Grace Vanderwaal’s new single “Clearly” dropped a day ago, March 30, 2018, to widespread acclaim from fans and music outlets. The song, produced by Ido Zmishlany, is a re-interpretation of Johnny Nash’s 1972 hit “I Can See Clearly”. The lyrics and musical composition of “Clearly” are the result of collaboration between six creators: Ido Zmishlany, Chloe Angelides, Neil Ormandy, Michael Waters, Grace VanderWaal, and Johnny Nash.
The core melodic refrain and central theme of the original song are left intact, with expanded lyrics added to enrich the tune with new affectations. The more casual, light-hearted aspects of the original tune have been replaced by deeper psychological themes and longer, more emphatic build-ups. Crescendos have been added to great effect, and a background chorus of rhapsodic voices attends the song’s most triumphant moments. A short list of thematic elements common to both the original song and the new, embellished version are these: first-person I, rain, pain, darkness, obstruction, and clearing.
The track’s melody kicks off with the sound of guitar strings plucked with a little squeak retained to let the listener know that a human is at work. Grace’s vocals drop in as she introduces the first verse with
“There’s a world outside my door
I don’t know it anymore
I’m gonna stay here now
I’m gonna stay here now”,
thus setting a scene in which we appear to have been confined to an enclosure for a sufficient length of time to have lost substantial contact with the world outside. Further constricting this enclosure, we next hear
“Close the curtains, cut the lights
Match darkness in my mind
It’s gonna take me down
It’s gonna take me down”,
which results in our recognition that complete insulation from the world will lead to complete implosion. Extreme isolation is a living tomb.
Towards correcting this situation, we next learn through reflection that past attempts (at life’s challenges) have failed, and that these failures repeat, which is intolerable and devastating:
“All the roads I’ve been before
Same mistakes always got me shakin’
And all the signs I once ignored
In my denial, I didn’t want to face them”
We have now uncovered a sense that self-deception has been an unforgiving ruler, and that issues have been ignored for too long. It is time to break out. A bold proclamation is in order, and this is given next by the main chorus, which represents the song’s repeating anthem. Grace’s vocals turn thunderous with:
“I can see clearly now
The rain has gone”
Rain plays a villainous role in this narrative, yet good can be found in it. The rain occludes vision, blocks the Sun, and often makes us feel unmotivated. Rain may also be construed as a path inhibitor, for it is difficult to navigate when you cannot see clearly due to the rain. Worse, when it rains, the droplets fall everywhere all at once, and there is often no cleared path to take or pursue. Once the rain is gone, all the trajectories of vision and locomotion are available to us, and we are free to explore the world once again without inhibition.
Here the rain has now gone, clearing the way for a powerful statement of self-recognition that follows next within the chorus. In her vocal interpretation for the next line, Grace places particularly strong emphasis:
“I accept all the things that I cannot change”
A crucial part of self-acceptance is the adoption of beliefs about the limits of self. These limits, for some at least, are felt as sorrowful truths, and often are the targets for self-absorption. Yet, no matter how weakly or deformed our visage may appear, our natural form must be accepted, as is, by each of us. You can change the color of your hair, for example, but you cannot control how densely your hair grows — it is a force outside your control — therefore, do not fret over thinning hair.
The inference is obvious in this single line of lyric: Do not waste time feeling perplexed about things that you cannot possibly change or control. Accept your limits and move towards fully living in the world. We give this advice to children, adolescents, and adults alike, but must often reiterate its importance again and again.
The rewards of self-acceptance now begin to reveal an enlightenment, as the main chorus continues on and predicts in
“Gone are the dark clouds
The dawn has come
And it’s gonna be a bright, bright sunshiny day”
There is nothing more refreshing than a soulful expression of perseverance attended by an expression of personal enlightenment. We can see this as a transformation, and this has happened before in the lyrics of Grace’s powerful “I Don’t Know My Name”, with the song terminating in an expression of personal change and growth. In “Clearly”, we have personal transformation occurring at multiple levels.
This pattern in the song now repeats again, with the second verse setting the scene, followed by a pre-chorus of self-reflection, and a repeat of the thunderous chorus. Within the second verse, however, new information is presented which represents a further grounding of the suggested transformation made in the first verse. This is supplied in the form of simple first steps and words of encouragement, as Grace continues on with:
“There’s a world outside my door
I forced my feet down to the floor
I’m gonna make it out
I’m gonna make it out”
Though our confinement persists, the world awaits, and in order to make it out into the world we must take steps with our feet. There must be a target for the feet, and that target is the floor. The floor is the trusted planar surface over which we may escape this confinement. But the floor does not move us; instead, we must traverse the floor by our own volition, and this process can only begin if we muster the strength to lift up our legs and put our feet down.
Continuing still in the second verse, our resolve is strengthened by a deep breath and a prayer:
“Take a breath and say a prayer
Find the strength in my despair
It’s not gonna take me down
It’s not gonna take me down”
Prayer is a great fortifier of personal strength for many, and its use is suggested here. By the end of this verse, we are resolved to not allow malaise to spoil pending rejuvenation. The song now returns to the pre-chorus, followed by the chorus once again, both belted out with force by Grace, and accompanied by a deeply resonant background choir of voices. We have at this point made it quite far as sojourners, and we now come to a bridge connecting the final chorus.
After two verses of “Clearly”, we are hopeful for change, but even more reflection is furnished to support our final transformation. This is given in the most wonderful bridge sung by Grace.
“All the pain in my sorrow
Won’t change today, only ruin tomorrow”
This statement (repeated twice) in the bridge is one of the song’s most powerful observations. This moment of self-examination might be paraphrased by “the fleeting comfort found in coveting our sorrow will only serve to make blind the attention needed for tomorrow.” The sentiment is relatable for many listeners, because we are all bothered by the trap of self-fixation. A philosopher of pain will admit that the pain in your toothache, which you may be willing to endure in order to avoid going to the dentist, may turn to temporary pleasure if the nerves are pressed upon deliberately and directly with a steady clinch. But this form of relief can only go on for so long. Eventually you have to get up, go out, and visit the ding-dang dentist. Having crossed the bridge, we are ready now to break out of our funk and step out into the light. The final chorus captures this and the song comes to an end with the familiar beacon of hope:
“It’s gonna be a bright, bright sunshiny day”.
After the rain clears, we often get a rainbow effect when the Sun re-appears, reminding us that the diversity in the spectrum of colors is a sign of hope for the future. Johnny Nash’s original lyrics make a reference to “Here is the rainbow I’ve been prayin’ for”, but “Clearly” does not use that directly. Instead, the rainbow concept has been projected onto the cover art which accompanies the single. The cover art features Grace’s visage directed upwards to the sky, with a semi-transparent rainbow forming a strip across her eyes, as if she were seeing the world through a rainbow mask. Also, the music video directed by Brian Petchers for “Clearly” makes consistent use of rainbow effects throughout the videography, in both indoor and outdoor settings. (The subtle irony of the rainbow is that you don’t get the rainbow without the rain, and yet you cannot clearly see the rainbow with the rain.)
The story told by the lyrics of “Clearly” can be seen as a direct assault on self-doubt, and can be used as a basis for jump-starting new coping strategies for living a productive life. This song is a reminder to work to overcome our inhibitions, and to aim for a state in which we are empowered to “see clearly”. We are fortunate to be able to hear Grace Vanderwaal singing this tune, for her range of emotional expression is so robust as to forge a modern-day anthem of optimism from a classic song of hope. Cheers to the healing power of music!
Further notes from Thomas Hall’s original article that had to be removed in order to comply with YouTube’s comment length restrictions…
For historic context: Johnny Nash released “I Can See Clearly Now” in November of 1972, and topped the chart at #1 for some weeks, and the hit ultimately finished #19 on the Billboard Top Singles Chart for the year, amidst formidable competition. The #1 single that year was the ballad “American Pie” by Don McLean. Other notable releases were: Elton John, “Rocket Man”, The Moody Blues, “Nights in White Satin”, Neil Young, “Heart of Gold”, Bill Withers, “Lean on Me”, Carly Simon, “You’re So Vain”, and the exquisite Roberta Flack with “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”. Much great music was released in 1972.
[ Editor’s Note 22.10.2018: updated the lyrics according to corrections since made on Grace’s website ]
This article was first posted on VanderVault’s YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XydnaaaaSnE&lc=Ugy49EFaVahEIuTVwL54AaABAg