"The Crow & the Butterfly"
If you live and love long enough, you're going to have to reckon with another l-word: loss. That's the subject of Shinedown's latest hit "The Crow & the Butterfly," the fifth single from this Florida post-grunge band's platinum-selling 2008 album The Sound of Madness.
Listening to the first two verses, the loss in question here seems to be that of a parent coming to grips with the hole left by a departing child: "I painted your room at midnight," the song's grieving narrator begins. "I put all your books on the top shelf/Even the one with the four-leaf clover/Man, I'm getting older."
It's unclear whether the child has simply grown up and moved out or perhaps passed away. Either way, the loss is asphyxiating: "I haven't slept in what seems like a century/And now I can barely breathe."
The chorus, however, absolutely scrambles that straightforward interpretation—at least as far as the parent/child relationship is concerned. In its place, we're left with what appears to be a lover pining for his beloved … with whom he smoked dope: "Just like the crow chasing the butterfly/Dandelions lost in the summer sky/'Cause when you and I were gettin' high as outer space/I never thought you would slip away/I guess I was just a little too late."
So what's going on here? Is this a tale of a grieving parent? Or a mourning lover? Both? Neither?
In true postmodern style, the band isn't interested in proffering the "right" answer to those questions. And Shinedown's lead singer Brent Smith seems more than comfortable with a multiplicity of possible interpretations. "For me, lyrically, this was one of the most intense stories I have ever written," Smith says on the band's website. "But I know the song means something different to everyone. … We want to know what this song means to you."
And so the site is hosting an impromptu contest of sorts to plumb the depths of personal interpretations: Smith says that one lucky person's take on the song might even influence the upcoming video. I read through a smattering of the 100-plus comments fans posted in response. And their surprisingly varied viewpoints offered a fascinating window into how people process music, both intellectually and emotionally:
DONNO offered something of a psychological analysis and suggests that the loss in question is a drug overdose: "It … sounds like their relationship was based on codependency," he wrote. "The split emotions of his loss and feeling responsible for the accidental overdose of his love has pushed him into deep self-loathing."
LKH shared memories of losing a 15-year-old daughter, writing, "In the months that followed, I used to wake up and run to her room, thinking it was only a dream. … Eventually, I had to paint her room … as a visual reminder that she was truly gone."
TAH wrote, "The song makes me daydream of a young crazy in love couple that practically grew up together. Who loved to get high, and never thought they would die from using drugs; hence the CROW = death and the Butterfly = their belief that they would never die." MSKITTY62864 said, "Thirteen months ago, I ended a 16-month-long mentally and emotionally abusive relationship. The Butterfly is my former self (funny, caring, and innocent) while the Crow is representative of my personality after having been through hell."
Those responses illustrate more than just how differently we can all process the same set of chords and choruses—they show how deeply and personally fans identify with their favorite songs and musicians. And that's a poignant reminder of why it's important to grapple with the meaning of popular songs, even if the track's lyrics aren't crystal clear.