I was watching an episode of “The Great” the other night on Hulu—an “anti-historical” dramedy loosely based on the rise and reign of Catherine the Great of Russia. It’s a great show. And while sometimes I’m annoyed of what I believe to be unnecessary creative liberties in regards to the actual historical narrative, the series does tell a story that’s both fun and educational, and strikes a masterful balance between the comical and the captivating. At the end of this particular episode, Catherine (played by Elle Fanning) is despondently staring out one of her palace windows at what looks to be a forest fire, but what viewers know is the burning of a serf village (serfs included!) that was suffering from an outbreak of smallpox. This burning was ordered by Catherine’s despotic emperor husband, who rather than testing Catherine’s “enlightened” solution of variolation, decided to murder an entire village (classic antivaxxer behavior). The scene concludes with Catherine’s tear-filled eyes “searching for light in the darkness of insanity” midst Sharon Van Etten’s cover of (What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding?”
This cover by Van Etten and Queens of the Stone Age frontman, Josh Homme (I know, right?!?), was released in May of 2020 during the heart of the first COVID lockdowns. The artists “wanted to share something universal…A feeling of home, safety, insecurities and love. That we are all in this time together. All of us, doing what we can to be our best—even during hard times.” They certainly picked an apropos tune.
The original, of course, was written and performed by Nick Lowe (who makes a brief cameo in the above video), in 1974. The song is a product of its time. According to Lowe, the song started out as a kind of a joke—a 1970s post-mortem of the decade prior when “everyone sort of slipped out of the hippie dream and into a more cynical and more unpleasant frame of mind.” And it’s pretty easy to picture—the jaded, used-to-be Woodstocker mockingly laughing at the naivete of his dreamer buddy still clinging to the tie-dye, flower power, and “sweet harmony” of the 1960s, as Nixon resigns and Saigon falls. But as the song began to materialize, Lowe realized that what was “originally supposed to be a joke song” had to be something more. That “there was a little grain of wisdom in this thing, and not to mess it up.”
The genius of the song is its simplicity. As Lowe said, “The one clever thing I did with that song was to not mess it up in the verses by making it too complicated. I thought to myself, This is a great title. Let the title do all the work for you.” He was right.
And despite its ironic idealism, the song is also relatable and true. We’ve all “felt like this inside.” We’ve all felt it “slippin’ away”. We’ve all had moments where the world or our world seems to be a place solely defined by “pain, hatred, and misery.” But like the song, the solution is simple. The world is a complicated place, but it’s hard to imagine a problem that is immune to the medicine of “peace, love, and understanding.” Three things we all want. Three things we’re all capable of. Three things that if universally embraced, really would make this world a better place to be in for the brief moments we’re here.
And what’s so funny about that?
P.S. Following the example of Van Etten and Homme, here’s my own home movie set to this song featuring a compilation of videos I made over the last two weeks while stay-at-home-dad-ing and starring my beautiful daughter, Lenin.
P.P.S. I cannot conclude this blog without sharing the cover that made the song famous. Take it away, Elvis: