This song is about the quest for power, and how it can have unfortunate consequences. In an interview with Mix
magazine, the band's producer Chris Hughes explained that they spent months working on "Shout
," and near the end of the sessions, Roland Orzabal came into the studio and played two simple chords on his acoustic guitar, which became the basis for the song. Said Hughes: "'Everybody Wants to Rule the World' was so simple and went down so quickly, it was effortless, really. In fact, as a piece of recording history, it's bland as hell."
This was the first US #1 hit for Tears for Fears. "Shout" went to #1 two months later.
"Everybody Wants To Rule The World" is a line from the 1980 Clash song "Charlie Don't Surf
." Did Tears for Fears lift it? Joe Strummer of The Clash thought so. He recounted a story to Musician
magazine about confronting Roland Orzabal in a restaurant, informing Orzabal that "you owe me a fiver." Strummer said that Roland reached in his pocket and produced a five pound note, ostensibly as compensation for poaching the line for his hit title.
Curt Smith, one of the two members of Tears for Fears, did a solo, acoustic version of this for the soundtrack to The Private Public, a 2001 movie where he made his acting debut.
Dennis Miller used this over the closing credits of his HBO TV show, which ran from 1994-2002.
Although musically this is quite a jangly and catchy song, its lyrical theme is actually pretty dark. "The concept is quite serious - it's about everybody wanting power, about warfare and the misery it causes," Curt Smith explains on the band's website.
The song was covered by Lorde for the Hunger Games: Catching Fire soundtrack, which was released by Republic. She reworked Tears for Fears' tune into a haunting dirge, bringing out its inherent darkness. The label's executive VP Tom Mackay explained to Billboard magazine that the New Zealand singer-songwriter was wrapping her Pure Heroine album at the time tracks were being solicited for the soundtrack. "There was not time for her to write a demo, submit it and come back after changes [are requested]," Mackay said. "Like a lot of songs on this album, it's an artistic leap. When we heard it, we were amazed how she reshaped it-it's hard not to think about President Snow and the Capitol in the film and in the book."
In a Season 2 episode of the TV series Mr. Robot, the character Angela Moss (Portia Doubleday) sings a plaintive karaoke version of this song as she struggles through a moral crisis. "You really have a desire to rule the world?" a guy asks her when she comes to the bar. "Oh, my desires go way beyond that," she replies.
The band had trouble getting into the original incarnation of the song, which featured the lyric "everybody wants to go to war." When it was changed to the title phrase, everything clicked. "Once we got those lyrics, it was a joyful song," Orzabal explained.
This was used in the 1985 movie Real Genius, about a group of teen geniuses, led by Val Kilmer, who try to foil their professor's plot to sell their high-powered laser to the military. It was also featured in the 1997 comedy Romy and Michele's High School Reunion, starring Lisa Kudrow and Mira Sorvino, the 2015 NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton and the '80s-themed Steven Spielberg film Ready Player One (2018).
This was featured in several TV shows, including ER ("Sharp Relief," 1998), Cold Case ("Greed," 2004), Malcolm in the Middle ("Lois Battles Jamie," 2005), Numb3rs ("Hot Shot," 2006), Brothers & Sisters ("States of the Union," 2007), The Wire ("React Quotes," 2008), Medium ("But for the Grace of God," 2008), Psych ("A Nightmare on State Street," 2014), and Riverdale ("Chapter Thirty-Nine: The Midnight Club," 2018).
Because "Shout" was the group's first single in the rest of the world, Tears For Fears thought it should also be their first release in the US, but the record label insisted "Everybody Wants To Rule The World" was better suited for their American debut. "Which is interesting in retrospect," Smith told
" target="_blank">Consequence of Sound, "because it was one of those times when the record company was right and we were wrong, because for America, yes, it was a better first single."
The 30th anniversary re-release of the album contains a few different versions of the song, including a live performance from Canada's Massey Hall, an alternate single, and an instrumental rendition. Smith said of the instrumental: "When you strip a vocal off a track, you get to then appreciate how that track was built because you’re just listening to the elements of the music behind it."
Gloria Gaynor and the Glee Cast are among the artists to cover this song. Weezer included it on their 2019 covers collection known as The Teal Album.