Focus on the Lyrics Friday: Gold

Much as I dislike repeating artists for this column (with the exception of Bastille), it must be done. Imagine Dragons released their new CD, Smoke + Mirrors, Tuesday, February 17. Like everything else they touch, it’s musical gold.

One of my favorite tracks from the album is “Gold,” which in addition to sounding completely unlike anything else I’ve heard (a mix of gospel, whistles, a strange hiccuping noise, and rock) has some interesting lyrics.


Lyrics

First comes the blessing of all that you’ve dreamed,
But then comes the curses of diamonds and rings.
Only at first did it have its appeal, but now you can’t tell the false from the real.
Who can you trust
(Who can you trust)

When everything, everything, everything you touch turns to gold, gold, gold.
When everything, everything, everything you touch turns to gold, gold

Statues and empires are all at your hands,
Water to wine and the finest of sands.
When all that you have’s turning stale and its cold,
Oh you’ll no longer fear when your heart’s turned to gold.
Who can you trust
(Who can you trust)

When everything, everything, everything you touch turns to gold, gold, gold.
When everything, everything, everything you touch turns to gold, gold

I’m dying to feel again,
Oh anything at all,
But oh I feel nothin’, nothin’, nothin’, nothin’

When everything, everything, everything you touch turns to gold, gold, gold.
When everything, everything, everything you touch turns to gold, gold

Analysis

At it’s core, the song is based on the Greek myth of King Midas, who wished for the power to turn what he touched into gold. Midas’ wish turned out to be more of a curse than a blessing, since he accidentally turned his food and his daughter into gold.

In the song, Imagine Dragons uses this myth to build on the idea of fame and the wealth that comes with it.

1) “First comes the blessing of all that you’ve dreamed, / But then comes the curses of diamonds and rings. / Only at first did it have its appeal, but now you can’t tell the false from the real. / Who can you trust (Who can you trust)”

In Midas’ case, the “blessing of all that [he’s] dreamed” is his wish to turn what he touches into gold, which only appealed “at first.” In the real-world application, many “dream” of being blessed with fame and wealth. Imagine Dragons, now at a position of fame and fortune, attest that the “diamonds and rings” become “curses” in the same way Midas’ ability became a curse, separating him from those he loved. Fame and fortune may have “appeal” at first, but once achieved, it’s hard to distinguish those who are genuine from those who are “false,” leaving the famous struggling to figure out who to “trust.”

2) “Statues and empires are all at your hands, / Water to wine and the finest of sands. / When all that you have’s turning stale and its cold, / Oh you’ll no longer fear when your heart’s turned to gold. / Who can you trust (Who can you trust)”

Statues, empires, water, wine, sands–all that’s listed here seems desirable, but none of it involves a personal relationship, which is what Midas really wanted in the end (at least, he wanted to restore his relationship with his daughter–we’ll generalize it for the song’s sake). Statues are just echos of things that live. Having “empires…at your hands” implies a position of glory, but what’s the point of holding power over so many people if your position depends on people seeing you as superior and untouchable? Turning “water to wine” is a biblical allusion to Jesus’ first miracle during his ministry in which he turned water into wine at a wedding. It’s a powerful allusion for this song because it parallels Midas’ ability to turn what he touches into gold. The line could also be interpreted as having everything from “water to wine,” which would fit into the list of desirable things that don’t involve personal relationships. “The finest of sands” could symbolize having lots of time, since sand measures time in hourglasses and having lots of time isn’t much good if you don’t have someone to spend it with.

The lyrics go on to say when all these material items turn “stale” (when you no longer take pleasure in them) and when “it’s cold” (when you feel like you’ve reached your end), you’ll welcome the transformation of your heart into gold. I can see why people may interpret this transformation as an individual accepting this infectious need for materialism and giving in to the worldly people around him, but I don’t think that fits the rest of the song. Rather, I think the transformation of the heart into gold signifies the heart becoming hollow and the individual becoming numb to his own emotions.

3) “I’m dying to feel again, / Oh anything at all, / But oh I feel nothin’, nothin’, nothin’, nothin'”

These lines fit the idea that the transformation of the heart into gold symbolizes the individual’s numbness to his own emotions. Also, the phrase “dying to feel” is ironic in a fairly depressing way.

I almost didn’t include these last lines for close reading, since I didn’t think they presented anything new, but then I noticed the switch of pronouns. Where the rest of the song talks about “you” being cursed with fame and fortune, these lines use the pronoun “I.” And BOOM–just like that Imagine Dragons makes their song a million times more personal. Now I understand the raw, cacophonous sound of the instruments and vocals as a complement to the speaker’s own discontent.

I don’t like all the songs on Imagine Dragons’ new album, but I must give them credit where credit is due–the band managed to create a completely new sound in many of their tracks, and their lyrics extend beyond the usual simply expressed subject matter of other artists. I also love their collaboration with surrealist artist Tim Cantor; artists should support other artists more often, regardless of field or genre.

All things Imagine Dragon aside, I’m happy to announce I’ve already decided which song to analyze next week! Here’s a BIG hint: Disney will release “Big Hero 6” for home video next Tuesday and I adore one of the songs from the film’s soundtrack.

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Focus on the Lyrics Friday: Tennis Court

Last week I mentioned that this week’s Focus on the Lyrics will involve a popular singer, the French Revolution, and a theory of mine. (I actually used the term “far-fetched,” but the more I look at the lyrics, the more sure of my theory I am.)

I’m here to follow through with my promise. Today we’ll take a look at “Tennis Court” by the young New Zealand singer Lorde, who you may know for her hit, Royals.

*Please note that this song does swear once.


Lyrics to Tennis Court by Lorde

Don’t you think that it’s boring how people talk
Making smart with their words again, well I’m bored
Because I’m doing this for the thrill of it, killin’ it
Never not chasing a million things I want
And I am only as young as the minute is full of it
Getting pumped up from the little bright things I bought
But I know they’ll never own me (Yeah)

Baby be the class clown
I’ll be the beauty queen in tears
It’s a new art form showing people how little we care (Yeah)
We’re so happy, even when we’re smilin’ out of fear
Let’s go down to the tennis court, and talk it up like yeah (Yeah)

Pretty soon I’ll be getting on my first plane
I’ll see the veins of my city like they do in space
But my head’s filling up with the wicked games, up in flames
How can I  ****  with the fun again, when I’m known
And my boys trip me up with their heads again, loving them
Everything’s cool when we’re all in line, for the throne
But I know it’s not forever (Yeah)

Baby be the class clown
I’ll be the beauty queen in tears
It’s a new art form showing people how little we care (Yeah)
We’re so happy, even when we’re smilin’ out of fear
Let’s go down to the tennis court, and talk it up like yeah (Yeah)

It looked alright in the pictures (Yeah)

Getting caught soft with the triple is it
I fall apart, with all my heart
And you can watch from your window
And you can watch from your window

Baby be the class clown
I’ll be the beauty queen in tears
It’s a new art form showing people how little we care (Yeah)
We’re so happy, even when we’re smilin’ out of fear
Let’s go down to the tennis court, and talk it up like yeah (Yeah)

And talk it up like yeah (Yeah)
And talk it up like yeah (Yeah)
Let’s go down to the tennis court, and talk it up like yeah (Yeah)
And talk it up like yeah (Yeah)
And talk it up like yeah (Yeah)
Let’s go down to the tennis court, and talk it up like yeah (Yeah)

 

Analysis

Okay, here’s my theory: this song is about the events leading up to the French Revolution (particularly the Tennis Court meeting).

It fits pretty perfectly, right? The only problem is Lorde has never suggested that. Rather, she says the meaning of the song is rooted in her recent rise to fame and what famous people face; the reference to a tennis court is simply because she sees them as aesthetically beautiful and grand.

I think the song can be both. It uses the French Revolution to explore what it means to be famous. This gives the song a darker undertone, suggesting just how easily the tables can turn and celebrities can lose everything, just as the French monarchy did.

It’s more of a social criticism piece than a biographical statement, if you ask me.

Without further ado, let’s look at some specific parts.

1) “Don’t you think that it’s boring how people talk / Making smart with their words again, well I’m bored. / Because I’m doing this for the thrill of it, killin’ it / Never not chasing a million things I want / And I am only as young as the minute is full of it / Getting pumped up from the little bright things I bought / But I know they’ll never own me (Yeah)”

Lorde thinks that which people talk about (ie-celebrity gossip) is boring. She’s singing and doing whatever it is she does for the “thrill of it,” not for the fame or the people. People talk about everything, down to the “little bright things” she’s purchased. No matter what they do, though they will never “own” her; she will continue to do what she wants rather than what the media wants.

On the French Revolution side of this, I picture a bored Marie Antoinette, unconcerned with the petty peasant talk. She doesn’t care for the politics of being Queen of France; she cares only for the “thrills” of luxury, “chasing a million things” she wants. She gets excited about her possessions, but she thinks they’ll never control her.

2) “Baby be the class clown / I’ll be the beauty queen in tears / It’s a new art form showing people how little we care (Yeah) / We’re so happy, even when we’re smilin’ out of fear / Let’s go down to the tennis court, and talk it up like yeah (Yeah).”

Lorde points out how celebrities feel the need to own up to what the media labels them as in order to show they don’t care. It’s a strange form of rebellion, but it is a plausible idea as to why some celebrities embrace such bad labels. These celebrities are fake, though. They tell themselves they’re “happy” and look happy, but they’re “smilin’ out of fear.” She suggests they meet at the tennis courts, which she considers glamorous places, and talk about their shared experiences (their “yeahs,” if you will).

Looking at the French Revolution standpoint, Marie Antoinette speaks of her husband, Louis XVI (“Baby”), as a “class clown.” He was considered a joke of a king, since his real passion was making keys. From what I’ve read, he prefered manual labor over politics. To the French, that would make him an upper-class clown. (See what I did there?) Marie herself acted as the “beauty queen in tears,” always crying in order to get more pretty dresses and gardens. The labels are like caricatures of their reign, pointing out their most unsavory characteristics to seem like that’s all they were. Of course, that’s what peasants of the time shared to gain more support for the revolution. Marie has obviously caught wind of the rebellious talk, so she and her husband feign the happiness everyone expects of royalty, though they’re smiling out of fear, pretending to be comfortable in politics. The reference to speaking at the tennis court coincides with the Tennis Court meeting, where the royals met with peasants to hash out a compromise and avoid revolution. The meeting was actually successful, but other peasants misinterpreted the presence of soldiers and the revolution began. Lorde’s song only takes us as far as the tennis court, but the end of the French monarchy is imminent.

3) “Pretty soon I’ll be getting on my first plane / I’ll see the veins of my city like they do in space / But my head’s filling up with the wicked games, up in flames / How can I  ****  with the fun again, when I’m known / And my boys trip me up with their heads again, loving them / Everything’s cool when we’re all in line, for the throne / But I know it’s not forever (Yeah)”

This was probably penned around the time of Lorde’s first tour, where she would hop on a plane for the first time and look at her home from afar. She’s becoming more and more anxious, though, and wonders how she can do what she wants and remain true to herself when she’s a celebrity. Her friends and family (“my boys”) clear her anxieties. It’s okay while she’s not yet on “the throne,” or the spotlight, but that won’t last forever. She’ll soon have to take her seat among other stars.

Admittedly, the first line doesn’t fit well with Marie Antoinette’s setting, but perhaps we can take “plane” to mean a flat surface rather than a flying vehicle. If this were the case, perhaps the “plane” refers to her guillotine platform. (“Soon” is, after all, a relative measurement.) She’ll see “her city,” Paris. She’s becoming more anxious, wondering how she can do what she enjoys (shopping, gambling, etc.), when she’s being watched for trial. And her family (she had a husband and several kids, remember) reminds her to focus on the now. The last two lines are literal in this interpretation: everything’s good as long as they reign, but they won’t reign forever.

4) “It looked alright in the pictures (Yeah) / Getting caught soft with the triple is it / I fall apart, with all my heart / And you can watch from your window / And you can watch from your window.”

Fame looked appealing from all the photos, but she’s not sure anymore. Paparazzi try to snag photos of celebrities when they’re at their worst and claim the individual is falling apart. Lorde mocks this when she dispassionately sings, “I fall apart, with all my heart.” And audiences watch from their “windows,” both detached and attracted to the world of fame.

Marie Antoinette might say the same of France and her rule. It looked glamorous in the painting, but all the politics threaten her family while peasants watch the fall of the monarchy from their windows, both disgusted and attracted to the world of luxury.

 

If the song speaks both of what Lorde sees in the world of fame as she sets out and what Marie Antoinette sees as her world of fame as she comes to an end, it’s pretty brilliant. The two meanings compliment one another well, showing just how harmful the spotlight can be and how long fame has been an issue. It may not have been what Lorde set off to write, but that’s how I read into the lyrics.

Don’t forget to check back next week for another Focus on the Lyrics!