It’s been almost two years now since Grace Avery VanderWaal burst onto the world stage, performing her song ‘I don’t know my name’ to a thunderous round of applause and accolades heaped on her by the judges of the talent show, America’s got Talent. Upon that first hearing, it was immediately apparent that the mind of this young girl housed an enormous talent, though it’s easy to guess that most of her newfound admirers would have said it was in her delivery of the song, not in its actual lyrics. Indeed, Ms. VanderWaal’s ability to command a stage and deliver an emotion-packed performance of the song was undeniable, her voice raw, gritty, and filled with passion, and even her ukulele playing, with its changing strum patterns and use of dynamics, was beyond that of someone who’d only played the instrument for little over a year, and more that of a seasoned professional.

But regardless of how good a performer she may be, in truth what sets her apart from the norm and evokes the need to apply the label of genius to her is in her ability to set pen to paper, creating lyrics often profound, at times melancholy, so deeply embedded in metaphor that it is often impossible to derive only one single meaning. Indeed, it is not uncommon for those listening to her songs to feel she’s writing about them; to hear their own trials and struggles given voice in her lyrics.

With that in mind, I thought it time to delve a little deeper into the lyrics of ‘I don’t know my name’, as it is by her own admission her most personal song. But before we begin, I want to say a few words about genius. This is a word that’s thrown around quite a lot, especially by the many fans of Grace VanderWaal. But just what constitutes genius, anyway? Don’t look for an easy answer to that in this essay, because far better thinkers than me have tried to understand ‘genius’ and come up empty. For many people, genius simply means having a testable, high IQ. But the reality is that doing well on IQ tests only means that a person has a certain aptitude for test taking. And if test taking were an actual occupation, these skilled test takers would be in high demand. Alas, it is not, so you’ll find many high IQ people doing menial labor, like burger flipping at the local McDonalds. No, whatever it is that sets Grace apart from the rest of us, it’s not going to manifest itself on some IQ test. Oh, she might do well on certain parts of it, but more than likely on other parts she would do poorly. About like most of us.

So how then is Grace different from the rest of us? Does she have some innate quality that can even be measured? Let me be blunt in answering that: yes, she has it, and no, it cannot be measured. We’ll never know what it is that gives her these remarkable abilities, but then again, neither will she. It’s a gift, pure and simple. She didn’t ask for it, and she did nothing to earn it. But she can certainly exercise it. She can turn the seed of her gift into a flowering tree, as she’s already begun to do. But understand it? Not a chance. So in the end, all we can really do is marvel at the lyrical constructions, musical compositions, and emotive singing that come from the mind of this precocious fourteen year old. And sure, call it genius.

Now onto the song…

Suffice it to say that to many people who just don’t understand why Grace VanderWaal has attracted so much attention, ‘I Don’t Know My Name’ is nothing more than a cute little tune written by a child. Opinions and personal preferences in music matter, of course, but to think that the song is merely the work of a child is to miss the mark completely. While the song has captured the hearts and minds of many children and tweens around the world, becoming an anthem of self discovery, it has also worked its magic on many in the older crowd: from late teens to twenty-somethings, from those on the downhill side of thirty up into the realm of the middle-aged (such as myself), and even into the elderly pushing past eighty. They ‘get’ the song. Or maybe it’s better to say that the song ‘gets’ them.

For my own part, upon reading and then thinking about the lyrics, I began to see that they are actually much deeper than can be understood upon first reading (or hearing). Of course, Grace used her own life experiences as a template, which means that the song will always be personal to her, but that doesn’t mean that its message doesn’t apply to the rest of us in a general way. It is a song, after all, about finding your place in the world. But to truly understand it, we have to break it down, line be line, to decipher how a song with a seemingly straightforward lyrical expression of ideas can actually have hidden gems of philosophical understanding buried in its passages. To begin, I present the song in its long form (i.e. not the version sung on AGT, which due to time constraints had a whole verse and part of the bridge cut from it.) The song consists of the chorus, which is repeated through the song three times, though with differing emotive emphasis each time; two verses that use true events from Grace’s own life to explain her attempts at self-discovery; a bridge used to sum up her frustrations at her failure to discover her true self; and ending with an altered version of the chorus when self-discovery is finally achieved.

So here it is, Grace’s introspective gem, I Don’t Know My Name:

(Chorus)
I don’t know my name
I don’t play by the rules of the game
So you say, I’m just trying
Just trying

(Verse 1)
So I heard you are my sister’s friend
You get along quite nicely
You ask me why I cut my hair
And changed myself completely

(Chorus)
I don’t know my name
I don’t play by the rules of the game
So you say, I’m just trying
Just trying

(Verse 2)
I went from bland and popular
To joining the marching band
I made the closest friends
I’ll ever have in my lifetime

(Bridge)
I am lost, trying to get found
In an ocean of people
Please don’t ask me any questions
There won’t be a valid answer
I’ll just say, (that . . .)

(Chorus)
I don’t know my name
I don’t play by the rules of the game
So you say, I’m just trying
Just trying

(Altered chorus, theme completion)
I now know my name
I don’t play by the rules of the game
So you say, I’m not trying
But I’m trying
To find my way

Before we jump in head first, we first require a thorough understanding of its main idea: the phrase, ‘I don’t know my name’. This is an almost shocking in-your-face way to begin a song. What’s she trying to say, that she’s an amnesiac? For most people, myself included, there’s a complete lack of understanding of what is meant by this passage the first time it’s heard, especially after the next line where she boldly claims that she’s a rule-breaker. How would she know she’s a rule-breaker if she can’t even remember her own name? But then––and assuming you’ve had a few decades or more of life experience in which to gain wisdom––it dawns on you that the first line is in fact a metaphor. Then, after a little thought, you come to the realization that this may be the most deceptively simple, yet profound and brilliant metaphor ever devised by a human mind. And she was only eleven when she wrote it!

“Wait!” you scoff, “Brilliant? Profound? Are you off your rocker!?”

Perhaps. But I don’t think so. The fact is, if you look through the whole of human history, the one recurring, burning question of humanity is this: ‘Who am I?’ Or to expound on that: ‘What is my purpose here? Why was I born? Is there more to this life than just . . . living? Do I have a calling? How will I know if I do? Do I just wait around for it to happen, or do I pursue something and hope for the best?’

And that is where I’ll have to leave it for now. In the next installment, we’ll dig a little deeper into the source of this metaphor, before launching into the lyrics that give it purpose.

To be continued

This article was first posted on VanderVault’s YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XydnaaaaSnE&lc=UgyEPfDkk4WNxYHEiXl4AaABAg