Adam Lambert’s Powerful Lyrics

Adam Lambert singing “Aftermath” during his sell-out Glam Nation Tour in Birmingham, UK, 2010 – photo kindly supplied by Grrr_girl.


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Today, I’d like to have a closer look at the lyrics of songs. We could say that it’s all good and well for a song to have a catchy tune or a haunting melody, or to be sung well by a singer and to have interesting instrumentation, but that the lyrics of the song is essentially why they buy it.

Lyrics are often the reason why a song becomes that special song to us, because we can particularly relate to meaningful lyrics, and such songs become the soundtrack to our lives.

But in the same way we often don’t look at why a specific singer’s voice touches us more uniquely – we only know that we find his or her voice pleasing or beautiful – we also don’t investigate why exactly we find some lyrics more moving than others.

Today we are very lucky indeed to have with us Philippa who is going to enlighten us as to why lyrics are so important to us.

So first, a little background: Philippa Semper has been an avid reader since she was three years old, and captivated by music for as long as she can remember; a childhood full of books and choir rehearsals helped her to develop both areas. After studying English literature as an undergraduate, she took her PhD in medieval manuscript research at the University of Exeter. She taught English for several years at University College Dublin before moving to the University of Birmingham, where she lectures in medieval English literature and modern fantasy writing and publishes in both areas. Philippa became interested in the relationship between modern song lyrics and literary texts when she found herself writing about a U2 lyric in one of her finals examinations, and she has since used modern songs to teach students how to approach medieval lyrics. She discovered Adam Lambert by way of the rock band, Muse, through the song ‘Soaked’ which Muse provided for his debut album; she has been fascinated by both Adam’s lyrics and his music ever since.

Welcome to the Sound Bath, Philippa. It’s a particular treat for us that you’re here today and we look forward enormously to what you are going to tell us about the lyrics of the song we’ve chosen to look at.

Philippa: Thank you very much. It’s lovely to be here.

Before we start, I just wanted to talk about lyrics in general because I think quite often they don’t get the attention they deserve. People listen to a song and they get very caught up with the music, and they probably know the lyrics quite well, but hadn’t thought about it in any detail. And lyric is a very particular and interesting form of writing. It’s not like writing poetry because you have to write to the music. It often uses rhyme and different kinds of sounds in a different way – in ways that will respond to the melody. And so it’s not quite poetry. But I think it’s very interesting if we actually pick apart some lyrics – if we look at the sort of structures that are normal to lyrics and the ways in which writers can manipulate those structures in order to have an effect on us – probably that we don’t even notice most of the time, but it’s shaping how we respond to that song. In particular, today, I might pay some attention to the ways in which the lyrics that we’re going to talk about, play with the typical song structure, which is to have a verse, then a chorus, then another verse, then chorus, then a bit of a bridge, and then the chorus a couple of times. And that is a typical structure. We all know it, even though we’ve probably never consciously spoken it out like that. But once the song writer has that structure, they can start playing with it and those kinds of games and techniques are what we want to look a little bit more closely at today.

Angelina: Great. I look forward to it tremendously. And I’m sure you’ll agree that every now and again, the lyrics of a song can be so inspirational that it helps people to overcome real adversity, and motivates them to make real changes in their lives.

Recently, rather a large number of people have been talking and writing about such an inspirational song, which, they say, have helped them during times of crisis. For example in coming out to their parents and friends about the fact that they’re gay. Others say that this song has inspired them to change careers, or to start their own businesses, or to find their own long-forgotten, or hidden creative talents, or that it has helped them to deal with difficult relationships, or emotions, or to empower them in some other way.

The song is called Aftermath and was co-written by American Grammy nominated recording artist, Adam Lambert. It’s one of the tracks on his debut album, For Your Entertainment.

Let’s listen to the song first before we look more closely at the lyrics. I’m going to play the acoustic version from his recent sell-out world-tour, called the Glam Nation Tour.

In the first part of this interview, Adam Lambert talks about the message of this song (edited in the audio for the  programme):

So that’s what Adam had to say about Aftermath during an interview after his guest performance of it earlier this year on American Idol.

Right, Philippa, so what do you make of this song?

Philippa: Well, the first thing I’m going to do is just to read the lyrics, so that we can hear how it sounds, I suppose, more as poetry without the music.

Have you lost your way?
Livin’ in the shadow of the messes that you made
And so it goes
Everything inside your circle starts to overflow
Take a step before you leap
Into the colors that you seek
You get back what you give away
So don’t look back to yesterday

Wanna scream out
No more hiding
Don’t be afraid of what’s inside
Gonna tell ya, you’ll be alright
In the Aftermath
Anytime anybody pulls you down
Anytime anybody says you’re not allowed
Just remember you are not alone
In the Aftermath

You feel the weight
Of lies and contradictions that you live with everyday
It’s not too late
Think of what could be if you rewrite the role you play
Take a step before you leap
Into the colors that you seek
You get back what you give away
So don’t look back to yesterday

Wanna scream out
No more hiding
Don’t be afraid of what’s inside
Gonna tell ya, you’ll be alright
In the Aftermath
Anytime anybody pulls you down
Anytime anybody says you’re not allowed
Just remember you are not alone
In the Aftermath

Before you break you have to shed your armor
Take a trip and fall into the glitter
Tell a stranger that they’re beautiful
Till all you feel is love, love
All you feel is love, love

Wanna scream out
No more hiding
Don’t be afraid of what’s inside
Gonna tell ya, you’ll be alright
In the Aftermath
Anytime anybody pulls you down
Anytime anybody says you’re not allowed
Just remember you are not alone
In the aftermath
In the aftermath
Gonna tell ya, you’ll be alright
Just remember you are not alone
In the aftermath

Angelina: Wow, that’s beautiful. Even I haven’t ever listened to the lyrics like that. Thank you.

Philippa: It sounds really different, doesn’t it, when you just deal with the words.

This song is based around a really positive message. It’s got a heavy emphasis on personal agency – that is, the idea that you can take control of the things that are around you, whether good things are happening, or bad things are happening, and that with support and encouragement, you can actually turn those things to good.

The way that it creates this effect, is by starting off in the first verse with suggesting that even though you may be in the middle of messes and they may be messes that you made, and you may be at the centre of a circle that’s overflowing, there’s actually a way to deal with that. And this song is structured so that the verses tell you there’s something happening which is a problem, but the very large chorus chunk, emphasizes the positive: stop, think, react, take control – you’re not alone, it’s going to be alright.

Angelina: So it’s kind of a message for life?

Philippa: Absolutely. But it is actually very carefully balanced between talking about what’s going wrong, by putting this enormous emphasis on what you can do to change it, and what the positive aspects of it are.

In terms of a poem, it’s actually very interesting if you analyze the verse. It works on a mixture of actual rhyme and assonance – that is, rhyming vowels but not rhyming entire words, so for example when it rhymes “away” and “yesterday” those are proper rhymes – perfect rhymes, we might call them. Whereas “leap” and “seek” do not rhyme completely – separate last consonants – but they have that assonance which allows you to make the connection at the end of the lines. And songs quite often make use of assonance – words that sound almost the same but don’t quite rhyme, as a way of allowing them to be more expressive, not having to force the words into a line of music, but still tying that particular bit of the song together – the actual sounds.

I think we don’t realize when we’re listening to a song how much the vowels and consonants create lines which flow. We hear when people don’t get it quite right. I think you can hear when a song’s been badly written, or when the words sound really awkward because they’ve been pushed around artificially. The gift of a good line in a song is to make it sound natural, but also to make it fit the music, so you’ve got that double balance.

Lyrics also have to create effects which can be heard quickly. When most people encounter poetry, they encounter it on the page, they read it slowly and there’s time to enjoy the word play and to see all the effects. But when you hear something, you have to be able to hear that effect instantly and you haven’t got time to process: “Oh, that works like this.” But your brain is doing that processing for you, even though you haven’t got time to think it. And that’s a really important aspect of lyric.

Angelina: That’s very interesting because I don’t think anybody ever really thinks about that. You’re right: we hear it, and we hear when it’s not right and when it’s forced, but we don’t actually ever consciously think that it’s well written. Ever. Do we?

Philippa: Very, very rarely I think. But it does make all the difference.

In this song, in addition to the way that it’s held together with sets of rhyme between the verses – you’ve got some of the same rhyme sounds coming back in the second verse as you have in the first verse – you’ve got this assonance, this rhyming of vowel sounds which holds the whole thing together. But you also have this direct address, in that the whole song is the singer speaking to you, and that is one of the most powerful things that a song does. This second person address; a second person to you, a single person, is quite common in songs – not so common in poems – not to say it doesn’t happen: I think instantly of Shakespeare’s “Shall I compare thee to a summer day?” But more frequently poetry will be more first person – it will talk about “I” – or it will be third person and it will just be describing things without having a kind of direct connection. Songs very frequently address “you.”

Angelina: So that’s another aspect making it very direct?

Philippa: Very direct. It’s performative, I think. It’s part of the kind of acting of a song. A singer can step into the role of the song to perform it and you as a person, are at the other end receiving the song, being addressed by it. It works of course brilliantly for love songs. And that allows people to appropriate love songs. If you have a particular love song that means something to you, you will play it to the person you love, or you might play it to your friends and say: “This is how I feel about you all.” Because of that kind of second person address, a song allows you to do it. It allows you to both be addressed by it, and to appropriate it for you own use. And that’s something that’s very specific about performed music which you can’t get on the page.

In this song, it causes an awful lot of the power of the song, because it allows the singer to take the position of reassurance and greater knowledge and to speak that very specifically to anybody who’s listening to the song. “You will be alright. You are not alone.” It’s a very specific thing. It’s actually written into the song here as well, and this is something particular about this lyric in the chorus: “Wanna scream out” and then it tells you what he wants to scream out: “No more hiding,” and then: “Gonna tell ya” and then he tells you what he’s going to tell you, “You’ll be alright,” and then the third time it happens in the chorus: “Just remember..” what have you got to just remember?: “You are not alone.”

Angelina: So it’s kind of enforcing the message?

Philippa: Absolutely. It is saying: “I have things to say to you. And this is what they are. And remember them.” So it’s a very direct appropriation of what this lyric form allows you to do. It’s a direct speaking of the singer to the audience. And I think this is one of the reasons why it has touched people so much – that they feel as if Adam is speaking, or singing this song – these words – to them, and that they’re being personally reassured.

I think that kind of extra reassurance that comes with a particular singer, is part of the singer’s gift to the song as well – that they are able to bring a persona, that the people who hear the song, then also read in and out of the song. And because this song chimes in very much with Adam’s message as a whole, they are able to hear what else they know about his philosophy and also read it out of this song.

Angelina: Yes, because he’s a very positive person, isn’t he? And he talks about people taking ownership of themselves and going out there and doing what they were meant to do on this Earth in this lifetime, isn’t he? And so this song, I guess, is part of that.

Philippa: I think this song is a very powerful expression of that. All the more so because it’s not one of those songs that say life is wonderful and great and everything is fantastic. It’s a song that says you may be in the middle of a big mess, and you may feel you’ve made mistakes, and you may feel that you’ve created this place in the shadow of all your mistakes that you can’t escape from, but actually, despite that, despite whatever has gone wrong, despite these difficult situations that you may be in, despite – he says: “the weight of lies and contradictions that you live with,” you can change things. You are not stuck where you are. It is possible to change things. That, I think, is an extremely powerful message.

Angelina: Yes, and that’s what’s coming through as people have been writing and talking about it: somebody sent me a letter which someone had written about the fact that the lyrics of this song, in particular, has helped them to come out, because this guy was a professional sports person and very worried about the fact that he was gay, and felt increasingly dissatisfied with his life, because he felt he was living a lie. And this was the song that helped him to decide: “No, I want to be who I really am.” And he took it slowly, step-by-step – he’s come out and people have supported him, and he’s crediting it to this song.

Philippa: Well, one of the things that this song does is provide a community of people who understand and who care. The refrain “You are not alone,” you can come through this trauma, this catastrophe that you feel that you’re in, and on the other side there is a community of people waiting to support you.

The idea of the aftermath, I want to talk about for a second, because aftermath is of course what we think of as happening after some huge event – in the aftermath of the earthquake, the tsunami, the fire – some enormous disaster. And I think, therefore, the sets of images we associate with an aftermath are death and destruction and everything having fallen apart and that kind of awful feeling that everything has been destroyed. What this song does is pick that up and put it round the other way and say, “actually, the aftermath – the thing that happens after this; what you feel is a catastrophe of enormous proportions – the aftermath is the good bit, because that is where you will have come through the other side into this space, where you will be alright and where there will be other people to help you and where you won’t be alone.”

Angelina: And where you can affect change.

Philippa: Where you can affect change, and where, in a way, you’ve already begun to do that by coming through to the other side.

However difficult, and whatever the catastrophe is – and I’ve seen people talk about this song in terms of terrible illness, or in terms of their sexuality, or in terms of just their personal images of themselves, and struggling with that – whatever it is, it gives you the idea that you can come to this sort of crunch point, but what comes after that is actually something that is good instead of something that is disastrous. And that’s the constructive bit where you can actually build.

“Aftermath” is fascinating, because it’s the one line in the song which doesn’t rhyme with anything else, it doesn’t sound like anything else. “In the Aftermath” is a line that just sits there and gets repeated. So it’s a really powerful line in the song – it stands out from all the others, and it doesn’t get emerged into the general message. So the themes that are caught up in that, I think, are central to it.

The other thing to say a little bit about, I think, is the image of the writer in the second verse – the playwright perhaps – “it’s not too late, think of what could be if you rewrite the role you play.” It acknowledges that, in a way, everybody is playing a role – that we all have certain roles that we play in life and to an extent we all act ourselves out and we all fictionalize our experiences when we write about them. But it says: “that’s not something to worry about – that’s not a negative thing – it is a sign that you can take control and that you can write yourself differently, that you can create the person that you want to be, that you can actually take steps towards becoming that. Within a song, for a writer to write about writing a role, is getting very meta-poetical, meta-musical…

Angelina: It’s a very positive message, because sometimes people think they’re stuck. And so the feeling that you can rewrite yourself out of your stuck-ness – if there is such a word – that’s fantastic. And because, as you said earlier, Adam is very strong in how he says, or sings, these words, people believe him – they believe that it is possible for them.

Philippa: Absolutely. There’s a kind of redemptive nature in that as well, that in what you do now, you can redeem the past – the things that perhaps didn’t go the way that you would have liked them to go in the past, you can make good in a way, by rewriting your life around those things, which, I think, again, in terms of the singer making the song more meaningful, works very much for him. He’s used the kind of ugly-duckling story-line to explain his life, although I don’t think he was ever actually particularly really ugly, or particularly a duckling. But he’s used that: “I used to be a bit bigger than I should have been, I used to be uncomfortable in myself, I didn’t know what to do with myself, I didn’t fit easily into the narrative of people and sexuality and life that I discovered in high school and I had to find my way through that.”

Angelina: Yes, and it’s something that we can all, on some level, relate to.

Philippa: Absolutely. I think when you’ve got a singer as well, whose appearance has changed quite radically, a message of change is particularly strong. When someone like Adam says you can decide who you want to be and then you look at his super-blonde high school pictures and you look at his current pictures with his extraordinarily expressive dark look…the difference between those is a very strong message that sits under your consciousness when you listen to this song and says “yes, absolutely – you can make huge changes in the way people see you and in the way that you understand yourself.”

Angelina: And I think that’s what’s important – the fact that we have a certain image of ourselves and that you can change that image of yourself if it doesn’t fit anymore.

Philippa: Or if in a way it might never have fitted, but you never could find the motivation or the way to change it. This is tremendously motivating, I think.

It also works as a descriptive song – I’ve heard quite a lot of people make comments about how they’d read it back onto situations that they’d already been in, and come out the other side and said: “Actually I really wanted a way to express this – this feeling of being out of control, having a catastrophe but coming through to the other side and finding oneself stronger, or more supported, or more of the person that one wants to be. That’s been my experience and now I’ve got a song to express it.” And a song that can do both those things – that can both motivate and describe, is a very effective song.

Angelina: I suspect there aren’t very many of them around?

Philippa: No. I think there are a lot of songs that describe the misery of love – the general heartbreak. There are a lot of songs which describe the joy of love, and there are quite a lot of songs which express general things about living – “let’s party tonight,” or whatever it might be. There aren’t many songs that actually tackle processes of change that are difficult, but say that you can look at these processes in a positive way.

Angelina: So that’s the secret to this song’s success?

Philippa: I think that’s absolutely key to this song’s success.

But it’s a very well-written song, because it’s so beautifully balanced in terms of the lyrics and it uses the performativity of all songs and plays on that to give a message, and in a way allow everybody to take the singer’s role as well and say “I will be active, I will do what this songs says, because at the same time it’s telling me I can do it, the song tells me, it’s going to be OK, it’s alright, this is good, it’s a safe place to be.”

Angelina: Very important.

Philippa: Absolutely key, I think. Obviously, the music helps. I don’t want to get so much into the lyrics that we underestimate the effect that the music has.

Angelina: But I think it’s a good idea that today that we focus on the lyrics – people have talked about the music, it’s been analyzed – his voice is, of course, beautiful and has been analyzed, but I don’t think anyone has looked at the lyrics in the way that you are helping us to look today and I think that’s going to help people even more, when they look at this song – yes, they know it’s inspirational, they know it’s a positive song, but I don’t think they’ve ever really looked at it in depth, in the way that you’re explaining it to us, so it’s incredibly fascinating – to hear from a professional person, how this song is put together and why it’s so effective. We know it is, but we don’t know why.

I’m also so excited to know what you’re going to say about him “falling into the glitter”, because that’s also one of the lines in the song, isn’t it?

Philippa: That’s a line, which I think, all people who are used to Adam and his style, and his work, cheer as soon as they get to it, because it seems particularly pertinent. But that line: “take a trip and fall into the glitter” is part of the bridge of this song, so we have the two verses which is about the difficulty – but you can change it – we have the big chorus chunks which are the message, and then we have this bridge, which I know Adam was very involved in writing.

Starting with this image of having to “shed your armor before you break” – the idea of the need to ‘break’ and the importance of ‘breaking’ is something that we’ll come back to a little while later in the programme. But it does seem to be one of the ideas that is very strong for him – the fact that you actually have to take your armour off and you need to break, that you need to let people in; you need to become vulnerable.

Angelina: Yes, and people find that scary.

Philippa: It is very frightening, I think, to let people in and to allow people to really see you, but that seems to be a starting point in many of the lyrics that he writes.

‘Taking a trip and falling into the glitter,’ I think is all about letting go and letting all those brighter, sparkly bits of life actually take over. It’s about moving on. “Take a trip” – it’s also about changing your consciousness, letting go of the common-sense view of the world and allowing yourself to become that little bit psychedelic, that little bit other-worldly, seeing things in a brighter way.

Angelina: Loosening up.

Philippa: Loosening up. Definitely, which then leads you to the ability to “tell a stranger that they’re beautiful” – to break down your normal social boundaries; you don’t normally go up to people you don’t know and tell them that they’re beautiful, but you’ve been loosened enough to be able to do that, and also to be able to see the good in other people, and to encourage that.

Angelina: To me, that’s such an inspirational lyric.

Philippa: It’s a wonderful lyric. It always actually chimes with me, because I remember on New Year’s Eve for the year 2000, when the Millennium was coming round, I was out in Dublin with a group of friends, and at the stroke of midnight, we all dispersed to go and meet new people, and wish new people, who we’d never met before, a Happy New Millennium, because we’d already done it with each other and we wanted to spread the joy. And it was extraordinarily freeing – very enjoyable. So that line really chimes with me. We didn’t tell them that they were ‘beautiful’ – perhaps we should have done. But we did tell them that we hoped they had a wonderful New Year.

That whole bridge section leads up to the final words of it, which is “Till all you feel is love.” That’s always resonant for me with the Beatles’ “All you need is love.” I can’t hear that line without hearing: “All you need is love.” But the idea is that you can get into a state where you are solely taken by love, and not love in some romantic sense, but love in a sense of connecting with strangers, of seeing the world as a wider, but more coherent whole.

Angelina: Loving humanity, loving the world.

Philippa: Exactly, and by extension, your place in it.

Angelina: It would be interesting to know about all the other lyrics as well, because some of those lyrics, to me, speak almost about Adam himself.

Philippa: Yes, I think with songs, the relationship between the writer and the singer is always a very complex one, because on one hand, songs often have that feeling that poems have, that they’re expressing something very personal about the writer. But also the reality of songwriting today, and certainly for Adam, is that it’s a very collaborative activity. Someone like Adam might go into a session of writing as he did for this song, with several other people, with certain ideas of what he would like sing about and where he would like it to go. But all those different threads will then come in together with the people he’s working with and their ideas, and the music to make a whole.

I think “For Your Entertainment” in particular, in terms of its overall lyric, is an unusual album in that so many of the lyrics are about positive reactions to difficult things. More than any other theme on the album, that one keeps coming up, very, very specifically – even on the songs that Adam has not actually written or been a part of the writing team on – those lyrics fulfill much of the same function.

If you think of “Soaked” written by Matt Bellamy of Muse – it’s not Adam’s song; he didn’t have any part in writing it, but the whole thrust of the lyrics of “Soaked” are that it’s ok – you might be down, you might be having a terrible time, you might be feeling unloved and feeling the need to just find somebody who can make you feel loved for a night, but it’s ok – your soul will be ok. There will be, if not Adam, an Adam figure, who will come and take you home and look after you.

And “Music Again” written by Justin Hawkins of The Darkness, is not Adam’s song. But again; this message that you make me want to listen to music again, you bring something so positive to my life – I’ve been in this difficult place when I haven’t been able to write, and I haven’t been able to move on, and in a way, this is the difficult situation, but you make me inspired – you’re giving me back my raison d’être.

That theme keeps coming up all the way through the album. And consciously or subconsciously, that’s something that’s so important to someone like Adam, that when he is putting together an album, those themes keep coming through.

In the latter part of this interview, Adam talks about how he’s used the song to help and inspire others (edited in the audio for the programme):

The remix of Aftermath benefitting the Trevor Project, which provides support for the LGBT youth in America.

Angelina: That was amazing. Thank you so much, Philippa. Now we understand “Aftermath” a little better.

I know there is another song you wanted to talk about and of course, we’re very excited to hear about that as well. The song is called “Broken Open” and it’s from the same album. I’m going to play it again first, so that people can hear it and then, please speak to you heart’s content about it – we’d love to hear what you’re going to say about it.

So this is Adam’s VH1 unplugged version of “Broken Open.”

Philippa: So this song, “Broken Open,” I’m just going to read it aloud, like I did with “Aftermath,” so that we can hear the lyrics before we start to talk about it.

Broken pieces, break into me
So imperfectly what you should be
I don’t want you to go, don’t want to see you back out in the cold
Air you breathing out fades you to grey
Don’t run away, find me

I know the battles of chasing the shadows
Of who you wanna be
It doesn’t matter, go on and shatter
I’m all you need

Broken pieces, break into me
So imperfectly what you should be
Lay here it’s safe here, I’ll let you be broken open
Hide here, confide here, so we can be broken open

Let’s enlighten the night
We can fall away, slip out of sight
When you drop your guard, melting time
So intertwined, quiet

I know the battles of chasing the shadows
Of who you wanna be
It doesn’t matter, go on and shatter
I’m all you need

Broken pieces, break into me
So imperfectly what you should be
Lay here it’s safe here, I’ll let you be broken open
Hide here, confide here, so we can be broken open

Broken pieces, break into me
So imperfectly what you should be
Lay here it’s safe here, I’ll let you be broken open
Hide here, confide here, so we can be broken open

Lay here it’s safe here, I’ll let you be broken open
Hide here, confide here, so we can be broken open

Angelina: Mmm…it’s beautiful, isn’t it?

Philippa: It’s a gorgeous lyric, this one – absolutely superbly done. It’s very simple, but much of the force is in the repetition of these very simple lines.

Angelina: And this is another song that he’s collaborated on. Am I right?

Philippa: Yes, that’s right. Adam has said about this song that it has come very much out of his own personal experience of having friends and people who would confide in him and open up and let him see who they really were, and what an honour that was to be able to actually do.

Angelina: There’s obviously something about him that people find comforting, to be able to do that, because, as we said earlier, it’s a very scary thing to be vulnerable with people like that.

Philippa: I think probably the main thing is the willingness and the ability to be open in return. Another of the things that he has talked about is being an open book, being very open to other people. And that is also what gives the force to this lyric, it is that the vulnerability is met with an equal response.

It’s fascinating structurally, in that it breaks the usual rules. It doesn’t have a bridge at all. It starts with a fragment of the chorus, but not the complete chorus. It is unusual to start with the chorus at all, but some songs do. But to start with just a fragment of the chorus, leads you straight in with the idea of the broken pieces. And then you get a verse, and then you move into the big chorus part and then you have a verse, and then you have the chorus with a certain amount of repetition in it. So, it’s already breaking up the structure of a normal song. These kinds of fragments, these kind of bits and pieces, mean that the structure of the lyric is mirroring what it’s talking about.

Angelina: How clever!

Philippa: It’s very clever. And the imagery in this is beautiful. You’ve got the idea of imperfection, of the possibility of perfection, but the reality of imperfection.

In relation to the actual verses, this song plays with figures of speech in both verses. In the first verse: “I don’t want you to go, don’t want to see you back out in the cold,” which is literally ‘I don’t want you to be out in the cold,’ but figuratively, ‘I don’t want you to be out of my society, out of society – I don’t want you to be out in the cold.’ So it works on two levels. And then it goes on to the idea of the cold: “air you breathe fades you to gray.” So you have this image of somebody who is out in cold weather, breathing out and their breath becoming visible in the cold air and forming a screen in front of them, hiding them, allowing them to kind of dissolve into the background. And the response to that is: “don’t run away,” – ‘don’t disappear into the background, don’t be drained by the air that you’re breathing out – “don’t run away, find me.” It’s a beautiful verse with an awful lot of imagery packed into that single, small verse. And the other verse, again, does the same thing: it takes an idea and plays with it. “Let’s enlighten the night,” which in a literal sense means ‘let’s light it up, let’s bring light into the darkness.’ But also enlightening something means bringing understanding to it. So, enlightening this night means: ‘let’s understand what’s happening here.’

Angelina: The darkness of what’s happening with you.

Philippa: Exactly. ‘Let’s actually bring light in terms of understanding this situation, so that we can bring metaphysical, or metaphorical, as well as actual light to the situation. And this then means that perhaps initially, counter-intuitively, once you’ve got that, you can actually slip out of sight. Once you’ve been lit up, once you understand it, then you can slip out of sight, but interestingly, at that point the pronoun’s changed and it’s not ‘you,’ it’s ‘we.’ “We can fall away. We can slip out of sight.” “When you drop your guard, intertwined, quiet.” So it’s about actually getting into that safe space. There is a safe place out of sight. There is a place where everything’s not necessarily great. It can be a place where you’re broken and it’s dark, but it’s fine, because you’re accepted when you’re there. And that’s a safe space for you. And that’s really what the chorus is about all the time: ‘It’s safe here. You can be broken open here. It’s alright. This is a place where you can hide, but where you can also confide.’ So you can be visible and yet hidden, at the same time.

Angelina: It’s the kind of place we’re all looking for.

Philippa: It sounds ideal, doesn’t it? I think that probably as a friend, it’s the greatest gift you can give to somebody – to give them that space where they can be completely themselves, however messy or difficult that is, and know that they will find acceptance at the other end of it. It’s a very big thing to do for somebody. But this idea that: “It doesn’t matter, you can shatter. I’m all you need,” it’s an enormously powerful message, but only a very strong personality, I think, could sing this really convincingly.

Angelina: Yes, I’ve heard Adam talk about the fact that he meant for that to be that he would hold it together. They can fall apart – he would hold it together. So I think you’re right: it needs to be someone with a strong personality who’d be able to do this.

Philippa: The lyric in this one works particularly beautifully with the music in that in the chorus you’ve got these long lines that have internal rhymes in them: “Lay here, it’s safe here, I’ll let you be broken open.” It’s a very long, beautifully rhyming, slow line. “Hide here, confide here, so we can be broken open.” And ‘brok-en op-en’ of course, is a double rhyme in every chorus as well, so it’s playing with the language. And when you hear that, as we did earlier, against the backdrop of the music, there’s a lovely counterpoint where he’s singing these long lines about safety, whereas you’ve got these broken, fragmented, choppy chords going on in the background, that reminds you that what’s happening here is not comfortable perhaps, and that there is a fragmentation going on. But that it’s important and it’s necessary and it’s safe and it can be done here. The whole piece has this very gentle, dreamy kind of feel about it – very soothing, is if it’s trying to calm somebody, reflecting, I think very beautifully, the lyrics.

It’s addressing not just somebody feeling miserable, but the very particular, and I think quite modern problem that we have, of feeling fragmented as people and feeling that there is an ideal self that we want to be and an actual self that we’re somehow kind of stuck with. And that, as it says, we’re always “chasing the shadows of what we want to be.” The idea that ‘Yes, that’s ok – you can chase the shadows, you can try and be what you want to be, but when you have these moments when you are imperfect and you are not quite yet that, or you’re not able to be that at the moment, that doesn’t make you any less of a person – that doesn’t devalue you in any way – that you can still be accepted, you can still be looked after, and it doesn’t matter; you haven’t forfeited your right to care from other people.

And having started off with that broken fragment of the chorus, “Broken pieces, break into me, so imperfectly what you should be,” and set the scene that way, this song finishes by repeating those two lines: “Lay here, it’s safe here, I’ll let you be broken open. Hide here, confide here, so we can be broken open,” so you end up with this double emphasis on the positive. So you’ve gone from the very fragmented and the concern and the upset through, until you come to the end with this big, positive, but also still very gentle ending.

It is beautifully reigned back, I think, this song – all the way through. And the simplicity of the lyrics is fantastic, but as I hope, I’ve shown, the imagery is actually quite complex at times.

Angelina: Another song people would love, because of course, the music, as you said, is beautiful, and goes perfectly with the lyrics, but because of that, I don’t think people may have looked specifically at the lyrics in this way.

Adam talking about his album and saying that he is proud of “Strut”, another song on his first album on which he co-wrote, and that the other song he’s really proud of, is Broken Open (edited in the audio for the programme):

The music for the intro and outtro of this programme has been composed and performed by Elizabeth Dockrell-Tyler.

We do not own the copyright to any of the pictures, music or videos presented in this programme, only copyright on all scripts presented within the programme, and no copyright infringement is intended.

This blog is offered to invite comments and discussion on the work presented by The Sound Bath.


About soundbath

I loved singing from a very young age and first performed in public when just seven years old. As a child, living as we did, on a farm in the middle of the Kalahari Desert - the place of my birth - we had no television and my mother played records by Mario Lanza, Guiseppe Di Stephano, Beniamino Gigli, Franco Corelli, Jussi Bjorling, Enrico Caruso and other well-known Italian opera tenors, day in and day out. I adored this music and their beautiful voices, and was convinced I would be a tenor when I grew up. But the small matter of being born a girl, shattered that dream! I trained as a soprano instead, and have been fortunate enough to sing all over the world, enjoying some wonderful moments along the way, including being invited to Buckingham Palace by Queen Elizabeth II in recognition of my contribution to the music, economy and culture of the UK.
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2 Responses to Adam Lambert’s Powerful Lyrics

  1. mahailia says:

    I finally got to listen to this program, I really loved it! Philippa is so wonderfully adept in describing the meaning and beauty of the lyrics of Adam’s songs. There seem to be layers upon layers of meanings and messages in the lyrics that are very thought provoking. I must admit that they are two of my favorite songs from “For Your Entertainment”, and I love the ones you picked to play. Great job!
    Thanks so much for this program!

  2. soundbath says:

    Hi mahailia,

    Thanks so much for taking the time to listen to the programme and for your lovely comments – I’m really happy that you liked the programme.

    Yes, it was fantastic to have Philippa looking at the lyrics in a more academic way – as you say: very thought-provoking!

    Thanks again!

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