The first time I heard Lady Gaga was on the way to my high school prom. Inevitably, I found myself checking out The Fame from the library and dancing to “Poker Face” for the week after. At the time, I never would have expected a song like “‘Til It Happens to You” from Lady Gaga, but I am glad that she is using her position to try to change the world for the better.
However, I really think that “‘Til It Happens to You” falls short lyrically. I don’t mind at all that the song is vague about what “it” is – “it” could be any kind of traumatic experience whatsoever. I also don’t have a problem with the message that it is insensitive and disrespectful to tell people how to cope and/or grieve. My problem with the song is that it doesn’t encourage people to move forward.
Before writing this post, I watched the music video and her performance of the song at the Oscars, and I applaud both of those things. At the end of the music video, we see the victims transform into survivors. They open up to their loved ones and move forward with their support.
Similarly, at the end of Lady Gaga’s performance at the Oscars, there were survivors there, coming together in solidarity and showing that they were not defeated by what happened to them.
Without these outside influences though, the song can really leave the listener in a bad mental place. Consider the opening lines:
You tell me it gets better, it gets better in time
You say I’ll pull myself together, pull it together
You’ll be fine
Tell me what the hell do you know
On the one hand, yes, telling someone that time heals all wounds is generally unhelpful. What makes time the healer of wounds is that over time, you have to do hard work to get over something. You develop coping mechanisms. You realize your life didn’t end when whatever happened took place. You become stronger because over time you slowly realize you have learned how to deal with it.
The speaker, understandably, throws the empty advice back in its giver’s face. However, instead of simply making the point that it’s not that simple and words don’t mean anything, the song also says, “You don’t know that I’m going to be fine.” It gives the speaker permission to feel isolated, to feel that no one can help them, and, essentially, to wallow in their pain. While the music video and the performance show people coming together, the song alone doesn’t create a sense of community between people going through any particular issue.
The song further reinforces the idea that it’s impossible to move on:
You tell me hold your head up
Hold your head up and be strong
‘Cause when you fall, you gotta get up
You gotta get up and move on
Tell me, how the hell could you talk
How could you talk?
‘Cause until you walk where I walk
It’s just all talk
Again, this section goes beyond making the point that moving on is easier said than done. Trauma can impact a person for the rest of their life and it is insensitive and cruel to tell someone how quickly they should recover or what their recovery should look like. Again, though, the speaker is essentially saying, “I don’t have to ‘move on.'” No one can force you to heal, naturally, but this also introduces the idea that it’s okay to give up. Additionally, if someone truly cares and does their best to give you advice, even if the advice is bad, they are still trying to be there for you. And, honestly, while the advice the speaker receives is a bit oversimplified, it isn’t bad advice. Instead of arguing and being defiant and justifying why s/he hasn’t moved on yet, the speaker could very easily respond by saying, “I’m trying.”
Let’s examine the lyrics from a different perspective. In the former reading, the “you” in the song is assumed to be one person. Instead of a close friend/family member/other loved one trying to encourage you by saying these things, let’s imagine that the “you” refers to society in general. I think this is more so how the song was meant to be interpreted given the current political climate, especially following the revelation of the “grab ’em by the pussy” comments made by President Trump. (Another inciting incident could have been Rep. Todd Akin’s remark that “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down” to avoid pregnancy.)
Side note: While I do think this is the true intent behind the song, I didn’t discuss this reading first because the first time I heard the song, that is not how I took it – probably because I simply listened to the song without the video or performance. Additionally, without the context of either of those two items, the song isn’t necessarily about rape or sexual assault. At any rate, I loved the song and was floored by it and had listened to it 19 times before I realized I was in a really bad head-space.
Some of the lyrics make more sense if we assume that the “you” in the song refers to societal pressures to move on, or even to specific politicians. “’til it happens to you, you won’t know, it won’t be real,” in particular is much more poignant. For sexual assault survivors and anyone who suffers from an invisible disability, the song serves as a defiant proclamation that yes, these problems are real and they will not be swept under the rug or minimized because they make other people uncomfortable.
In the end, though, the song has the same issues no matter who you assume to be the “you.” For instance, let’s assume the speaker is clinically depressed and is making the argument that depression can be managed but is a lifelong condition that cannot be cured. Society arguing that “you’ll be fine” or “you’ve got to get up and move on” is somewhat minimizing the issue, but the speaker is still being a bit defeatist by responding by saying, “what the hell do you know?”
While it is not the job of any person suffering from a mental illness or getting over a traumatic event to defend themselves to the world, the song could have avoided sending the (most likely) unintended message that it’s impossible to cope with whatever the speaker is going through by including more specific details. I understand that this is very difficult to do in a pop song. It is also true that the ambiguity of the song makes the speaker easier to relate with. However, simply pointing out that someone doesn’t get what you’re going through doesn’t help that person understand. Asking “what the hell do you know” doesn’t necessarily make the listener want to understand either.
Ultimately, my main criticism with the song is that it doesn’t align more with the music video or Lady Gaga’s performance of the song. While the music video and performance were obviously meant to create a dialogue about sexual assault, the lyrics don’t open up the conversation. They close the door on the listener who fails to understand. What the hell does the listener know? Nothing more than they did before they listened.