By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
What has a woman named Iris got to do with the famous track of that name by the Goo Goo Dolls? And does the name, in fact, have anything to do with the song, besides providing it with its title?
‘Iris’ has become the signature song by the American rock band the Goo Goo Dolls. But the meaning of this power ballad has attracted debate. What exactly is ‘Iris’ about? Let’s take a closer look at the song’s lyrics.
‘Iris’: song meaning
The song is a power ballad, written by the band’s founder and lead singer, John Rzeznik. Although some of the lyrics invite diverse interpretations, the central meaning of the song is fairly easy to summarise: it’s a song about falling in love with someone, so intensely in love that you’d be willing to ‘give up forever’ just to touch them, as the opening line has it.
This line reveals the song’s origins as a track for City of Angels, in which an immortal angel joins the land of the living so he can be with his mortal lover.
The chorus of the song, however, is more enigmatic. Why does the singer want to hide himself from the world, and why would it not understand?
Perhaps, again, the clue lies in the song’s origins. In the film, an angel is willing to give up immortality in order to experience what it is to feel human: to experience intense passion and love for someone, knowing it will have to end.
And this is what gives ‘Iris’ an edge over many other power ballads on this theme: the song acknowledges the pain of living and doesn’t simply refuse to ignore it, but actually sees it as part of the process of being alive. Everything is made to be broken because everything will eventually die. That’s the deal with mortality: nothing lasts forever.
And this makes the singer’s description of his lover as ‘the closest to heaven’ that he’ll ever know deeply ironic: he, an angel, is saying that the real heaven is here on earth, finding (human) love with another person.
The third verse of the song, with the reference to everything feeling ‘like the movies’ because you ‘bleed’ just to remind yourself you’re alive is more puzzling, and has attracted a number of conflicting interpretations. However, if we apply Occam’s razor to the song (that’s not a pun about shaving/bleeding, by the way), and keep the song’s origins firmly in mind, it makes more sense.
Angels cannot bleed, because they are not technically ‘alive’. Technically, of course, they don’t exist outside of holy texts and Hollywood films, but in the realms of myth and fiction they are renowned for being supernatural.
So bleeding is a sign of being alive: of having traded one’s immortality for a brief life which one can truly live, pain and love and all.
As for the line about everything being ‘like the movies’: a ‘Hollywood ending’ (especially to romantic films) has become as familiar a phenomenon as a ‘fairytale ending’, so it’s a reference to everything being perfect, especially when it comes to love and romance.
It’s also Rzeznik tipping a nice little wink to the listener, given the song was written specifically for inclusion on a movie soundtrack.
As mentioned above, John Rzeznik, the frontman of the Goo Goo Dolls, wrote ‘Iris’ for the 1998 Nicolas Cage film City of Angels, in which an angel (played by Cage) comes to earth and falls in love with a mortal woman (played by Meg Ryan).
But the song has become bigger than the film, which is not numbered among the best-known or most enduring films in the CV of either Nicolas Cage or Meg Ryan. And this had meant that the song, but also its potential meaning, has taken on a wider significance and importance for listeners.
We’ve previously talked in these song analysis posts about Roland Barthes’ ‘Death of the Author’, and the theory that authorial intention is not the be-all and end-all of determining a text’s meaning. And we’ve discussed how ‘texts’ here might include song lyrics.
Just because Rzeznik wrote the song, and composed its lyrics, with City of Angels in mind, does that mean we have to keep the song’s meaning tied to the film forevermore?
That horse has already bolted, for sure. Many people now interpret ‘Iris’ as a song about someone being in love with a person who doesn’t really know them. In this reading of the song’s lyrics, a less positive picture emerges, where pain is not necessarily an energising force, but a symptom of the problem of being human.
Curiously, in the film City of Angels, no character named Iris appears. Rzeznik got the name Iris from a magazine: he encountered the name of the country folk singer-songwriter Iris DeMent in the concert listing in LA Weekly, and thought the name would make for a good title for the song. ‘Iris’ wasn’t the only classic hit to come from the City of Angels soundtrack: Sarah McLachlan’s ‘Angel’ was also from the film.