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Title: ‘Live to Tell’
Where to find it: ‘True Blue’ (1986, Sire)
Performed by: Madonna
Words by: Madonna and Patrick Leonard

Sometimes, because life is moving so fast, you don’t realise how much you’re evolving as a person. And becoming a better you. In the first 3 months of 2014, things happened in my personal life that I knew would change the way I would live my life. While still mired in the situation I found myself, I thought it would take a long time to regroup from the setbacks that had sent me reeling. I was upset, I was sad, I was heartbroken.

However, as I like to believe about all things in life, things happen for a reason, and people come into your life when you need them. Thanks to the support of longtime friends and some new ones who came into my life unexpectedly and I know will become longtime friends too, I got past all of those things. I can’t remember the last time in my life I felt such lightness. More importantly, I feel better and I know I’m not going to accept bad situations like that one anymore.

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been spending a lot of time with myself, thinking about things (and not writing analyses here, so that is why there hasn’t been an analysis in MiN since the end of July, sorry!). In that time, I’ve been doing a lot of soul searching. So it seems rather appropriate to do an analysis of the Madonna song ‘Live to Tell’.

I had been wanting to write about this song for a long time. In my research of the song prior to doing this analysis, it sounds like there are a lot of damaged people (physically, psychologically, or both) who relate to its words. But as one of my favourite quotes goes, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle you know nothing about.” I think the genius of the lyrics of ‘Live to Tell’ – and this is true of a great many songs that resonate well with music fans – is that they are ambiguous enough so they can be applied to a whole host of different life situations, but clearly there is an underlying theme of something deeply emotional that has happened to the song’s protagonist, but because it’s never spelled out in black and white, we have to use our own imaginations to guess what it might be.

First, the words:

Verse 1
I have a tale to tell
Sometimes it gets so hard to hide it well
I was not ready for the fall
Too blind to see the writing on the wall

Chorus 1
A man can tell a thousand lies
I’ve learned my lesson well
Hope I live to tell
The secret I have learned, ’til then
It will burn inside of me

Verse 2
I know where beauty lives
I’ve seen it once, I know the warm she gives
The light that you could never see
It shines inside, you can’t take that from me

Chorus 1
A man can tell a thousand lies
I’ve learned my lesson well
Hope I live to tell
The secret I have learned, ’til then
It will burn inside of me

Chorus 2
The truth is never far behind
You kept it hidden well
If I live to tell
The secret I knew then
Will I ever have the chance again?

Bridge
If I ran away, I’d never have the strength
To go very far
How would they hear the beating of my heart
Will it grow cold
The secret that I hide, will I grow old?
How will they hear
When will they learn
How will they know

Chorus 1
A man can tell a thousand lies
I’ve learned my lesson well
Hope I live to tell
The secret I have learned, ’til then
It will burn inside of me

Chorus 2
The truth is never far behind
You kept it hidden well
If I live to tell
The secret I knew then
Will I ever have the chance again

Now, the analysis:

The first thing I want to do is confront the two possibly warring elephants in the room, or at least the way I see this song. The first one is relationships, which is an all too popular topic for pop songs. That’s fine and dandy but as we all know, some of those songs are pretty trite and silly. I’d say 90% of the time when I’m listening to music, I’m in the mood for some real emotional content. ‘Live to Tell’ could be about a relationship, but if it is, it’s certainly more than a relationship-type song. The second elephant, which seems to crop up every single time this song gets talked about despite Madonna’s own explanation of what the song is about, is childhood sexual abuse. There seem to be an awful lot of people out there who think this is what the song is about, but I’m on the fence about this. The song could be much more complicated. Or maybe it’s not complicated at all.

Regardless of how you want to interpret ‘Live to Tell’ or what you feel the main theme of the song is, there are a couple of pillars to it that are glaringly obvious. For the purpose of this review, I’m going to tackle the verses first, then come back to the choruses. In verse 1, the female protagonist is describing something that has happened in the past that she must keep as a secret, but for whatever reason, it’s a secret that she finds difficult to disguise years later (“I have a tale to tell / sometimes it gets so hard to hide it well“). In hindsight, she admits she was “not ready for the fall,” which I’m guessing means she was emotionally unprepared and therefore unable “to see the writing on the wall.

In verse 2, I want to reference Madonna’s own childhood. She had a Catholic upbringing, something she says she had trouble accepting as a child. It must have been difficult given such a loaded first name. Her mother died when she was young; the death of a parent is universally accepted by psychiatrists and psychologists as a major life stressor, which often leads to depression. In one of my favourite books, Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood, the female protagonist Elaine is brought up atheist but oddly, she finds comfort in the idea of the Catholics’ beloved Virgin Mary. She even has visions of her and her beneficence while unconscious because she isn’t receiving the love she so dearly wants from her own mother.

When I read verse 2, I get the same kind of feeling that Madonna might have felt similarly, having lost her mother at such an early age, recognising what she’s lost, the “beauty” of the woman who gave her life. I might be completely off base, but every time I see “the light” show up in a song, my knee-jerk reaction is to assume there’s a religious reason why the imagery is being used, though usually it comes up as a metaphor for death and heaven, which is not the case in ‘Live to Tell’. More likely, I think the light reference is referring to the memory of her mother that will always live on as a part of her.

I know where beauty lives
I’ve seen it once, I know the warm she gives
The light that you could never see
It shines inside, you can’t take that from me

There are two different bridges, touching on the opposites of truth and lies. In chorus 1, the message seems to be “fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me” (“a man can tell a thousand lies / I’ve learned my lesson well“), but I’m a survivor (“hope I live to tell / the secret I have learned“) and until the day I can reveal my secret, “it will burn inside of me.” In chorus 2, she’s telling the liar he/she is sunk because she knows the truth (“the truth is never far behind / you kept it hidden well“). But she brings it back to herself again, wondering, “if I live to tell / the secret I knew then / will I ever have the chance again?” The onus is back on her to tell the deep, dark secret. It seems she can’t decide if she should out the liar and tell the truth to expose him/her. She is uncomfortable with the prospect of saying anything now, but in the meantime, it will hurt and burn within her if she says nothing, waiting for a more opportune moment.

While I can see here in the bridge where the childhood sexual abuse theorists got their ammunition (and indeed, Madonna herself admits that an incident in her early years of living in New York in which she was raped affected her), the truth of the matter is, we all have secrets we hide from other people. We will try and pretend these secrets don’t exist, because confronting them is too hard. Of course, the way you view lyrics to any song is going to be affected by your own personal experience. I can only speak for myself but recalling what I said earlier about relationships being one of the two elephants in the room for this song, that explanation resonates stronger for me than the sexual abuse theory for ‘Live to Tell’.

When we are in relationships, whether they are familial or romantic, there are always things that we keep hidden about our loved ones (or former loved ones, in the case of exes). And I guess the main point I’m trying to get across in this analysis is while we can keep these things under wraps, the why differs from secret to secret, and sometimes the reasons aren’t shameful in nature at all. They just ‘are’, and only the keeper of the secret can decide if it’s appropriate to tell the secret or not, and the gravity of the meaning of that secret could very well be different for the different people involved. Consider that the person who is dumped in a relationship will probably have a far stronger emotional attachment to any special revelations the person who broke off the relationship made while they were together than that person him/herself.

For me, the bridge is the most emotionally charged part of the song, particularly with how the vocal melody allows Madonna a wide breadth of notes. This is a song I particularly like singing along to, as I consider it a great vocal exercise in the alto range. Going back to the meaning, if Madonna is to be believed, the song is actually about childhood scars and the lying and fights she had with her parents as a child. In this context, “if I ran away, I’d never have the strength / to go very far” makes total sense: what child is prepared to leave behind all she knows to run away from her parents? (Madonna did eventually run away, dropping out of school and moving to New York City. If she hadn’t had that strength to leave, we’d never have the Madonna of the last 3 and half decades.)

How would they hear the beating of my heart” adds more to the theory that it’s about a child who’s running away from emotional, not physical abuse, and “will it grow cold / the secret that I hide, will I grow old?” seems to indicate that she’s questioning if she’s still holding on this secret under figurative lock and key, does that mean she can’t get past these childhood incidents and mature? An interesting twist, sung beautifully.

Lastly, the song, in promo form from the ’80s. Is that woman who looks like a glamorous leading lady from a bygone era really the same woman who was sharing a lesbian kiss with Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera on the 2003 VMAs? Having grown up with Madonna’s music, it’s hard for me to fathom that she’s reinvented herself so many times and that the woman we see now is the same person that brought us ‘Borderline’, which I used to sing into a hairbrush. There’s also a big-haired Christopher Walken and a then young, attractive and beau to Madonna Sean Penn, as the video served as an advertisement for the two actors’ film At Close Range, filmed by the film’s director James Foley.

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