Commentary on Basia’s “Yearning”
[As written 32912-4112]
Let me first say that I was never that impressed with this song’s lyrics, perhaps partly because I listen to a cd that I digitized from an old, battered tape which recorded static, “tape” sounds, sudden muffled voices, and an occasional cell phone buzz from when my phone interfered with the computer recording somehow. All that, coupled with an ESL Polish singer singing in a British accent, gave me the innocent impression that she was singing along the lines of “home is where the heart is” (specifically I thought the lyrics said “home is in your heart”), aka an over-used expression from a Pole trying to be relevant to English listeners and get a pop hit by singing a common catchphrase (as is typical of western pop). That is until 3 years later when out of nowhere she suddenly sang the words “Star of Bethlehem,” and my ears immediately perked up as my mind was arrested for the remainder of the car ride, ironically with a sudden yearning to find out what she was singing about. I started listening with a different perspective now and a new song began materializing: a song that used words like “endless state of sadness” (very unlike Basia’s typical, uplifting, irresistibly peppy vibe), and later I thought I heard her even use the word “God”. Something deep, dark, dramatic and potentially of eternal significance was coming, surprisingly and out of nowhere, from a Basia album, and gave a new somber perspective to those random whale sounds that seemed to embody mankind’s grievous “yearning”. As soon as I got home I researched the song for hours (and on into the next 2 days, as it consumed my mind with this unshakable, unexplained yearning), and as the pieces began to assemble they formed a consistent, sophisticated philosophy that instantly elevated this song to a level above the pop world. I realized this quirky, sassy, pop-star, Polish chick might actually be getting into deeper waters, forbidden ground for mainstream pop singers– but maybe she wasn’t your typical mainstream pop singer after all. If this was Astrud Gilberto singing it would have been “Home is in your heart”, but this is Basia, a 40-year-old, university Physics graduate, who turned out to be singing “you’re homeless in your heart…”
The song begins by quoting (as mysterious quotation marks are actually used in the liner notes) an apparent natural remedy for emotional distresses with cryptic words, one of which is the “star of bethlehem” which is advised to heal “the state of endless sadness.” However, while this at first seemed to allude to Christianity curing man’s depravity, right after this quoted remedy she writes (and the liner notes indicate she alone is the lyricist) “but for a simple case of longing what are we to do when homeless in our hearts and souls?” As if the Star of Bethlehem (Christianity) in reality couldn’t ultimately cure the final yearning of our souls. This distressed me as it not only seemed to refute the implication of her singing to God, but in fact came off as anti-Christian. But something didn’t seem right about having a list of these natural herb remedies and then suddenly the spiritual cure of salvation right smack dab in the middle. That’s when I realized (and confirmed later) that “Star of Bethlehem” was in fact the name of a flower that grows in Europe, as were the others in the list, and this quote is taken from something referring to the mysterious Bach Flower Remedies.
So it turns out the “Star of Bethlehem” is irrelevant to the main message of the song and only sets up the premise, that is continued in the remaining verses, of man trying to fill his void with different worldly things, from flowers to lovers to places. She says mankind is constantly searching for the answer to the “yearning” of our “hearts and souls”, “but despite of all endeavours–nothing changed, as ever–we’re homeless in our hearts…”
Then this surprisingly sad, dark song (starkly contrasting the sound Basia is known for) suddenly reverses its emotion back to the Basia we know and love, finding hope as it changes to major chords, but this interestingly comes right after saying the world could offer no hope. Where then does this new-found hope come from if not from the world? She sings in the chorus that she finds her home, the end to her yearning, in “you.”
Who is this “you”? 90% of the time when a pop song sings to a “you” it’s implied to be intended for a lover, as is what I automatically assumed for this song, as with her others. However, she refutes this herself in the verse before the redeeming chorus when she’s still referencing the hopelessness of man’s quest for satisfaction:
“some of us take daring chances following our lovers– the passion we can trust…
others just cannot sit still– they’re driven by the power of mighty wanderlust…
…but despite of all endeavours–nothing changed, as ever–we’re homeless in our hearts…”
She says that while some try to fill this yearning with their “lovers”, “nothing changed”. The yearning still remains, we’re still “homeless in our hearts and souls”. As if her personal lover were really a possible solution to this yearning of mankind! She isn’t just talking about her personal longing, but this inherent longing in all humanity for something deeper. So naturally when the chorus sings of finding the solution, it isn’t just Basia singing by herself of a personal satisfaction, but rather a group of people all singing about this “home” that they’ve found in “you”. Who are “you” that can satisfy the yearning of us humans?
In fact this entire song is written from the perspective of “we” humans searching for the solution to our yearning. The lyrics to the chorus are the only part written from first person (“I’m yearning no more”), and yet the chorus is also the only part that has several people singing, which instantly turns that “I” into “we” anyways. In fact the only part that seems to be from a single, personal source is after the chorus when the mysterious male voice sings “Come to me”.
As this is a song about finding home, the only other likely option for this “you” is her actual, physical home of Poland, where “i belong, i gave up the world to be with you.” This is the conclusion that people deduced on an internet Basia forum (where the first theory of the song being another typical Basia love song, and no spiritual connotation, was also accepted there)*, as evidenced in the music video when she is singing the chorus at the end while wearing a traditional Polish outfit, implying that is where her home is (Poland), what her heart is yearning for. This could also be mentioned in the lyric “we’re trying so hard to make every place feel like home left behind”, but every place they go they’re “homeless in our hearts,” as if only until they return to their true, native, family home do they find home in their heart. Still it’s not typical that people refer to a place as “you”, or personify it with a male voice saying “come to me”. It’s much more realistic and typical for pop that she would be referring to a person– her lover (which was already dismissed). The lyrics themselves refute this concept saying that the pursuit of a place (including their “native” place), like the pursuit of lovers, only leaves your yearning intact, because your home can’t be found in a person or a place.
“you circle the globe, go native, go far…but it’s not a country or a town, not a house…
what’s the use of distant travel if only to discover–you’re homeless in your heart”
And so you’re left without a complete, satisfactory, natural conclusion (which leaves you yearning…). But there is a conclusion, and the key to decoding this puzzle, the crux of the whole song, is found in the line right before the chorus. This instantly changes the entire perspective of the song and sets the foundation for the chorus (indicating its addressee), with one seemingly nonchalant, even out-of-place, word:
“wherever we go, god, we’re trying so hard to make every place feel like home left behind, but despite of all endeavours–nothing changed, as ever–we’re homeless in our hearts…”
Instead of another typical song of longing for a lover, ignoring the realities of life and distracting you from them with some quirky “yeah yeah”s on a bossa nova beat to gloss over the pain, this song takes a deeper, darker turn, leaving the safe, comfortable formula for pop success and taking a chance in hopes of offering some actual truth to the listener. As if this singer, notorious for her ability to instantly cheer up the audience, genuinely cared for the audience and sought to go beyond simply cheering them up to actually helping them in real life. (As it seems from the look in her eyes as she sings this song in her music video– those eyes which genuinely go out of their way to reach out to you and say “It’s okay. There is hope. There is an answer. And I’m trying to make it as clear as possible within the confines of the mainstream pop market.”)
So she lays out on the table, for all to see, the truth that everybody already knows, but which the pop world is paid to pretend doesn’t exist: the truth about mankind’s spiritual depravity and his insatiable quest for satisfaction in a world that cannot satisfy, but only offers vanity of vanities. She notices that there’s a deeper kind of yearning, different than the physical kind of yearning that can be satisfied by mere physical remedies. To find satisfaction for this eternal kind of yearning she is forced to look beyond this temporal world to the supernatural, which she does when she introduces “god” into the song, at which point the song becomes hopeful and major.
Apparently I’m not alone in this interpretation though as one version of the lyrics I pulled up on the internet had “You” in the chorus capitalized, implying divinity. Of course, in the actual liner notes all the lyrics are conveniently lower case (including the beginning of sentences) almost as if to keep you wondering and to pass the secular inspection (as is the case of Thrice’s lyrics being all lowercase, “sneaking past the watchful dragon” as Dustin puts it).
Really the entire song hinges on the interpretation of that one word, “god”. If she’s addressing God with that word then it only makes sense that when she sings to “you” a few words later that she is singing to God. But if she’s using “god” as a typical vanity (as is more common in mainstream pop music), as in “oh my god”, then that “you” could be anything, and nothing makes sense. She could still be singing to God (who she just blasphemed by using his name in vain, in which case she doesn’t hold that high of a regard for him despite him soothing her eternal yearning), or to a lover or place in whom she knows won’t really satisfy her yearning (as she just mentioned) so she’s just teasing herself, ignoring her own advice. But a few tracks later on this same album (The Sweetest Illusion) there’s a song with similar lyrical allusions called “The Prayer of a Happy Housewife” in which she clearly is singing to God (though not mentioning the word “god” as she does in Yearning). Here she sings “my grateful thoughts I raise to heaven” and “thank you for this man who’s been always true”, clearly implying that she’s not singing to her lover, but rather to “heaven”. Does the same person who writes from a devout perspective in one song, treating God with reverence, then turn around so quickly and treat “god” as just a random word to be tossed around in vanity, simply filling the space of a needed syllable, that has nothing to do with the other lyrics? Not likely. She knew what she was doing and what this would imply, or else she would have chosen not to use this word. Especially for a foreigner in the early 90’s coming from a strong, religious culture (which she still embraces), with a reputation for being so positive, uplifting, modest, and family-friendly, it isn’t likely she would suddenly spurn the image she markets and the fan-base she’d grown, for no reason, with a possible, random blasphemy. As English is her 2nd language it’s not like she’s so casual with words and western culture to just spit up whatever random lyrics come out, and then take the time to have them typed exactly into the liner notes.
When she sings to this “you” in the chorus who soothes her yearning she is suddenly joined with a choir, and being as the only other time she sings with a choir is in “The Prayer of a Happy Housewife” (which has an obvious gospel sound to add to its clear, spiritual connotation), the reappearance of this apparent church choir carries over with it the same spiritual interpretation. This latter song lets us in to see that Basia actually has a deep, personal relationship with God that surpasses all others, as she sings “i am eternally thankful for what i have and if anything goes wrong then i still have you, i still have you.” So if she has a strong spiritual life like that, and a blatant spiritual message in one song, it isn’t hard to imagine her doing it again on the same album.
Furthermore, if you watch her music video for this song, there is little evidence for the song being addressed to a lover, as the only male-to-female interaction is ballet dancers shown in random parts of the song, keeping with “The Sweetest Illusion” artwork. But when it comes to the chorus where she’s actually singing to this “you,” you see people alone and surrounded by candles, in what seems to be clear religious imagery to give the song a spiritual connotation. You see what looks like a monk finding peace and smiling as he looks up to the heavens and clasps his hands in prayer. And later you see Basia herself surrounded by candles singing the chorus, with her nieces on either side of her bowing their heads with eyes closed apparently praying while she sings to “you”, as if she’s praying with them, but through singing. All the while they’re dressed in traditional Polish clothing, pointing to her Polish heritage and the Polish religion still strongly integrated in that heritage, which she still holds dear just as she does her country.
The chorus is then followed with a man singing “come to me, i’ll soothe your yearning…”, the only time I recall a man singing anywhere in the 2 Basia albums I have. Which most simply implies her lover responding to her chorus, and also seemingly denying that a place is what takes away her yearning. But then Basia sings along with him, as if he’s not actually responding to the song of a woman, but they’re both singing the lyrics together. It’s as if the response is masculine, yet feminine, as if not from a specific person but rather from something non-physical, like a concept, or a being, beckoning to the audience.
Finally, while “star of bethlehem” is clearly just another flower in the list of herbal remedies, I think it very possible that she chose that quote specifically because those words hinted and implied the coming connotation of the song, which puts that spiritual possibility into people’s minds right off the bat. I attest to this first hand that, while “star of bethlehem” clearly refers to a flower remedy (that doesn’t take away the spiritual yearning), it was those 3 words that forced me to stop suddenly and take notice of the lyrics I had casually listened to for 3 years, now looking for spiritual meaning. Also this “flower” is said to remedy an “endless state of sadness”– what does that even mean from a physical interpretation?
The simplest and most realistic conclusion of this song’s meaning is that the words, the sound, the style, and the visuals were chosen to give this song an evident spiritual connotation that implies praise to God who alone can put an end to humanity’s yearning.
This conclusion, then, leads to some startling additional conclusions. If she is singing to God then with lyrics like “I gave up the world to be with you, be with you, be with you” she sounds like she is passionately, almost romantically, in love with God, giving up all that the world has to offer for the joy of spending time with Him, feeling His presence (the only solution to her yearning), as if forsaking the sinful indulgences accompanied by the mainstream music scene because of her love for Him. But this shouldn’t be that surprising considering she was already using the same “you” in Prayer of a Happy Housewife as an obvious reference to God, as well as the same passion for God, which shows in singing how eternally grateful she is to Him and how she’d be content with Him if all the world is taken away (similar to “I gave up the world to be with you”). But while she quietly sings thanks to God in the latter song, in Yearning she is boldly singing about it at the top of her lungs, to God by name. Not only is she taking bold steps to loudly sing out to God, but in both of these songs she even comes off as evangelistic, actually encouraging the listener to come to God. In TPOAHH she sings to God about her audience, “if they only knew, oh if they knew…” and Yearning states “come to me, let me soothe your yearning…” And apparently in an interview she said this was her favorite song on the album, as well as the single released from it, and also the song she picked to open her show last year; which shows how special it is to her.
Reasons she would not be singing to God:
1. The use of the word “god” is only a casual use, like the common “oh my god”, (though uncharacteristic of Basia’s lyrics and spirit) and all the other evidence is merely coincidence (singing as with a church choir, the religious imagery in her video during the chorus, etc)
2. In which case she actually is singing to a lover (represented by the male voice) as typical of a pop song, and her other songs, (but going against her own advice in the verse that “following our lovers” only ends in being “homeless in our hearts”, and not giving a solution to humanity’s yearning, which the chorus and male voice claim to provide for all)
3. Or she’s singing to her homeland, Poland, who she gave up the whole world to be with (aka any other place in the world, which would be consistent with her ending the song with an old Polish folk song), but again contradicting the whole point of the song that home is “not a country or a town, not a house…” but home is in the heart
Evidence that she IS singing to God:
1. Use of the word “god” in a way that seems to be addressing Him, and not using it in vain.
2. Which is not far-fetched considering her song “Prayer of a Happy Housewife” which is only a few tracks later and blatantly sings to God, in a similar lyrical and sound style to this one
3. The lyrics’ own refutation that the song is not addressing a lover or a place (the only other likely options), nor anything else physical
4. When she sings the chorus to “you” she is suddenly joined by what sounds like a church choir, implying a spiritual connotation from the gospel sound
5. The music video which has religious/spiritual imagery during the choruses, and no implication of a lover
6. When the male voice sings, she sings along with it, as if it’s not an individual person responding to her chorus, but more of a concept that is responding. Basia in fact sings along with this “spirit” beckoning the listener to come to Him to find an end to his yearning
7. The beginning quote with the words “star of bethlehem” could have been chosen (while literally referring to an flower remedy) to get a spiritual/Christian connotation into the listener’s mind
8. Basia is referring to a problem humanity has, so also the solution to the problem is for all humanity (not just her personal solution in a lover); likewise when she sings of finding her solution in “you” it’s not just her, but a crowd of people singing to this “you”