How the most played song in radio history was misinterpreted by the public.
Released on May 20, 1983, a month before the album Synchronicity, 'Every Breath You Take' became The Police’s signature song, topping US best-selling singles chart for 8 weeks and UK's best-selling singles for 4 weeks, nominated for three Grammy Awards and winning Song of the Year and Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals, it became the best-selling single of the year and the fifth best-selling single of the decade.
Unlike some songs that hit the charts then fall into oblivion, the song has endured permanent success, “Every Breath You Take” alone still generates an average of $ 2,000 a day in royalties. In 2019 BMI recognized “Every Breath You Take” as the most played song on the radio, surpassing 15 million plays, that equivalent of being played once per minute, every minute since its release!
But the song, seen by the majority of the public as romantic, hides in its brilliant arrangement, the dark tones of its lyrics.
Sting wrote the song in 1982, shortly after the divorce from his first wife and at the beginning of his relationship with the current one. This period was troubled for the composer, given the public condemnation of the relationship.
Sting stated, in a BBC Radio 2 interview, "I think the song is very, very sinister and ugly and people have actually misinterpreted it as being a gentle little love song, when it's quite the opposite". The musician would later be disconcerted by the number of people who think the music is more positive and light than it really is. He insists that the theme of the song is the obsession with a lost love and the jealousy and vigilance that follows (Every breath you take, every move you make, every link you break, every step you take ... I'll be watching you). The original lyrics of the song, available only in the recording multitrack as a guiding voice for the final vocal, are even more sinister (watch Rick Beato's analysis of the song).
The music video, directed by Godley & Creme and inspired by the short film “Jammin 'the Blues” by Gjon Mili's, is a work of art on its own, having been recognized by MTV, Rolling Stones and VH1 as one of the best videos of all time. The black and white photography, the expressions of melancholy by Copeland and Summers, and Sting’s angry look reinforce the dark mood of the music.
But if all these characteristics hint at the real meaning of Every Breath You Take, how did it become, under public opinion, a “soft love song”?
On one hand, small details of the arrangement create an involving and intimate feeling: Opposite to a dry and high drum snare, the bass drum is light and marks the song with almost a heartbeat rhythm. Sting sings in a soft, affectionate and romantic tone, which togheter with Andy Summers' incredible fragile, rhythmic and spaced guitar melody, gives us a soothing, warm, loving. It is true that the vocals do change when we arrive at the second bridge (“since you left...”), rising in tone and showing a feeling of almost despair, usually associated with broken hearts, but as the bridge finishes, the calm, soft and caring tone is back, everything is normal again.
On the other hand, maybe the public's view is not a misinterpretation of the song's meaning, but rather a demonstration of our culture's misinterpretation of love: a general view that love is accompanied by suffering, that is possessive, etc., after all, as Sting himself stated, neither he had "realized at the time how sinister the song was".
The music video, directed by Godley & Creme, is regarded as one of the best of all times.
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