I haven’t gone off on music since I talked about it punching my emotion sack, but there is this new John Legend song out called “All of Me” that got me thinking. It’s a perfectly fine and passable pop ballad. Sure, it’s full of the kinds of lines that we would expect from a pop song (he loves her “perfect imperfections,” for example), but there are some surprising and honest moments in the song too–like “What would I do without your smart mouth?” This is without doubt my favorite line in the song. It’s a specific example of one of those imperfections, and pop music is usually full of bland and redundant cliché. So it’s nice to hear that, as long as we are speaking pop’s language, we are also going to be occasionally a bit more specific–he likes her, even though she’s a little mouthy, and that’s admirable.
But what got my wheels spinning tonight was a small chunk from the pre-chorus of this song:
My head’s under water
But I’m breathing fine
You’re crazy and I’m out of my mind
‘Cause all of me
Loves all of you
Specifically what interests me are the lyrics about the drowning, which is definitely what’s happening if his head is underwater, no matter how “fine” he is breathing. Given, this isn’t meant to be read literally. Legend uses this lyric as a part of the overall pattern of the song’s lyrical arc. It is, at its heart, a song that uses paradox and oxymoron to establish that the singer loves someone completely that maybe he shouldn’t love at all. It’s poetic language that shows he’s in over his head, but he feels alright with his decision to persist.
This is an interesting twist on an old motif, though. The use of water in lyrics (or poetry, for that matter) is nothing new. According to Thomas C. Foster, author of How to Read Literature Like a Professor, when a character in fiction is submerged in water, it typically signals a rebirth (think Christian baptism). The character goes under the water unclean in some way, the water metaphorically washes his or her sin, and he or she rises a new person. There are tons of examples in pop culture (the end of Big Fish) and more canonical literature (“The Horse Dealer’s Daughter”).
Most poetry and lyrics are different, though. There is no narrative arc, so we can’t see if a character that was bad is good now. We often only have a small slice of life displayed in these texts (unless it’s The Odyssey or R. Kelley’s Trapped in the Closet). So what do we learn from the use of water, submersion, and drowning?
For another example, Sara Bareilles’s first big single, “Love Song” opens with these lines:
Head under water
And they tell me to breathe easy for a while
The breathing gets harder, even I know that
In interviews, Sara admits to writing “Love Song” as a passive-aggressive jab at her record label. The label wanted her to write radio-safe songs, and they wouldn’t green light any of her work, so “Love Song” was born out of frustration. These lyrics seem to support that frustration. She’s frustrated, the higher-ups tell her to relax, she can’t relax when people tell her to, and all the while, she feels like she is in over her head. I think it’s similar to Legend’s song, but the relationship is a business here instead of a romance.
Let me ramble about two more examples and I’ll start wrapping it up. Damien Rice’s song, “Cold Water,” contains these lines:
Cold, cold water surrounds me now
And all I’ve got is your hand.
In an interview, Damien talks about what was on his mind when he wrote it, and he essentially says that he uses water here to signify death–specifically, the moment that we recognize death is closing in around us. It feels, maybe, like cold, cold water surrounding us.
And finally, I’ll draw out these lines from Ben Folds’ 90s ballad, “Brick”:
She’s a brick, and I’m drowning slowly
Off the coast and I’m headed nowhere.
The song is about a terminated pregnancy, and these lines always gave me pause. However you think the speaker of the song feels about the pregnancy and the impending abortion, it’s clear that he feels overwhelmed.
At some point, a motif is used to the point that it becomes cliché. But clichés are cliché for a reason: sometimes there is just no other better way to communicate whatever it is you’re trying to communicate. Sometimes life, love, and even death becomes overwhelming, and the only way to communicate how overwhelmed we feel is by drawing a parallel to drowning, and I think it’s an appropriate metaphor. I can think of no death that would be more internally violent than drowning. There is no oxygen. No matter how high you swim, you will never find the surface. Sometimes, emotions can feel like that–like they’ve swallowed us up.
But water sustains life, too. And maybe that is what is so interesting about the whole thing. It is something we all need, but if we get too much, it could kill us. So, while John Legend seems to be breathing fine for now, the implication is there: the love is real and swift and significant. Soon, he will be overwhelmed, and he might just drown.
And if you’re still reading, thank you for humoring me. Can you think of any other examples of water being used to represent rebirth/ baptism/ suffocation in lyrics or books? The English nerd in me is dying to read your contributions.
And since I’m into it in a big way right now, here is John Legend’s song featuring Lindsey Stirling: