Songs With Metaphors

There are lots of songs with metaphors out there. Actually, once you start thinking about, it's hard to think of songs that don't use a metaphor or two. What is a metaphor? Forget any stale high-school English definition. A metaphor is simply a comparison of two things that doesn't use the words "like" or "as." When Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney sing "Ebony and ivory live together in perfect harmony / Side by side on the piano keyboard, oh Lord, why don't we," they're using the black and white keys on a piano as a metaphor for how black and white people should live together. As with all metaphors, we're meant to compare the two pieces to each other. Like the keys on a piano, we should live "side by side" and "in perfect harmony."

Metaphors make songs more meaningful, memorable, and powerful. Here's an eclectic list of ten songs with interesting metaphors:

  1. "Ain't No Sunshine When She's Gone." by Bill Withers. The metaphor of "sunshine" in this song refers to the man's happiness, which he doesn't have when the woman he loves isn't with him. 
  2. "London's Burning," by The Clash. What's "burning" in this song isn't fire. It's the lights of televisions, headlights, and traffic lights, which make the people of London "burn" with boredom in this powerful and rebellious song.
  3. "Paper Gangsta," by Lady Gaga. Say what you will about Lady Gaga, but her songs have some really interesting metaphors. Take "paper gangsta:" what we've got here is a smart metaphor that contrasts the flimsiness of paper with the "hardness" of "gangsta," twisting around our expectations of what a "gangsta" is supposed to be. And it's also true – who doesn't know someone who acts tough on paper (or online) but is actually a "faker?"
  4. "Hostile Gospel, Part 1," by Talib Kweli. If you don't know this song (or, God forbid, if you don't know Talib Kweli) go look it up. Now. I'll wait. Alright, did you catch that hook? When Kweli raps, "I call these rappers baby seals because they club you to death," he's using a clever metaphor to bash "club" rappers whose popular lyrics have no substance or meaning.
  5. "Ring of Fire," by Johnny Cash. When you think of love metaphors, what comes to mind? Roses? Not for Cash. Instead, the "ring of fire" metaphor makes us think about the pleasure and pain of love.
  6. "Everyday is a Winding Road," by Sheryl Crow. The central metaphor in this upbeat song reminds us that life never takes a straight path from point to point. Expect a to find a few curves in the road, and you'll handle life's challenges easily.
  7. "Ms. Jackson," by OutKast. The bridge in this song contains a metaphor that sums up a lot of the themes of relationships and break ups that run through the lyrics: "You can plan a pretty picnic / but you can't predict the weather." Despite all of our plans, some things are beyond our control. 
  8. "The Wall," by Pink Floyd. Okay, this one is cheating a bit because "The Wall" is a whole album rather than a single song. Part of the genius of this album, though, is the recurring metaphor of "the wall," or being "just another brick in the wall." What is the wall a metaphor for? All sorts of things… mind-numbing public education, the government, repressive society, bureaucratic institutions, you name it.
  9. "Queen Bee," by Taj Mahal. The metaphor in the line "Honey in the honey pot, and your pot is hot" is about… well, let's just say he's addressing a lady friend and he's not talking about a jar of sweetener.
  10. "A Hard Rain's a Gonna Fall," by Bob Dylan. The lyrics to this song describe the hardship of poverty, and the phrase "a hard rain" that gets repeated in the chorus and at the end of every verse becomes a memorable metaphor for these hardships.
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