Just this morning I went to YouTube and listened to Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire.” Such a powerful song, and I don’t think I had ever seen the official video before, which includes a short dramatization of Springsteen as a car mechanic being asked to repair a car by a woman we never actually see, other than her legs.
Even in this short video we get to see that Springsteen is actually a pretty good actor, and he communicates all the intended emotions in just a few seconds: longing, regret, warmth, perhaps a bit of despair. It’s an almost perfect set-up for the song.
But in another way, I found myself almost regretting that I had seen the video. I had my own short story for that song rattling around in my brain. I first encountered “I’m On Fire” when it was released back in 1985, while I was dealing with a bout of pneumonia.
And at the time that “I’m On Fire” was getting the most air-play, I had a persistent high fever, the shakes, chills, a powerful headache, and everything else that goes along with it. That song would nudge its way into my musical mind as I lay in bed with the radio on, and “I’m On Fire” was almost exactly how I was feeling at the time: on fire.
The catchy rockabilly drum beat reminded me of a train, and so I had come up with a story about a character lying in an abandoned train car, suffering from a bit of fever-induced delirium, trying to escape his own ailments — his own past.
Over the years, anytime I’ve heard that song, that story I invented would always come rushing back: someone trying metaphorically to escape his complicated and unpleasant past, trying to find a new starting point.
This morning, all of this got me thinking that as a songwriter, you don’t always get to choose what story your listeners are going to apply to your songs. And what someone comes up with may surprise you.
And it’s a good reminder to us as writers that listeners are never wrong. They are the ones who’ll create a story, and it may be nothing like the one you thought they’d come up with, or the one you intended.
And if ten different people come up with ten different back-stories for your song, you should consider that a great thing. You managed to write something that stimulated people’s imagination, and created different stories and a different set of emotions in the minds of each one of them.
As long as your songs are doing that, you can call yourself a success.
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