RetroPop: Ellie Goulding's "Lights" and Emily Dickinson's Dark

Ellie Goulding promo shot combined with black and white Emily Dickinson portrait and Ella Fitzgerald photo mid-song

For today's installment of RetroPop, the groove-friendly series in which I invite you to join in on my mashing of lady-driven Top 40 pop songs with great female works of art from the past, I suggest you flip the switch: Turn out those desk lights, turn off your overhead chandeliers, snuff your candles, and for goodness' sake unplug the lava lamp. Because today we're going deep into the dark with sisters in song, Ellie Goulding, Ella Fitzgerald, and Emily Dickinson.

Let's meet the artistic bits we'll be comparing. Most recent in the entertainment timeline is British singer and songwriter Ellie Goulding's current hit, "Lights," lyrics here and video below:

A few notches earlier on the yardstick of female artsy history, we have Ella Fitzgerald's 1945 duet performance of the Duke Ellington tune, "I'm Beginning To See The Light," lyrics here and video here (She sings the second round):

Finally, without a video (sadly, I guess she ran out of batteries in her camcorder), we have 19th Century American poet Emily Dickinson's piece, "I See Thee Better – In The Dark":

I see thee better -- in the Dark --
I do not need a Light --
The Love of Thee -- a Prism be --
Excelling Violet --

I see thee better for the Years
That hunch themselves between --
The Miner's Lamp -- sufficient be --
To nullify the Mine --

And in the Grave -- I see Thee best --
Its little Panels be
Aglow -- All ruddy -- with the Light
I held so high, for Thee --

What need of Day --
To Those whose Dark -- hath so -- surpassing Sun --
It deem it be -- Continually --
At the Meridian?

I came across Ellie Goulding about a year ago. I forget how, but it was one of those happy accidents facilitated by YouTube's suggested videos, and I was like, "Heart! This girl is going places." Then I didn't hear anything from her for a while, though I continued to memorize pretty much every tune on her record. When I returned from my most recent worldly travels, I flipped on the radio, heard her song, "Lights," laughed and felt VERY self-satisfied indeed. I think she's a cool songwriter, has some really interesting layers of production, and seems to be a generally nice person so I wish her all the best that pop music success has to offer.

Once she'd made the Top 40 list, it was pretty great to know that I had Ellie to look forward to as I prepared posts for this blog series. And then I opened the lyrics page for this song and made the real-life equivalent of that squiggly face emoticon.

The words are gorgeous but definitely, um, abstract, in a way many of her other tunes I've come to love aren't.

But never fear! I stared at them a long time. I did a few Googles. And I discovered that somewhere in there, between the lines, "Lights" is about Goulding's fear of the dark.

After some intense textual analysis/light Googling my current belief is that the song is based on the eerie feeling of things appearing differently once the lights go out. The lights that the unknown person/entity shines stop her and turn her to stone, and so forth.

Ella Fitzgerald singingSome commenters have requested that I make some comparisons between themes in today's pop music with those pop hits from eras past, and so for your consideration I jazzily submit that Ella Fitzgerald's playful performance of the Duke Ellington tune "I'm Beginning To See The Light" makes some similar assertions about light/hope/all those symbolic things coming from within a person as well.

And if you want to make your own connections between Goulding's funky, nigh-trance-inducing club beats and the loopily lilting lyric Fitzgerald delivered about finding rainbows in her wine ("I never made love by lantern-shine/I never saw rainbows in my wine/But now that your lips are burning mine/I'm beginning to see the light"), then be my guest.

But the more appropriate comparison, I think, is the Emily Dickinson piece, especially as this item was actually penned by a woman.

In Dickinson's poem, we have another narrator who sees things differently in the dark. But rather than Goulding's character, whose object of affection (or something?) is the one shining the light, Dickinson's narrator is taking part in the shining: her love is what illuminates the lover and, in fact, shines with a truer light than anything in the outside world.Emily Dickinson sits stiffly in this sepia portrait

I love the progression between stanzas two and three; after she sets out her argument in stanza one (that the glow of her love is the purest light), she takes us to very specific and dramatic places—the mines, the coffin—expanding and developing the storyline and the sensory experience.

Dickinson's narrator here is confident, despite her projected sorrow (how "in the Grave—I see Thee best"), and finds strength in the power and truth of her love. Goulding, meanwhile, is searching for strength, hoping that once the lights are gone she won't be too terrified to dream.

In other words, Ellie's character should maybe stop looking for some person to solve her darkness problems, and instead pick up the poetry of our dear friend Emily Dickinson to find a new way to light up the night.

Previously: Is the Dude in P!nk's "Blow Me (One Last Kiss)" Just a 2012 Version of Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights?; Madonna, Adrienne Rich, and Pussy Riot

by Brianna Goldberg
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3 Comments Have Been Posted

Tori Amos?

When you mentioned abstract, but beautiful lyrics, Tori Amos came to mind. She was an incredibly strong presence in my youth from the moment I saw her video for "Cornflake Girl" when I was around 9 years old to her live, tear-inducing version of "Cooling" on Youtube. In my opinion, she is the epitome of an abstract artist, using a cornucopia of sound, as well as the written word, to inspire and empathize with her listeners.


Well said, Lahnna! I'm a big Tori fan too and she's actually been on my mind for the past while. I'll see if I can find a way to work her into a future post. Many thanks for your thoughts.

I probably only thought this

<p>I probably only thought this because I'm a Chiffonhead but the whole time I was reading this, I was singing these lyrics from Stevie Nicks' song <em>Everybody Finds Out</em>,&nbsp;</p><p>When love starts out in the darkness/ It doesn't do well in the light/ Affairs of the heart/ That start out in the dark/ Usually stay with the night</p><p>&nbsp;</p><p>And a further note on Ms. Nicks song, the working title was <em>Monica, </em>as in Lewinsky. &nbsp;</p>

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