The Police began in 1977 as a new wave rock band influenced by multiple musical styles. Not only were they influenced by other subgenres of rock and roll such as punk rock, but they also drew heavily from other genres of music such as jazz and reggae. While their lineup included drummer Stewart Copeland and lead guitarist Andy Summers, they are perhaps best known for launching the career of head songwriter and lead vocalist Gordon Sumner, more popularly known as Sting.
One of the principal aspects of the Police’s music was their intellectually deep lyricism. Their songs were catchy enough to become pop hits, but Sting’s lyrics were generally intelligent on a fairly subversive level. Some listeners could hear a song multiple times without ever catching certain hidden meanings and literary allusions that had been inserted into the lyrics.
For instance, the hit single “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” makes references to Lolita, while numerous songs on the album Synchronicity have been said to draw from Jungian theory. The song with possibly the most allusions out of any of them is “Wrapped Around Your Finger,” which references the mythological creatures Scylla and Charybdis from Homer’s Odyssey, as well as the Faustian character Mephistopheles.
There are other songs that have hidden meanings, and are often understand by even the most loving of fans. Many think that “Roxanne” is something of a broken-hearted love song, but the truth is that it simply describes a prostitute. In fact, any elements of love on the part of the song’s narrator could easily be ascribed to jealousy rather than sincere emotion. There is a similarly subversive meaning in “Every Breath You Take,” which sounds like a conventional love song but is in fact sung from the viewpoint of a possessive stalker who longs to feel closer to the object of his obsession.
Numerous other hit songs by the Police tend to approach emotional issues in highly unique ways. “Message in a Bottle” addresses the notion of loneliness and the fact that it is more common than we think by telling the story of a man stranded on an island who sends out a message in a bottle and finds other messages sent out by other castaways. “Walking on the Moon,” which Sting wrote while intoxicated, compares the notion of love to a lack of gravity. “King of Pain” was written after Sting separated from his wife, and uses various images to evoke the feeling of eternal loneliness and abandonment. “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic” is much like “Every Breath You Take” in the sense that it sounds at first like a basic love song, but it is actually about the fear of approaching the object of one’s affections. It is also notable as being somewhat divergent from the band’s usual style, much softer and catchier than much of their other music.
This is one of the ways in which the Police excelled the most. They were able to take lyrics that would make their fans think and put them to tunes that would attract even the most absent-minded of listeners. Sting took charge of the band’s melodies through his vocals, while also adding to the rhythmic content by playing bass. Andy Summers added to the mix with his guitar techniques, and Stewart Copeland managed to embody the band’s love for reggae in his drumming.
Few bands manage to pull off such an elegant mixture of musicianship and intellectualism, but for Sting and the Police it was practically natural. Those who are truly able to appreciate what they accomplished in terms of music and songwriting are likely to gain much more from listening to their music than someone who is simply attracted to the beat and the melody. And that is precisely what made them so popular—music that can be enjoyed on more than one level is music that can be enjoyed by just about anybody.
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