In the last installment, we left Grace with the question asked of her by an impartial observer, “. . . why I cut my hair and changed myself completely”, showing that Grace appears willing to change herself to fit in with her peers.
Now we come to a repeat of the chorus, which partially answers the question just put to her: ‘Why have you changed yourself?’ Of course the answer isn’t really an answer, just an admission of ‘I don’t know . . .’ She still doesn’t know who she is, and she’s still adamantly clinging to the fiction that she doesn’t follow society’s dictates. It’s a lie, she knows it’s a lie, but it’s a lie she has to tolerate lest she fall into despair.
We’ve come to the second verse now, and though worded as a stand-alone episode from another point in her life, it can also be looked at as a further answer to the question asked in the first verse. At least, part of the first line can: ‘I went from bland and popular’. This answers the question of what exactly Grace got for cutting her hair and changing herself completely––of putting on a new mask. The answer: popularity. But at what cost? Blandness, she tells us. Sameness. Just another cookie-cutter popular girl, part of a clique that serves no purpose beyond having a lunch table to call their own. For someone like Grace, a gifted musician / actress / comedian / etc. etc. take your pick, whose creative juices cannot be contained, such a situation must have seemed intolerable. And it didn’t last, for that first line also states that she left popularity behind: ‘I went from . . .’, she tells us, leaving her place in the popular clique to go do something that the popular girls apparently would not condone, ‘To joining the marching band’. “At last,” we can imagine Grace thinking, “something that lets me pour all this music out of my soul.” And certainly there were rewards beyond just the release of her musical desires, for the next two lines tell us something important she gained from her time in the band: ‘I made the closest friends / I’ll ever have in my lifetime’. This seems intended to speak of the difference between popularity and true friendship: being part of the popular clique is completely dependent on ‘playing by the rules of the game’, while true friendship needs no rules, just love and trust.
And now we come to the bridge, the place in the song that is darkest before the dawn. The first lines, ‘I am lost, trying to get found / In an ocean of people’ are profound. Though I have to go full-on speculation here as I’ve never heard Grace give a full account of these lines in an interview, the following seems a logical deduction. It would seem that Grace’s desire to find out who she is ran headlong into her newfound passion––the marching band. Imagine having the following moment of revelation: you’re marching, lockstep with others, row by row, column by column, a veritable ocean of people surrounding you. Uniformed sameness all around, with only the choice of instrument an indication that you’re any different from the next member over, in any direction. Where’s Grace in all that? She’s lost. After all, would it really matter if she were Grace, if Sally, Bobby or Betty Sue would do just as well? The wonder of making music aside, if being part of the popular clique was blandness, then what must the marching band have been like? Not to speak against bands, marching or otherwise, but could such a creative spark of energy like Grace VanderWaal have been truly content being inserted into such a disciplined structure? As a hobby, sure. Saturday parades. Football games. An occasional appearance for some special event. But as a complete outlet for her creativity? Not a chance. And so we’re left with the agonizing cry of one lost in an ocean of people, trying to get found.
The next two lines, ‘Please don’t ask me any questions / There won’t be a valid answer’, speak of only one thing: frustration. Did they come from some memory of her parents or siblings prying, trying to find out the source of her unhappiness? It’s easy enough to imagine her snapping back, “Don’t ask! I don’t know why!” Or maybe she never showed unhappiness on the outside and no one ever asked her such questions. But certainly as she wrote these lines those emotions must have been going full tilt, along with the questioning and self doubt that led to them, else she could not have written such lyrics.
Finally, the bridge ends with the phrase ‘I’ll just say, that . . .’ leading into the final standard chorus. A very good transition, because she can use the chorus to sort of answer, without answering, the questions asked of her; questions that she’s perhaps asking of herself. The chorus, at this point, is intentionally sung slowly, with her declaration, ‘I don’t play by the rules of the game’ verging on the point of being meaningless. Nor can it any longer be believed––not by the listener, nor even by Grace herself, for the two verses have done a superb job of showing that the statement was never actually true. And then, at the deepest point of her despair, her trusted authority once more chides her, ‘So you say, “I’m just trying” ’, and you can almost hear the rebuke in that voice of everything Grace is striving for. But then something radical happens, denoted by the building tempo and volume, as the fourth line of the chorus is sung, ‘Just trying . . . ’. It’s as if that final admonition was one too many, breaking the dam that was holding back the floodwaters of Grace’s creativity. Excitement now builds, leading to revelation and joy as the realization dawns that she does indeed know who she is and what her purpose is. The old declaration of not knowing these things is completely inverted, as she sings with confidence, “I now know my name!” Her name––her purpose–– is now and forever more Grace Avery VanderWaal, musician, lyricist, pop star, actress, role-model, all of the above, and more besides. And dammit all, she DOES NOT play by anyone else’s rules! And that is sung as pure fact, not to be questioned by anyone, and certainly never again by Grace herself.
And now we see the passive voice of the trusted authority (having turned into a naysayer) becoming aggressive as they sing a different tune: ‘So you say, “I’m not trying”,’ which is completely at odds with Grace’s own declaration of having finally found herself. She even says as much in the next line, altered now to assure whoever was advising her, ‘But I’m trying’. Unfortunately, the contraction used here for lyrical reasons loses some of the potency of this line. Read this way, ‘But I am trying’, with emphasis on ‘am’, reveals the determination behind it. And the final line, ‘To find my way’, is a fitting end of her journey of self discovery (though really it’s just the beginning of it), and a fitting end to the song, inviting no sustain to beleaguer the point and requiring naught but a final strum for emphasis. What’s most interesting about these final two lines is that Grace’s adamant declaration of having finally found herself is tempered somewhat, leaving open the door to possibly changing her direction at some future point. And that’s as it should be. A blazing songbird like Grace simply cannot be put in a cage. She has to be free to take to the skies, following her own path wherever it may lead.
A few final thoughts
It took a lot of words to decipher just one possible meaning behind the lyrics of this song, which itself is composed of very few words. There’s just a lot packed in there. Such is the hallmark of a true artist. You also may have noticed that I didn’t even look at the poetic side of the lyrics, the meter or the rhyme, nor the musicality, the melody, dynamics, phrasing, etc. I leave that to someone who actually understands music theory and poetic expression. Also note that while I think the meanings I uncovered bear some truth, if not the whole truth, it is also quite possible that very little, or even none of my ramblings correctly deciphered this song. Only Grace herself can comment on the true meanings of her words, which itself is another sign of her genius that so much can be hidden in plain sight. But the question remains: was she even aware of the depth of her lyrics when she wrote it? Maybe, maybe not. Does genius spring from the conscious mind, or the subconscious? Who knows. One thing I do know is that this was no work of mere scribbling. The fact that it is so easy to find depth in her words speaks to more than just random thoughts splashed across a page. Another point to consider is that she altered the words of the final chorus so subtly, but in a way that carried so much meaning. That alone speaks volumes about the mind that conceived them.
So are there still naysayers who cringe at this song? Who can’t see its genius? Sure, plenty of them. But anyone who can’t see the utter craftsmanship of this song, or who say that it’s childish, don’t know what they’re talking about. But if they insist, I merely leave them with a simple challenge: write something comparable.
This article was first posted on VanderVault’s YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XydnaaaaSnE&lc=Ugw0BkbvzNDj1cUFalB4AaABAg