“‘ Counting Stars’ tells us that dreaming big dreams and working toward them passionately and prayerfully is more important than monetary success.” That’s the bullet point I wrote much earlier this year when I reviewed OneRepublic’s album, Native. But there’s a bit more to say about it now that this track has been released as the third single …
The song is a straight-ahead, up-tempo affair musically, one that lives in the same rhythmic suburb as catchy pop-rock offerings from the likes of Train, Maroon 5, The Lumineers and Imagine Dragons. Its lyrics, however, are anything but straightforward—a study in opposites, contrasts and ambiguity.
Things get started in a pretty regular pop sort of way with singer Ryan Tedder telling his soul mate, “Lately I been losing sleep/Dreaming about the things that we could be.” Then we hear this: “But baby, I been, I been prayin’ hard/Said no more counting dollars/We’ll be counting stars/Yeah, we’ll be counting stars/I see this life/Like a swinging vine/Swing my heart across the line/In my face is flashing signs/Seek it out and ye shall find.”
That last line, of course, is an allusion to Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:7. And it’s not the only biblical reference here.
Tedder tells us he’s “old, but not that old” and “young, but I’m not that bold/And I don’t think the world is sold/I’m just doing what we’re told/I feel something so right/Doing the wrong thing/I feel something so wrong/Doing the right thing/I could lie, could lie, could lie/Everything that kills me makes me feel alive.”
So what’s going on here? Has our struggling dreamer tired of doing what he’s told en route to pursuing his dreams, and is now looking for a Breaking Bad-style end-around? Is he seeking and finding? Or is he seeking, not finding, then cheating?
“I feel the love/And I feel it burn,” we hear in the next verse. “Down this river every turn/Hope is a four-letter word/Make that money, watch it burn.” A bit further on, the money motif is repeated in a bridge that’s sung with a gospel-style choir backing things up: “Take that money/Watch it burn/Sink in the river/The lessons I learned.”
Well. There’s certainly some Ecclesiastes-style musings about futility going on here at the very least. But they seem couched in the context of the Apostle Paul’s Romans 7:15 struggle-with-the-flesh dilemma. So while one listener may hear Tedder telling him that doing the wrong thing is the only way to get the right feeling, another will decipher the warning lurking in the spiritual riddle of opposites that we’re all simultaneously cursed and blessed with.
The video furthers those contrasting spiritual insinuations, if not completely explaining them. The band plays in the basement of a rundown building while a small, charismatic revival service takes place in the room above. An increasingly intense, balding and middle-aged preacher is praying over folks who are at first having “slain in the spirit”-type physical responses to his ministrations. But we keep hearing those repeated phrases, “Make that money/Watch it burn” and “Take that money/Watch it burn,” and the whole thing starts feeling like a set-up for a spiritual shyster. (The nefariously wandering alligator doesn’t help.)
So why do the people suddenly begin dancing when the preacher touches them? The dancing looks like it’s a good thing, too, subliminally striking down the whole shyster thing.
As I said, opposites, contrasts and ambiguity. Those are things that can be tricky for fans who are just scratching the surface of this song, more interested in the catchy rhythms than the lyrical meanings. But they can also prompt deeper contemplations from those willing to dig … into both the spiritual and financial side of things.
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews as the site’s director. He and his wife, Jennifer, have three children. In their free time, the Holzes enjoy playing games, a variety of musical instruments, swimming and … watching movies.