By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Few recent songs have attracted more speculation and debate without really justifying such attention than Zach Bryan’s ‘Something in the Orange’. Although the song’s meaning has been the subject of some discussion, the central meaning of the song is anything but complex or ambiguous.
Zach Bryan wrote ‘Something in the Orange’ in a cabin in Wisconsin while watching the sunset, and it has become his most widely talked-about song since it was released in 2022. You can watch the official video for the song here.
This raises an intriguing question: why has this track by the up-and-coming American singer-songwriter attracted such wonder and speculation? And what is the (in actual fact, fairly straightforward) meaning of this song?
‘Something in the Orange’: song meaning
Bryan’s song is, in summary, about the end of a relationship. But what separates it from many other break-up songs is the distinctive refrain which Bryan employs – to various effects – to describe the diverse range of feelings the singer is experiencing as he deals with the split.
The song begins with the singer (here, we’ll use the term ‘singer’ to refer to the ‘speaker’ of the song’s lyrics; this singer figure may or may not be one and the same with Zach Bryan, the singer and writer of the track) expressing hope that things will be ‘fine’ when the evening comes.
Although things eat away at us and send us mad, if the singer’s lover (or, as we will soon learn, former lover) stays close to him and rests her head against him, all the weight of her (and his?) cares will disappear.
The second verse makes it clear that all is not rosy in this relationship. Indeed, the two of them, singer and addressee, are no longer in a relationship: they have broken up. He tells her he can’t win: if he confides to her that he misses her following their split, he knows she won’t say she misses him.
But it’s true: in the mornings, as he watches the orange sunrise in the sky, he sees a sign of hope, a suggestion that they may yet get together again.
After all, dawn, or sunrise, heralds a new day, and the possibility of a new start – or the chance to give an old relationship another go.
The singer then tells his erstwhile lover that there is a difference between the way he feels about her, and her feelings towards him: as far as she’s concerned, he’s ‘just’ a man, flawed and unremarkable. But to him, she is everything that makes him who he is. She defines him.
He has nowhere else to go. He even ‘poisoned’ himself (again: has he made several drastic attempts to end himself, in the wake of the split?), because when he looks in the ‘orange’ of the sky he sees something less hopeful than before. (Is he looking into the sunset this time, at the end of the day? And does he see, in the setting sun, a symbol for the end of their romance?)
The ‘orange’ motif returns in the next verse: he wants to hear his former love tell him that she’s been waiting all night for him to get in touch with her, though he knows that’s probably a vain hope.
He can see the orange light (from the lightbulbs this time, rather than the sun) in her eyes as he looks at her. She seems reluctant even to speak to him, and he longs to go back to the days when they danced together, making the wooden floorboards creak (although possibly thinking of other things creaking too, such as bed boards: as George Bernard Shaw once said, dancing is the perpendicular expression of a horizontal desire).
The singer reiterates the fact that, for him, the ‘orange’ light now represents his fading hopes that they could ever rekindle their relationship. The end of the song sees the singer bereft and despairing, telling her that if she leaves him today, he will simply stare at the way the orange light (of the fading sunset?) touches everything, a symbol of the death of their love and what they shared.
There’s one last surprise in ‘Something in the Orange’, however: the singer also confesses that her leaving him makes him ‘hate’ her. He begs her to turn her car around and come back to him, but we get the distinct feeling that she’s driving off into that orange sunset, leaving the singer alone to his melancholy musings.
‘Something in the Orange’: analysis
Although the meaning of ‘Something in the Orange’ is, then, far from difficult or ambiguous, the song’s various verses do reflect the complex welter of emotions we often experience when dealing with the end of a relationship.
We might liken this cocktail of intense emotion to the famous stages of the grieving process first posited by the Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her 1969 book On Death and Dying.
Since then, they have become well-known – and somewhat overemphasised as gospel-like in their applicability and universal truth – but it’s undoubtedly true that most of us experience at least some of the five stages of grief when dealing with ‘deaths’ of various kinds: the death of a loved one, saying goodbye to a central part of our lives (a house we lived in, a job we had), or, as in ‘Something in the Orange’, the end of a relationship.
In the Kübler-Ross model, the five stages of grief are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. In Bryan’s track, the singer begins by denying that the relationship (presumably broken off by the addressee of the song, his former lover) is in fact over: he still harbours hope that she will come back to him.
We also get signs of anger (he ‘hates’ her), bargaining (begging her to ‘Please’ turn around and come back to him), and depression (she is ‘all’ that he is, so he’s lost without her). But ultimately he arrives at some kind of acceptance: he may not like it, but he sees ‘in the orange’ glow of sunset that she isn’t going to come back and the relationship is over.
The distinctive phrasing of the song’s title, and recurring refrain, lend ‘Something in the Orange’ its memorable quality. Linguists call this process conversion: turning a noun into another word-class. Here, Bryan turns ‘orange’ – in this context, an adjective used to describe the colour of the sun in the sky – into a noun.
Perhaps no colour has been used so unexpectedly and memorably in a pop song since Coldplay’s ‘Yellow’, where the choice of the colour yellow for the song’s motif was reportedly inspired by a particular book that was lying around the recording studio.