What’s In A Name?

An article from the Desert Sun reports that Tom Petty bashed his album Echo, one of my favorites of his, with the following comment,

He’s less enamored with 1999’s “Echo,” which opens with the grim “Room at the Top,” “one of the most depressing songs in rock history,” Petty says, grinning. “If anything will make you want to kill yourself …” He trails off, then adds glumly, “I was in a rough place when I did that record.”

Now, in talking with other Tom Petty fans, I have learned that I’m not alone in being puzzled that Tom would describe the song “Room At The Top” as one of the most depressing songs in rock history because it can easily be interpreted as a rousing song of affirmation in the face of adversity that takes stock of what is good at a time that is otherwise bleak. And even if one does not see it that way, Tom flatters himself with his hyperbole in calling his song one of the most depressing songs in rock history. He wishes! I don’t think he has any song that really vies anywhere near that distinction. He is irrepressibly hopeful even in his darkest songs, even against his own intention or awareness. Room At The Top couldn’t be interpreted as a song of affirmation like it is if it was really so depressing.

But more important than Tom’s ability to assess the degree of depressiveness of his song is the question of what difference a different title might make. Before I advance my theory of why Tom sees as so depressing a song that others find so affirmative, you must hear the song or know its lyrics, so either watch the video or read the lyrics below before reading my theory as to what makes the difference between the song being affirmative or bleak.

YouTube Preview Image

Room At The Top (by Tom Petty)
I got a room at the top of the world tonight
I can see everything tonight
I got a room where everyone
Can have a drink and forget those things
That went wrong in their life

I got a room at the top of the world tonight
I got a room at the top of the world tonight
I got a room at the top of the world tonight
And I ain’t comin’ down, I ain’t comin’ down

I got someone who loves me tonight
I got over a thousand dollars in the bank
And I’m all right
Look deep in the eyes of love
Look deep in the eyes of love
And find out what you were looking for

I got a room at the top of the world tonight
I got a room at the top of the world tonight
I got a room at the top of the world tonight
And I ain’t comin’ down,
no I ain’t comin’ down

I wish I could feel you tonight,
little one You’re so far away
I wanna reach out and touch your heart
Yeah like they do in those things on TV,
I love you Please love me, I’m not so bad
And I love you so

I got a room at the top of the world tonight
I got a room at the top of the world tonight
I got a room at the top of the world tonight
And I ain’t comin’ down,
no I ain’t comin’ down I ain’t comin’ down

Now, Tom introduces the song during his 1999 VH1 Storytellers episode around the time of its release as a song about “Escapism.” He also introduces the song only after a very humorous bit where he, tongue in cheek, marvels at the apparently unanimous popularity of Titanic and explains that since Titanic was so popular he figured he would write a song about it. He then sings a goofy, funny song that ends with the punchline that Celine Dion should have been on the Titanic. And it’s at this point that he introduces the song whose lyrics I just reproduced as “Room At The Top” (pause) “of the Titanic.” The audience laughs and then he claims in a tone that is hard to decipher, that the song was originally called “Room At The Top of the Titanic” but that he decided to shorten the title to “Room At The Top.” It’s hard to tell if he was serious about the original title of the song or whether he was just keeping his jokes about the Titanic running. If he’s not joking, then the title, combined with his description of the song as being about “escapism” makes an enormous difference to the meaning of the song.

If you reread the song with the Titanic title, this is a song not about “polishing the brass on the Titanic” but rather throwing a party on it. Not trying to get things in order on an already sinking ship but a different kind of denial—throwing a party. All the affirmation of the song becomes not the escapism of some one retreating from his troubles to affirm his life via a party with friends, but rather it becomes a song about the escapism of throwing a party on the eve of disaster, wherein all your affirmation is really a vain attempt to spin an irredemiably disastrous situation as one that’s going to be okay after all. And as the mockery of affirmation, this becomes, while still not the most depressing song in rock history, a distinctly cynical one, comparable to the harsh juxtaposition of bitter, disillusioned verse lyrics and rousing patriotic chorus lyrics in Springsteen’s “Born In The USA.”

But the question is: can a song’s title, especially one that is not explicitly mentioned in the song itself (and in this case is not even retained in tact) actually play such a pivotal role in its interpretation? This is an interesting question. In written media and in films, we (or at least I) regularly allow the title, while often not a material aspect of the work, to be an integral hermeneutical guide to understanding the work itself. Yet, with a song, it feels so counterintuitive to allow the title to affect the meaning as we very often hear and learn songs without ever seeing their titles and a great majority of the time the title is simply a key line, usually straight from the chorus. It’s a fascinating question to me what would happen if a musician consciously titled his or her songs in a way that drastically altered the meanings of the songs when heard in ignorance of the title. Maybe to call some completely earnest sounding love song about eternal commitment, “The Lie I Tell My Wife” or some earnest sounding song about the pain of heartbreak, “What I Bet You’d Like To Imagine I’m Feeling Right Now” where such songs give no indication of irony in their lyrics or musical arrangement. I’m far from a music expert but I doubt it’s ever been done in music history, or at least in the history of rock and roll. And maybe in that way Tom came really, really close to making a landmark rock and roll song after all—before he changed its name.

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.