By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Released in 1995 at the height of Britpop, ‘Wonderwall’ is perhaps the most iconic song by the English rock group Oasis. With Liam Gallagher’s distinctive sneering vocals and the anthemic quality of the song, ‘Wonderwall’ is perhaps the standout track on the band’s second studio album, (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? – and there’s not exactly a shortage of great tracks on that album.
Curiously, Noel Gallagher, who wrote the song, told NME in 1996 that he wrote ‘Wonderwall’ for his then-girlfriend Meg Mathews, but after the pair divorced in 2001, he said the song was not about her but about an ‘imaginary friend’ (of which more below).
But what does ‘Wonderwall’ actually mean? And what is a ‘wonderwall’? To answer these questions, let’s take a closer look at the lyrics of the song, with a view to understanding its meaning.
Noel Gallagher, who wrote the song, has explained that it was about ‘an imaginary friend who’s gonna come and save you from yourself’. This person is the ‘wonderwall’ of the song’s title. (This title, by the way, was suggested by the title of George Harrison’s 1968 album, Wonderwall Music.)
The first verse describes someone who is going to have something thrown back to them: perhaps a crush that is reciprocated or ‘thrown back’ (like a reflection). The time for action has arrived. The speaker expresses his deep affection for the person he addresses.
The second verse describes a loss of passion, like a fire that’s gone out in the person’s heart. The speaker suggests that the addressee has probably heard this rumour and already knew it was true: they have lost their spark, as it were.
The bridge then suggests the difficulties of negotiating a change in one’s life (perhaps embarking on a new relationship, or friendship?). It contains unexpected developments which must be carefully negotiated (those winding roads) and overwhelming revelations (those blinding lights).
The speaker confides that there are lots of things he’d like to say to the addressee of the song, but he doesn’t know how to put them into words – either because he lacks the skill to articulate them, or because he’s worried about being rejected.
The chorus of the song sees the speaker recognising the possibility that the addressee is his saviour, the one who will save him (from himself?). This person is his ‘wonderwall’.
The third and final verse of the song is a reprise of the first, but with some subtle changes to the tense of the verbs (the hopeful ‘is’ of the first verse has given way to the disappointed ‘was’ in the third). The day for that person to have their feelings reciprocated arrived, but their love for someone was not returned. Instead of acting on one’s feelings, one is advised to keep them to oneself.
If, in Gallagher’s own words, ‘Wonderwall’ is about ‘an imaginary friend who’s gonna come and save you from yourself’, this raises some interesting questions when we analyse the lyrics of the song more closely. If the ‘you’ addressed by the speaker is this mysterious saviour (as the chorus suggests: ‘you’re my wonderwall’), then is this ‘you’ the same person who is addressed in the song’s verses?
In other words, one way to analyse that first verse is to paraphrase it as follows: the speaker of the song is saying to his (female) friend, ‘You like someone else and you want him to like you back, but I like you and I know that nobody else could possibly feel as strongly about you as I do, so of course this other guy doesn’t return your affection, because he’s not me’.
The second verse, then, could be spoken after the female friend has suffered her crushing rejection, with the other guy not returning her affection. This is why the fire in her heart is out (a phrase suggestive of thwarted love and a rather jaded approach to romance in general). Everyone in their friendship group is aware that she has been knocked back, and has probably already consoled her, but the speaker is different, because he loves her (or at least likes her a great deal) in the way she wants to be loved (or liked).
Viewed this way, the ‘story’ of ‘Wonderwall’ makes sense and the lyrics start to cohere into a consistent and logical whole. The song is, in short, about a man addressing a female friend whom he fancies, and telling her that he likes her.
But wait. Does he actually tell her? Or is ‘Wonderwall’ a classic example of a love song about love that cannot be confessed, with the song itself providing the outlet through which the lover confesses his love – not to the girl he loves, but to the world instead?
After all, in the third verse, there’s that subtle shift from ‘what you’ve got to do’ to ‘what you’re not to do’. In other words, if the female friend did confess her love to this other guy and he rebuffed her, perhaps the speaker of the song has learned a valuable lesson: if you feel strongly about someone and suspect they won’t return your affection, you’d better keep it to yourself, or else the ‘fire’ in your ‘heart’ will be put out.
By observing her being rejected, he has had a foretaste of what his own rejection at her hands would be like.
And this is why we end up back where we started, with the speaker confessing his feelings without confessing them, as it were: by merely saying that there are lots of things he wants to tell her, but he doesn’t know how to (or, as we now suspect, doesn’t know how to without jeopardising the whole friendship).
But there’s one final twist. If a ‘wonderwall’ truly is an imaginary friend, as Gallagher suggested, then whom is the speaker actually addressing? Is it a real person or an imagined one? Or is the friend real enough, but their status as a saviour is purely imagined (and hoped)?
Although the lyrics appear to be straightforward, there are some intriguing contradictions in ‘Wonderwall’ – but these add to the song’s mysterious power rather than being flaws in its composition. The video, by the way, does little to elucidate the meaning of the song.