By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘The One That Got Away’ is a song by Katy Perry. Taken from her third studio album, Teenage Dream (2010), the song sees the singer reminiscing about a relationship she had with someone who is now no longer her lover. He is the titular ‘one that got away’ from her.
You can listen to ‘The One That Got Away’ here. But the meaning of the song’s lyrics demand closer analysis, since there are several surprising elements to the song’s ‘narrative’, which we like to explore and bring to light.
‘The One That Got Away’: song meaning
The song begins with the singer of the song reminiscing about the early days of her relationship with her beau. They first met in the summer after they graduated from high school, and spent that summer making out, getting matching tattoos, and drinking together. The singer reveals at the end of the first verse that she and her beau are no longer together.
In the chorus, the singer tells us that, if life had been different, she would be his girl still, and the two of them would be loyal to each other and face the world together. In this alternate existence, she would persuade him to stay with her, and she wouldn’t then be describing him, mournfully, as the one who got away from her.
The second verse positions the singer as muse and helper to her male partner, who is revealed to be a singer. He sings the blues, but is likened to the country singer Johnny Cash, whose love interest (and eventually, his second wife) June Carter is also mentioned.
June Carter supported Cash through the various turbulent periods of his life as a famous singer, and the two of them remained together until their deaths (within just four months of one another in 2003). The singer remembers when she and her beau were together and they were inseparable, like Carter and Cash.
They made a promise to each other back then that they would stay together, and sometimes, the singer confesses, she still puts Johnny Cash’s old songs on and listens to them. She then reveals that she’s heard that her erstwhile beau had his tattoo removed (the one which matched the one she got when she turned eighteen). Clearly, unlike Carter for Cash, she is no longer her former lover’s muse for his songs.
The singer reveals that although she is now wealthy, she cannot buy a time machine and go back to those days. Nor can buying herself expensive jewellery (with ‘rings’ suggesting engagement to various replacement beaus) replace the man she used to have. She regrets not telling him just how much he meant to her when she had a chance, as she’s now living with the consequences of letting him slip away.
‘The One That Got Away’: analysis
On the face of it, ‘The One That Got Away’ is a simple song about an age-old theme in music: lost love. The title, and the song’s chorus, identify the song’s addressee – the former lover of the singer, the boyfriend who was, perhaps, her first true love – as the crux or focal point of the song. He is the one who got away, the one whom she allowed to get away from her, and now he is lost, and she must live without him.
But this tells only half the story. For the song appears also to be about a nostalgia for a very particular time in our lives: that watershed year when we turn eighteen, leave school behind, and embark on our journey out into the big, bad world on our own. Or rather, at least in ‘The One That Got Away’, not quite alone: but with one’s love by one’s side.
The opening verse of the song makes this second meaning plain. The summer setting harks back to a glorious Edenic past in which the whole of the singer’s adult life stretched before her. The rites of passage associated with maturity – falling in love, trying one’s first (illicit) alcohol, being able to drive around in a car and be free from parental shackles and control – are all mentioned. There’s a sense that the singer is mourning more than the loss of her erstwhile love.
Or to put this another way, the ‘one that got away’ is not merely the lover who left her, the man she let slip through her fingers – and the fact that Katy Perry opts for the impersonal pronoun ‘that’ over the personal ‘who’ suggests as much (if it simply referred to her former beau, surely it should be the one who got away?).
In summary, Katy Perry – or the speaker or singer in the song, at least – is lamenting both the loss of her lover and the passing of her youth.
But the romantic ‘narrative’ is obviously important to the song as well. Here, the comparison between the singer and her lover and the musical powerhouse of Johnny Cash and June Carter is more revealing than the song’s speaker is perhaps aware: although they ended up marrying and spending the rest of their lives together, their relationship was notoriously tempestuous, as attested by the 2005 biopic Walk the Line.
Perhaps this is one reason why the musician and his muse (note how ‘muse’ plays off the music which was the passion of the boyfriend, and, one assumes, the singer herself) are no longer together.
Nevertheless, she clearly viewed the ‘one that got away’ as her soulmate.
Indeed, Katy Perry’s comment on the meaning of ‘The One That Got Away’ in 2011 revealed as much: after revealing that she wrote the song about promising to love someone forever before later realising you cannot follow through on such a promise, she went on to describe it as a ‘bittersweet story’ (presumably because it’s about happy memories recollected in unhappiness). Perry also commented that she hoped people listening to the song would never have to experience ‘The One’ getting away.
This ‘One’, then, is not just anyone, but The One: one’s soulmate and forever lover. And this wordplay within the title ‘The One That Got Away’ hides the darker and more melancholy true meaning of the song’s tragedy and heartbreak.