbelief about the world continuing to go on around her (“Why do the birds keep on singing? / Why do the stars glow above?”), since in her belief, the end of times is already upon the world, due to her true love having left her (“Don’t they know it’s the end of the world? / It ended when you said goodbye”).
It wasn’t an accident that “The End of the World” was Skeeter’s first big pop hit. Not only was the song instantly memorable and imminently relatable, it toned down the country twang that characterized her earlier singles, with the steel pedal guitar and fiddle replaced by gently-plucked guitar and sweeping, cinematic strings, and Skeeter’s southern accent all but eliminated from her lead vocal. In fact, the most impressive achievement of “The End of the World” was that it crossed over not only to the pop charts, but also to the adult contemporary and even the R&B charts, making her the only female artist in Billboard history to make the top ten of all four charts with one single.
It’s not surprising, though, since despite Skeeter’s country roots, the song sounds a lot more like a girl group, Brill Building-type song—like an early Carole King song, or one of the Shangri-Las’ tragedy ballads. It shares the quality of shattered innocence with those songs, the supremely vulnerable feeling of being young and in love and totally unprepared for the consequences. Incredibly, Skeeter was already in her 30s at the time of recording, but with her yearning, often shrill vocal, she sounds for all the world like a confused, insecure teenager on the song, someone experiencing the feeling of true heartbreak for the first time and in complete bewilderment as to how it could possibly hurt this much.
The thing that really sells “The End of the World,” though, is just how matter-of-fact the whole thing is. Most songs of its ilk would talk about how their heart breaking feels or seems like the end of the world, qualifying their statement with some kind of simile. But in Skeeter’s world, not only does her breakup equate directly to the apocalypse, but she’s shocked that not everyone and everything around her is willing or able to recognize it as such. Don’t they know it’s the end of the world? No? Really? What the fuck is wrong with them? Skeeter doesn’t sound angry or emotional about it, though—she’s internalized the impending apocalypse so deeply that she’s just resigned to it, now, merely miffed that the rest of the world is pretending like it isn’t happening. It’s a much more powerful lyrical device—one that feels more deeply felt, and a lot more convincing—for its hard-line literalness.
The crossover sound of “The End of the World,” combined with its universal subject matter and simple structure and presentation, have made it a reliable cover choice for any number of disparate acts over the years. Everyone from fellow country icons like Loretta Lynn and Eddy Arnold to pop artists like The Carpenters and Nancy Sinatra right up to modern alternative rockers like Nina Gordon and Girls have tried their hand at the song. While its unlikely that any have managed to better Skeeter’s original, it’s also such a basic and compelling song that it’s impossible to mess up, so the renditions are never unwelcome.
“The End of the World” also has lived on through its repeated use in movies and TV shows set in the 60s, usually in dramatic circumstances. The song has haunted actress Brittany Murphy in particular, getting used in pivotal scenes in two of her movies, Riding in Cars With Boys and Girl, Interrupted, the latter of which featured her character playing the record on repeat as she made literal the song’s title by committing suicide. Recently, the third season of Mad Men used the song over the closing credits for an episode that featured both the JFK assassination and the dissolution of lead character Don Draper’s marriage. And as was inevitable, the song was used in the trailer for an apocalyptic video game, Tom Clancy’s EndWar.
After “The End of the World,” Skeeter’s career continued in a more pop-friendly direction, as she scored her second and last top ten Hot 100 hit with “I Can’t Stay Mad at You,” a much less morose love song written by the hit-making team of Goffin and King, which contained “shooby-dooby-doo” backing vocals and a bouncy chorus straight out of a Chiffons song. But the pop success didn’t last forever, and eventually Skeeter returned to country music, venturing from it infrequently over the remainder of her career. She was still a successful touring act up to the turn of the millennium, until she contracted breast cancer in 2001, eventually dying from the sickness in 2004 at the age of 72.
So on Saturday, while the rest of your loser friends are jamming out to R.E.M. as the first fireball hits, you can crank up this classic and pity them for being so uncool in their last moments on earth. This is what the end of the world really does—or really should—sound like.