In the 1980s, songs came under scrutiny by the FBI and CIA for sharing hidden messages with the impressionable youth. Bands like Judas Priest came under fire from the Christian right of the USA for apparently slipping in subliminal satanic messages urging young fans to commit suicide in their dark songs.
Their frontman, Rob Halford, sensibly pointed out a rational argument. Essentially, his assertion was, ‘Why the hell would we want to kill off our fanbase?’ If anything, surely the subliminal messages would be urging fans to spread the word and buy more records? The argument proposed by the CIA would imply that Judas Priest were literally killing a cash cow and biting the hand that fed them.
Sometimes, however, the messages are not simply in the overstimulated minds of heretics, and they hide in plain sight. If Bob Dylan brought a new sense of irony to lyric writing, a lot of other acts took his double meanings and skewed them in weird new ways. And by weird ways, I mean that often the intent doesn’t shine through. Whether it is an irony that many of us have missed, or a dark backstory twisted by an otherwise pretty melody, many famous songs are hiding secrets.
This became an art in itself. Music was no longer just a pretty sound on a crackling radio, we could listen any time. Thus, a mystic sense of depth offered an allure. The Police seized upon this appeal of a hidden secret and squeezed it into their biggest hit. The message here is the very definition of hiding in plain sight.
If you imagine the following lyrics without the musical accompaniment read by Liam Neeson in some gruff and gritty thriller, then the true intention of the song is immediately apparent: “Every breath you take, and every move you make, every bond you break, every step you take, I’ll be watching you.”
Sting wrote the song in a paranoid state during a period when he suspected his wife might have been having an affair. Clear hints spring to the fore with lines like “Every smile you fake” but overall, the message seemed to be masked for some as they were blinded by the sanguine sound of chiming guitars.
This is a sign of how melody can twist our psychology. In truth, I could’ve plucked any single lyric from the song and you’d agree that it sounds creepy enough to call the real police over if the context of a love song is stripped away. In fact, Sting likened his state of paranoia to that of “Big Brother” in George Orwell’s 1984, and the notion of “surveillance and control”.
This missed meaning has given it a comical edge in retrospect. As Sting once recalled: “One couple told me ‘Oh we love that song; it was the main song played at our wedding!’ I thought, ‘Well, good luck’.” His own first marriage ended a year after the song was released. But now he lives happily ever after with Trudie Styler in a massive house with a massive drive, and the online surveillance is for safety.