By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
What connects the Police hit song ‘Every Breath You Take’ with the James Bond novel Goldfinger? And is the Police song a paean to devoted love or a sinister message to an ex-lover?
Let’s take a closer look at the meaning of ‘Every Breath You Take’, a song taken from the final studio album by The Police, Synchronicity.
The song topped the UK charts in 1983 and became the band’s last big hit, although several other songs from the same album, notably the underrated ‘Wrapped Around Your Finger’, are worth seeking out if you haven’t heard them.
‘Every Breath You Take’: song meaning
According to Jon Kutner and Spencer Leigh’s 1000 UK Number One Hits, Stewart Copeland – the drummer in The Police – has said of this song: ‘People often choose this song as their wedding song. They think it’s a cheerful song. In fact, it’s not a cheerful song at all, it’s a very dark song.’
Sting wrote the lyrics to ‘Every Breath You Take’ (we’ll say more about the circumstances of the song’s composition in a moment). He did so while he was going through an unpleasant divorce from his first wife, according to Kutner and Leigh.
And this is reflected in the lyrics to the song, which concern an obsessive and unwholesome ‘love’ the singer has for someone. Far from being a song about devotedly watching someone’s every move because, in the words of Aerosmith, you ‘don’t want to miss a thing’, ‘Every Breath You Take’ is a sinister song about surveillance and fanatical obsession.
This much becomes obvious to anyone who studies the lyrics to the song. The woman (assuming we take the implied addressee of the song to be female) will, the singer predicts, break bonds and vows, and play games (presumably with him). She will put on a fake smile, indicating a falseness to her actions and her demeanour, at least when she is around the singer.
She is, in other words, not to be trusted. At least, the singer doesn’t think she is trustworthy. So this is a song about a love that has gone bad, with the singer addressing his former beloved to call her out on her duplicitous behaviour even as he asserts his ‘ownership’ of her and his unwillingness to let her go.
At the same time, one can see how the song can appear to be about a powerful if possessive love for someone. The phrase ‘you belong to me’ can be, depending on its content, charmingly protective (and despite numerous waves of feminism, attractive to many women) or worryingly possessive.
It’s a cliché of contemporary dark romance novels, for instance, that the ‘MMC’ (or male main character) will be almost obsessively protective of, but also possessive over, the ‘FMC’ (female main character).
But in this song, it’s clear that the woman wishes to escape the obsessive singer’s clutches (here we use ‘singer’, as is our usual habit here when discussing songs, much as we’d use the term ‘speaker’ when discussing a poem: the ‘singer’ of the song may or may not be expressing the views of Sting, the songwriter).
In this series of song meanings articles, I usually appeal to Roland Barthes on the issue of determining what a song ‘really’ means. Barthes’ ‘death of the author’ theory proposes that the writer of a poem or novel (or song?) is not in charge of the meaning: the reader (or listener?) is.
But in the case of ‘Every Breath You Take’, one must half-close one’s ears to ignore the tone of morbid obsessiveness and resentment which can be detected throughout the song’s lyrics.
‘Every Breath You Take’: facts
‘Every Breath You Take’ won numerous awards: Song of the Year, Best Pop Performance at the 1984 Grammy Awards, and even an Ivor Novello Award, the Nobel Prize of songwriting accolades.
The song was released at the height of the New Romantics and post-punk, and yet sounds like nothing else released at the time. It’s a minimal song, simple yet effective, out of key with the ‘big’ sound of many other songs of the era.
Sting wrote the song at Goldeneye, Ian Fleming’s estate on Jamaica, not long before his divorce from the actress Frances Tomelty. He reportedly wrote the song at the same desk at which Fleming (who had died in 1964) wrote many of his James Bond novels (Fleming famously took the name ‘James Bond’ from the author of a book on birds of the West Indies).
‘Every Breath You Take’ has enjoyed a curious afterlife. First, the UK satirical puppet show Spitting Image memorably turned it into an anti-Cold-War song in 1985, ‘Every Bomb You Make’. Sting reportedly agreed to sing the new lyrics to the song in exchange for a copy of the first series of the show from 1984.
Then, twelve years later, in 1997, Puff Daddy (as he was then known) used the riff for his tribute to the Notorious B.I.G., ‘I’ll Be Missing You’, with additional vocals provided by Biggie Smalls’ widow, Faith Evans. This song, like the Police’s original, topped the UK charts.