“O Children” by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
This song (“O Children”) is highly poetic, yet at the same time the main point(s) being put across is quite clear. And honestly there’s a whole lot going on in these lyrics. However, for the sake of brevity we will try to stick to the primary ideas the vocalist is putting across.
“O Children” is one of those pieces whereas a matured adult, in this case the vocalist, is lamenting the state of the world he, his agemates, and we can even say the older generation(s) left it for those who are now coming up.
It is not abundantly clear what it is exactly that frightens him about the future, nor do the specifics of the situation appear to be the point per se. But he does appear to be speaking, theoretically, to the prospect of some type of governmental repression, considering that Nick uses terms such as “Gestapo” and “gulag” to get his ideas across.
However, in the grand scheme of the song, those references can arguably be taken more as symbolic than literal constructs.
These Selfish Adults
And more to the point is simply this. Adults as a collective whole are depicted as being more concerned with “winning” today than the consequences such actions will bring tomorrow. So a good hypothetical premise upon which to understand the thesis sentiment being expressed is to presume the vocalist is singing about environmental degradation for instance.
We keep extracting and using certain resources – such as oil let’s say – despite it being common knowledge that doing so at this pace is having severe consequences on the environment. We also understand that even though the adverse effects may be minimal right now, eventually some innocent people (i.e. our children) are going to really have to deal with it.
So that is what Nick Cave is speaking to – contemporary society, if you will, knowingly leaving the world in a more messed up state than we found it.
The Symbolism in “O Children”
But going back to the symbolism of this piece, there is an extra level of deepness going on here. Or, let’s harp back to the example of political repression. If we’re currently able to perceive that the government is becoming increasingly repressive, then logic would dictate that we confront the issue now rather than leave it lingering for our children to contend with.
The logic behind that understanding is not only about our love for the future generation but also the fact that, by default, if they actually grow up in such an environment then they will be more vulnerable than we currently are.
But let’s also say that human nature is such that we don’t want to deal with the pressing issues of today. We would rather choose “a bit of fun” (i.e. comfort, wealth or what have you) as opposed to the uneasiness of facing the system.
And just as the lyrics can be flipped into the context of oppression or environmental degradation, the vocalist can also be talking about something like, say the development of nuclear weapons or what have you.
Indeed the ambiguity of the lyrics is what makes this piece so powerful and universally applicable. You know that the vocalist is apologizing in a collective sort way to the younger generation.
He is apologizing for he and his agemates not taking a stand against the less-than-ideal aspects of the world we live in, those that may even be changed through serious action. But in terms of what aspects he’s actually referring to, that’s really left up to the listener to decipher.
And ultimately all is not lost. Nick acknowledges that the children of today were born into a losing situation, so to speak. But he is still encouraging them to ‘lift up their voice’ against the ills of the world.
Or viewed alternatively, he does not want them to emulate the acquiescent, fun-prioritizing ways of their forefathers. And why? That is because now in his age, the vocalist sees that living so results in a feeling of defeat and, as expressed, pessimism as far as the world’s future is concerned.
So conclusively in an explicit way, this all can be taken as a call for the youth to take action. But reading in-between the lines, it’s as if the narrator is also saying that doing so would be for their own good, so that upon growing old, they won’t feel like sellouts.
Facts about “O Children”
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds is a band that originated in early 1980s Australia yet, bucking against the trend of musical acts diminishing in efficacy with age, have actually experienced their most notable success thus far during the 2010s.
This track is also from one of their better performing albums, “Abattoir Blues / The Lyre of Orpheus”. Mute Records made the album public on 20 September 2004.
“O Children” has a total length of 6 minutes and 51 seconds. This makes it the longest song on its album.
This song was written by Nick Cave. Nick is a musician who himself has been in the game since the early 1970s.
O Children‘s producer is Nick Launay, a regular collaborator of the Bad Seeds. Launay has been heralded as one of the finest producers of his time. He is also one of the figures behind the band’s aforenoted increased success during the 21st century.
“O Children” also makes a notable appearance in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. The said film is the seventh and penultimate installment of the original Harry Potter film franchise. The movie’s music supervisor, Matt Biffa, became attached to the tune because he could identify with it. Actually he was going through a divorce at the time, where his two small sons were involved.
Was “O Children” released as a single?
No. “Abattoir Blues / The Lyre of Orpheus” received the support of only the below singles:
- “Get Ready for Love”
- “Nature Boy”
- “Breathless / There She Goes, My Beautiful World”
Despite “O Children” not being released as a single, it remains one of the album’s most popular tracks.
During the film when it played listening to the lyrics it struck me as basically the adult wizarding world apologizing for the things that their children had to go through IE Harry and his generation having to deal with Voldemort on their own as he adults were unable to or unwilling to. The fact that Harry and Hermione never danced in the book really didn’t seem to matter I thought it was a beautiful moment between the two and reinforced our love for each other as friends.
It is amazing how a song can be so moving. The sentimentality of the vocalist reaches the heart and makes you reflect on everything that our future generations will have to face due to the mistakes of adults.
I think this song is about the holocaust.
I think it’s about over vaccinating and trafficking children.
I definitely thought about a Holocaust-ish type of event as well as trafficking. And at the end where he’s talking about being on the train to the Kingdom- that’s heaven. So in the end, they’re dead going to heaven and are happy. There’s so much in this song omg
Your interpretations are thought provoking. Great work.
It’s also about being sent to the gas chambers during the Holocaust. “The cleaners” being the people who were made to clean the bodies from the chambers. “The kingdom” is the afterlife, because the train is the chambers. A great story about this in ‘The Hiding Place’ by Corrie Ten Boom. Such a good read.
Does nobody feel the world is moving in this direction? Epstein Island. Trafficking children. Indigenous Residential Schools in Canada being abused by priests and nuns. Over vaccinating our children with experimental vaccines. What are we doing?
I love this moment in the movie, thanks to the directors for it. and I’ve always liked the song so much, it fits the moment perfectly, and is also good for a separate listening (today in the car on repeat).
I first came across this song in HP ATDH it speaks to me in a more literal sense. I envisage an abattoir or meat processing plant and the singer is hating his job because of all the death around him.