A Soundtrack to Paradise

An elephant riding a unicycle in Cape Town. This must be para, para, paradise

This article first appeared on In Brief.

When rock stars sing songs about paradise, it’s no surprise that they’re not always referring to the heavenly sanctuary envisioned by various religions. Like many other lyrical ideas, paradise has with time become a flexible metaphor, a concept regularly borrowed and moulded to mean different things. In the process, it has become the inspiration for some of the best music of the past 50 years.

Phil Collins – Another Day in Paradise (1989)
“Think twice, ‘cause it’s another day for you and me in paradise”

Much like how the Dumb Ways to Die riff reminds us to not jump on train tracks, Another Day in Paradise is an unlikely reminder to listeners about the realities of homelessness. When that riff gets stuck in your head – which it inevitably will – you almost immediately think about the woman with the “blisters on the soles of her feet”, the subject of Phil Collins’ four lamenting verses.

For Collins, paradise is the cushy world where the fortunate people live – they spend their days in a happy bubble, where the worries of others are irrelevant to their easy existence. The problem lies in the fact that the homeless woman also resides in the same “paradise”, albeit as a forgotten and seemingly unimportant character. Collins’ story essentially illustrates how one person’s heaven can be another person’s hell.

Green Day – Welcome to Paradise (1994)
“A wasteland I like to call my home, welcome to paradise”

Much like the utopia envisioned by Collins, Green Day’s sarcastic punk-rock anthem paints paradise as one of “broken homes” and “cracked streets”. But when Billy Joe Armstrong and his whiny American-accent welcome the listeners there, it’s not necessarily an ironic invitation. Behind Billy Joe’s apparent sarcasm is an inkling of sincerity – his new home may be no better than a slum, but it’s away from his mother so that makes it acceptable. As such, his paradise is defined not by where he is, but what he is – independent.

Joni Mitchell – Big Yellow Taxi (1970)
“They paved paradise, and put up a parking lot, with a pink hotel… and a swinging hot spot.”

In a similar vein to Phil Collins’ anthem, environmentalist Joni Mitchell used the notion of paradise to communicate a powerful message. For Mitchell, paradise represents the beauty of Mother Nature. Her song, despite its laid-back demeanour, is a passive aggressive attack at those who corrupt this Eden paradise by converting Eden into a commercial landscape.

The Choirboys – Run to Paradise (1987)
“Johnny, we were always best of friends… but you run to paradise”

When Aussie blokes belt out the chorus to Run to Paradise at the pub, you tend to assume The Choirboys’ classic is some kind of celebratory chant. In actual fact, Run to Paradise is a lament about drugs and death. When lead singer Mark Gable reveals his friends have “run to paradise”, he means they have died (i.e. run to heaven). But when he screams “don’t tell me this is paradise” in the chorus, he’s no longer invoking confusing religious imagery. Rather, he has switched focus to the unjust nature of death, warning the listener that a world that permits tragedies is no heaven.

Stevie Wonder – Pastime Paradise (1976)
“They’ve been spending most their lives, living in a pastime paradise”

Before Coolio’s Gangsta’s Paradise and Weird Al’s Amish Paradise, there was good old Stevie Wonder, critiquing the attitudes of society. Stevie’s song implores people to stop living in the “pastime paradise” – a period of time characterised by racial hate and evil. Who these people are, and why they consider these former days so glorious, is not clear. But it does give Stevie an opportunity for some B-grade wordplay and some not-so-subtle evangelism. He encourages his listeners to forsake the morally corrupt “paradise” of history, and replace with it with God’s apparently faultless paradise.

Meat Loaf – Paradise by the Dashboard Light (1977)
“Though it’s cold and lonely in the deep dark night, I can see paradise by the dashboard light”

There’s no secret this four-part epic is about sex, and one man’s willingness to say or do anything in order to score. Fittingly, Meat Loaf’s references to paradise are essentially about sex. The “paradise” he speaks of, apparently made visible by the dashboard light in his car, does not necessarily translate to the act of fornication. But it probably refers to foreplay, his girlfriend’s body, the chemistry between him and his girlfriend, or the idea of soon having sex. Whichever way you look at it, it’s not the same paradise that Jesus spoke of.

Guns N Roses – Paradise City (1988)
“Take me down to the Paradise City, where the grass is green and the girls are pretty”

The exact location of Paradise City is debatable; the only clue given by Guns N Roses is that it’s in “the Midwest (of the USA) or somewhere”. Regardless of the geographical co-ordinates of this alleged municipality, Paradise City represents a time and place where everything was perfect – from the colour of the shrubbery to the attractiveness of females. Most importantly, Paradise City is where Guns N Roses feel most comfortable – it is their home.

Coldplay – Paradise (2011)
“She ran away in her sleep, and dreamed of para-para-paradise”

Paradise might have been the feel-good hit of the past year, but it’s arguably the most tragic tale Chris Martin has ever told us. According to the lyrics, paradise is something we can only access in our sub-conscious. It’s an escape route from the often disappointing nature of reality, where the brutal world tortures harmless butterflies and crushes the ambitions of little girls.

Thankfully, Martin concludes the narrative with some hope. Although his lyrics don’t promise an inevitable paradise, the song’s protagonist optimistically expresses hope for a better future. As such, paradise appears to be a utopian society or alternate world, an ideal picture of where we could be living.

Spotify playlist – Paradise (In Brief)