Imagine Dragons tends to visualize their lyrics through a glass darkly. They paint with the kind of smudged, impressionist brushstrokes that can be seen as positive, negative, inspiring, depressing, beautiful, awful or anything in between. It all depends upon your vantage point as you attempt to interpret them. In other words, these shoes may be made for walkin', but these lyrics aren't made for decipherin'.
The synth-drenched "Radioactive" couples that opacity with a massively catchy dubstep chorus, a combination that's earned the song airplay in commercials for NBC's Chicago Fire and SyFy's Defiance, as well as in the movie The Host and on the video game soundtracks for Assassin's Creed III and MLB 13: The Show.
The song's title—if taken fairly literally—raises the specter of having endured a nuclear nightmare. And opening lines evoke exactly that kind of imagery: "I'm waking up to ash and dust/I wipe my brow and sweat my rust/I'm breathing in the chemicals/ … This is it, the apocalypse."
Gloomy, right? And so I'm instantly hopeful (and trepidatious) that the band will fill me in on how to respond to such a sour situation. Or at least how they'll respond.
Well, depending (again) on how you interpret some key words, the path forward seems to be one of determination. "I'm breaking in, shaping up, then checking out on the prison bus," frontman Dan Reynolds tells us cryptically. A bit later, we hear about awakening once more, as he adds, "I'm waking up, I feel it in my bones/Enough to make my systems blow/Welcome to the new age, to the new age/ … I'm radioactive, radioactive."
As an anthemic affirmation, then, it seems the band is proclaiming the state of being radioactive a good thing. Or, if not quite that, at least a reality of life in the "new age" that must be accepted.
Maybe that radioactivity will bestow strength and power for the fight to come. Because it is coming: "I raise my flags, don my clothes/It's a revolution, I suppose/We're painted red to fit right in." Who this revolutionary force or faction might be or what it's fighting isn't at all clear, I must say. But I've already covered that sort of sentiment here, haven't I?
As for humanity's ultimate survival, a line near the end of the track suggests there is hope: "All systems go, the sun hadn't died/Deep in my bones, straight from inside."
So whether in surviving a nuclear apocalypse or "merely" the toxic problems of our current age, and to the extent that listeners hear the song's repeated references to "waking up" as a good thing, perhaps "Radioactive" delivers a guardedly optimistic message. But if one decides to focus on all that "ash and dust" fallout, then perhaps not.
And anyone looking for clues in the video will find something else entirely. In it, the band is imprisoned beneath a shack in the woods, a shack in which are held—it seems—cock fights. We watch as gambling, cigar-chomping men hold up their money and cheer the combat below. It's pretty clear what's going on …
… until we actually get a glimpse of the combat below.
Down in the fighting pit, a red-eyed, yellow-horned, pink-and-purple people-eater, er, I mean, stuffed monster is challenging all comers—including lots of other decidedly less-fierce cuddly critters also made of cloth. All of these stuffed animals come to a grim end, with the malevolently stitched monster decapitating and ripping and trouncing each in turn.
It's violent, to be sure. And slightly ridiculous too, what with the white stuffing flying everywhere.
But a tiny pink bear won't take defeat for an answer. Apparently radioactive in his own right, this little guy fells his bullying opponent with a pink flash of light, then turns his beams on a couple of men, vaporizing them.
Soon the band is free, while the leader of the brutal fight club left imprisoned to face the furry wrath of all the previously abused and now half-dead stuffed animals.
That's meant to give us hope for the future, just like in the song. Or at least that's my impression.