Because of the circuitous and weird nature of the internet, I found myself watching an interview clip with rapper Big Boi (who you may know from his work as half of the group ‘Outkast’). In the clip he talks about his favourite songs which includes the Kate Bush’s song “Running Up That Hill”. Big Boi says the lyrics are a big part of why he likes it, talking about a couple switching perspectives to understand each other better.
This did not gel with my standing interpretation of the song’s meaning. With no offence intended to Mr. Boi, I dashed to the Google investigation machine and looked for proof that I was right and he was wrong.
Instead I found first-hand proof from the songwriter herself that Big Boi’s interpretation was the one she intended. And I was disappointed. You wanna know why? Sure you do. It’s because this interpretation is much smaller and less epic than the one I had invented.
(Before we continue, I should mention that my preferred version of the song is this one by Placebo, a much sadder version:)
This doesn’t sound like a song about wishing that you could switch bodies temporarily with your love so that they could finally understand how much it cheeses you off when they forget to buy you a birthday cake. This isn’t Freaky Friday. There is a heartbreaking sadness, powerful sense of love, and a crushing sense of futility driving my interpretation. This is because I am OVERLY DRAMATIC!
The chorus is key. “If I only could, I’d make a deal with God, and get him to swap our places.” You don’t make a plea to god to smooth over a romantic misunderstanding. You turn to deals with god (or the devil, for that matter) when all real hope is gone. When you watch helplessly as some wretched tragedy slowly consumes the person you love, and you would take on their pain in a second if it meant that they would be spared. That is the over-the-top, utterly gothic interpretation of the song that I came up with.
After mulling the situation over, I decided I’m sticking with my version of the song. Yes I know the author had different intentions. Nerts to that. It is my right and privilege as the audience to read/misread the work of art as I see fit. Once the art is in the wild, the artist has no say on how the audience interacts with it.
It’s a curse and blessing simultaneously. Curse because someone, somewhere, is going to read your work in the most hostile way possible and twist your words into something toxic, and you can do nothing to stop them. But a blessing when you accept that you cannot control the audience, so you are free to make the art you want to make for yourself.
Sidenote: this is also why artists should never ever ever* explain their work. Let the art speak for itself. Brett Emmons (singer/songwriter for The Glorious Sons) made this video when his record company wanted to preempt controversy over their song ‘Sawed Off shotgun’:
The important line: “I don’t blame them. I am scared too. But I will not explain my song to you”.
Oh, and go listen to ‘Sawed Off shotgun’ because it’s good tune from these Kingston boys.
*no not literally, you overly literal nitpicker. There’s always a possibility of an exception to a rule.