This lesson is about “Counting Stars,” written by Ryan Tedder and performed by One Republic. We’re at the second blog in our Poetry Lessons series. Enjoy!
“Stars” symbolically means “goals that we hope to accomplish, goals we cannot reach.” To count stars is to look at the dreams we have and contrast it with the reality we face.
The full lyrics for “Counting Stars” can be found here. If you’re not familiar with the song, head off now to read the lyrics. (The music video, while “interesting”, defaults to the trite Hollywood criticism of religion. This song is not about religion—unless it is how we can become so devoted to dreams or materialism that we don’t focus on reality.)
The opening chorus presents that the young couple is just starting out. The persona is “dreaming about the things that we could be”. The goals that they have set are money-based; this is the reason he wants to abandon “counting dollars”. They need to re-cast their goals into something that is not dependent on money.
Verse I ~ Paradox Begins
Dreams are like a “swinging vine”, one of those that we jump on to send us into the river of life–life, not mere existence, freedom, not slavery to the dollar. The persona wants to jump on that vine, but “flashing signs” are warning him to stop, re-consider, change. The biblical allusion of “seek it out and ye shall find” serves as a prod to pursue the dream he wants.
As the verse continues, he reflects that he is “old but I’m not that old”. This contrast seems impossible, yet it presents the mistakes he’s made. He is experienced (old) but young in years; life has tossed him around, yet he’s still trying.
“Young but I’m not that bold”: his turbulent experiences that matured him at such a young age also have warned him not to continue ahead recklessly, an idea reinforces with the practical wisdom of others: “I’m just doing what we’re told”.
Should they follow that practical wisdom? Counting dollars has helped others get close to something that somewhat resembles their dreams. Should they continue? Or should they count the stars and cast off their original dream? The line “I don’t think the world is sold” appears to say “yes” to the second question. But “thinking” doesn’t mean reality; the world is corrupted by the pursuit of the almighty dollar.
Which leads us to the three paradoxes that make this song so clever:
I feel something so right by doing the wrong thing
I feel something so wrong by doing the right thing
… Everything that kills me makes me feel alive.
How can we feel such excitement when we do the wrong things while feeling “wrong” (saddened, depressed, caged) when we do the right things? That adrenaline rush we get when we break society’s rules makes us take risks to “be burned up with beauty”, as Don Marquis informed us in “The Lesson of the Moth” (previous blog). We want to feel alive, so we recklessly abandon good sense to pursue that beauty.
These paradoxes are his truth. He could lie to himself and to her, but he won’t.
Verse II ~ Paradox Everywhere
The paradoxes help us understand that the couple must abandon “counting dollars” and a practical existence in order to achieve their starry goals. And they have to pursue those goals actively.
Which leads us to “Hope is our four-letter word”. Four-letter words are curse words; to this couple, hope is a curse. If they merely “hope” instead of taking action, if they merely dream instead of believe, if they merely dream instead of taking action, their dreams will gradually fade in their pursuit of the dollars that they mistakenly think will lead them to their goals.
And that leads us to the new paradox: “Everything that drowns me makes me wanna fly.”
The daily pursuit of dollars drowns us, drowns our dreams, drowns our souls. He recognizes the crisis they are in, and he realizes they must flee from any practical goal that society approves.
The repetitive lines of the bridge serve as the final reinforcement to abandon society’s perspective:
Take that money watch it burn / Sing in the river the lessons I learned.
The Truth of the Paradox
Pursue a life of personal goals, not society’s goals. Give up the drowning focus of practical living.
This isn’t logical, but . . . where is logic in the pursuit of dreams and love? Jump into the river. Pursue life. Stop hoping and do.
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