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What this song really means and why it’s important April 30, 2010

Posted by markgeil in Music, Philosophical musings.
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Song lyrics are very important to me. Always have been. I am easily captivated by the symbiosis of word and tune, and I read lyrics like I read books of poetry, except that I actually read lyrics, and I don’t much read books of poetry.

Naturally, then, I enjoy discussions about song meanings. There are finally some websites devoted to such banter, but like all message boards they are too often overrun by the vociferous dregs of society. Back in the day, my friends and I passed many hours discussing song meanings, and there were no dregs allowed. I remember taking a stand against several Pink Floyd lyrics. My friends thought they were deep and profound. I thought they were overwrought twaddle. We would pit lyricist against lyricist in odd little battles, deciding if Neil Peart was a better writer than Bruce Springsteen. We wondered why Bob Dylan was so deified. (I think we were a bit too young to get Dylan.) We challenged anyone to make sense of a single REM lyric.

I spent most of my lyrical analysis energies on U2. As a Christian, I actively sought spiritual meanings in songs, delighting when God would use a particular phrase to whisper His name to me. U2 lyrics have always been fraught with Christian themes, but their complexity sometimes troubled me. I latched on to their overt declarations of faith on albums like October, lines like “Open up, open up, to the Lamb Of God / To the love of He Who made the blind to see / He’s coming back, He’s coming back, O believe Him!” Yes, that’s a U2 lyric.

For anyone my age with even a marginal interest in the band, a watershed moment was the release of The Joshua Tree. I remember the day the band’s previous album, The Unforgettable Fire, was released, and my brother and I sat on the floor of his room and listened to it over and over, and I was confused. It was a new sound and it took a while to grow on me. Not so with Joshua Tree. To my 15-year-old ears it was an instant masterpiece.

It was during the following weeks that I dissected the lyrics and, as usual, I looked for glimpses of God. I found them all over the place, but this was definitely not October. The messages were confusing. The big gospel song talked in unflinching terms about Christ crucified, but then declared “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.” A song called “In God’s Country” spoke of crooked crosses and standing with the sons of Cain. And then there was the monster hit, “With or Without You”.

Again, there were spiritual overtones in this iconic 80’s song, but they were muddled.

                “See the thorn twist in your side … You gave it all but I want more … And you give yourself away”

… and once again, a troubling conclusion: “I can’t live, with or without you.”

I pondered and fretted. It bothered me that my favorite band, the one with great music and great lyrics, would present such a display of spiritual doubt. Then, one day, my friend Alan thought up an idea. “Maybe,” he said, “the song is about sitting on the proverbial fence.” I was intrigued. “Maybe they’re saying you can’t live if you’re non-committal, if you’re trying to be with God sometimes and without Him other times.” Excellent! said I. A strong, Biblical message that echoed Revelation 3:16. I could live with that. Admittedly, it still bothered me a bit that according to that interpretation the song should probably be called “With and Without You”, but I put those thoughts aside.

Now, at long last, I’ve learned what the song is really about. I’m reading U2 by U2, the band’s remarkable compilation of first-person interviews and photos. (Rebekah teases me about my “big picture book”.) Therein is Bono’s personal description of the meaning of the lyric. As I suspected all along, Alan and I were way off.

“The lyric is pure torment,” Bono writes. The song found him in a state of conflict between the life of a rock star and the life of a husband and father, at a time when he saw no resolution. He could not rectify his “art” with his “domestic responsibility”. One is the song’s “you”, and the other is the “she”. Bono continues: “So now I have this person in my life whom I love more than my life but I’m wondering if… now I’m a domesticated beast.”

He was not speaking of temptations toward infidelity, but the temptation of the muse. He felt he could not give necessary attention to both the creative process and his family. At the same time, he felt both were a necessary part of who he was. He could not live, with or without either. And yes, the song does have spiritual overtones. No Christian artist can deny the role of God in the process and product of artistic creation. So this became a struggle of faith as well. Surprising that this tormented song became the band’s first number one hit.

I was 15, a teenager in a time before “angst” was the accepted attitude of the age, and torment did not suit me. My faith was simpler then, and it did not allow for the pained doubt and desolation of this lyric. So, my friend and I spun it to suit our sunshiny hubris. Granted, there’s nothing inherently bad about misinterpreting a song, but I find it interesting that although the anguish in this song was quite obvious, we could not face it and so we forced a more contented and “spiritually sound” meaning upon the lyric.

My faith is more complex now, for better or worse. Time and its seasons have brought me to an understanding of the need for torment. A faith that is not tested is tenuous, and a faith that does not allow for testing is naïve.

Maturation has served Bono as well. “I thought these tensions were going to destroy me,” he says, “but actually, in truth, it is me. Right in the centre of a contradiction, that’s the place to be. Loyal, but in my imagination filled with wanderlust, a heart to know God, a head to know the world, rock star who likes to run amok and sinner who knows he needs to repent.”

He also notes that if he had gone one way or the other, toward the unrestrained artist-rock star or toward the so-called “domesticated beast”, many of the band’s best songs would have never been written. He can live – in fact he must live – with both.

How interesting that Bono’s insight in this lyric parallels my journey to figure out its meaning. When he only knew desolation and torment, I would not allow for it. As he has realized the completion in the contradiction, I have realized the vitality in struggle and testing.

I hope that God enjoys my praise, but I also think He enjoys my prayers of doubt, of struggle, of testing certain viewpoints that challenge me. He doesn’t want me to force every challenging thought into a happy, contented box. He knows I need seasons of examination in order to grow. He knows that’s how my faith breathes.

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