“If” by Bread is one of those songs where the lyrics can make your head explode – if you think too hard.
Songs like that, of course, we aren’t supposed to think about. We’re supposed to turn off our brains and let the words wash over us.
Mostly, I do just that. Bread’s “If” is a beautiful song. It’s on my iPod, which means I love it. The only songs I keep there are songs I love; life’s too short.
Writer/editor that I am, I don’t go around dissecting the wording of everything I hear. That’s a hat I can put on and take off at will. Otherwise, being me would quickly get tiring.
But surely (I sometimes think) when Bread’s front-man, David Gates, wrote and recorded that song, he must have realized how nonsensical its lyrics are. How jangling, how self-contradictory! What was he thinking?
If the goal of a song/poem is to make sense, “If” is a monumentally badly written song! Let’s take a closer look:
Painting with Words
The song opens:
“If a picture paints a thousand words
then why can’t I paint you?
The words would never show
the you I’ve come to know.”
For starters, then, our singer alludes to the well-known saying that a picture is worth a thousand words. This saying’s point is that words are hopelessly inadequate to express things that only pictures can convey.
But having said this, he expresses dismay and confusion at his inability to “paint” his beloved – with words! To his “why can’t I paint you” I want to yell in reply, “You just explained why, dummy! It’s because a thousand words can’t say what one picture can. Did you already forget?”
(Let’s disregard the fact that these “one word” essays of mine promote an opposing thesis: Sometimes one word can paint a thousand pictures. Depends on the subject.)
Painting with Non Sequiturs
Moving along. Gates continues:
“If a face could launch a thousand ships
then where am I to go?”
To which I reply “Huh?” His “Where to go?” question seemingly has nothing to do with the fact that a face (presumably that of his beloved) can launch a thousand ships.
It’s a bit like asking, “If an ant can lift ten times its own weight, then why is grass green?” An “if” should have something to do with its subsequent “then”. Here, they don’t. (The technical term for this mismatch is non sequitur.)
I Don’t Wanna Be with You?
Then Gates completely loses control of his material:
“There’s no one home but you.
You’re all that’s left me to.”
What first bothered me about this verse was Gates’s awful grammar. By “all that’s left me to” he clearly means “all that’s left to me.” Within reason, I’m fine with flouting grammatical rules to make poems rhyme, or prose flow better. (I do this myself.) Here, though, the broken syntax is too extreme, too jangling, for my taste.
But the real problem here isn’t word order. It’s what the words, regardless of sequence, actually say. Let’s brace ourselves:
Our singer is complaining about being home alone with his indescribably beautiful, Helen-of-Troy-like goddess of a lover! If he had his way, there’d be someone else there instead. Or at least, there’d be someone else with them. Or lots of someone elses; Gates doesn’t say. Maybe he’s into threesomes.
Whatever he means, doesn’t matter. In the context of the song, this is just wrong!
Here’s a romantic tip, guys: Don’t serenade the object of your affections by bellyaching that you’d rather not be home alone with her. That you’d rather be anywhere else, with anyone else!
That attitude won’t get you to first base – or any other base.
You sure won’t catch me complaining about the alone-time I get to spend with my beloved Cheri. We go out of our way to be in our own little world, just us.
In other parts of the song, Gates sounds as if he wants that with his own sweetie. But here his words indicate he’s, well, conflicted at best.
With his next couplet, Gates tries to get the song back on track:
“And when my love for life is running dry
you come and pour yourself on me.”
We can perhaps forgive this metaphor for being on the florid-and-torrid side. At least it holds together. Which is more than we can say for what comes next!
Of Time, Place, and Possibility
Gates concocts his most fantastic reason yet for not sticking around with his supposed beloved:
“If a man could be two places at one time I’d be with you
tomorrow and today, beside you all the way.”
This is still another case of an “if” having nothing to do with its (implied) “then”. Gates has trouble with these.
Here’s the problem: Being with someone “tomorrow and today” is not an example of being “two places at one time”. Just the opposite: It’s a case of being in the same place at two different times!
It’s perhaps true that one can’t be in two places at one time. But it’s quite possible – in fact, it’s easy – to be with someone “tomorrow and today”. I do it all the time with Cheri!
In Gates’ case, it comes across as just one more excuse for spending as little time as possible with the woman he’s supposedly wooing. Does he really imagine she won’t notice his ambivalence?
The remaining lines strike me as pretty good:
“If the world should stop revolving
spinning slowly down to die
I’d spend the end with you,
and when the world was through
then one by one the stars would all go out
then you and I would simply fly away.”
(This article is part of my series on words that are #worth1000pictures.)