Is the Song Mad World About Suicide?

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Song: Mad World (1982)

Artist: Tears for Fears

Album: The Hurting (Mercury/ Phonogram)

The song Mad World by Tears for Fears was written by Roland Orzabal and Sung by the band’s bassist and co-founder Curt Smith. Like most Tears for Fears songs, it featured dark and serious lyrics juxtaposed with a more new wave synthesizer-dominant pop sound. But just how dark is the song? Many people think the song is about suicide due to one specific lyric in the chorus:

And I find it kind of funny
I find it kind of sad
The dreams in which I’m dying
Are the best I’ve ever had

Mad World was released on Tears for Fears’ 1982 debut Album, The Hurting, as the third single. It became their first big British hit, reaching no. 3 on the U.K. Singles Chart. It also peaked at no. 12 in Australia and charted in multiple countries, although not the U.S.

Twenty years later a new version of the song by Michael Andrews and Gary Jules reached a wider audience. Featured on the soundtrack of the movie Donnie Darko, the music was a much darker, stripped-down, slower version with no drums. It featured mostly piano with some cello sound, a bit of keyboard, and some vocal effects (vocoder) on the chorus. To my ear, it is a much more beautiful and stirring version of the song.

Both members of Tears for Fears agree that this version of the song is truer to the song’s lyrics. It was again a big hit in the UK, reaching Christmas No. 1 and remaining on the charts for three weeks. It also charted in the U.S. on the Billboard Modern Rock Tracks, reaching no. 30. It was this version of the song, propelled by the movie’s cult following, which influenced the many versions to follow, including that by American Idol contestant Adam Lambert in 2009. His version re-invigorated sales of Andrews’ and Jule’s version, helping it reach no. 11 on the Rock Digital Songs chart.

Is the Song About Suicide?

Despite the success of a darker version of an already dark song, according to its writer, it is not nearly as dark as it may seem.

According to lyrics writer Roland Orzabel, guitarist, keyboardist, and co-vocalist, the basic theme of the song was influenced by Paul Simon’s song Still Crazy After All These Years, in which Simon describes sitting by his window and, essentially, watching the world go by:

Now I sit by my window
And I watch the cars
I’m sure I’ll do some damage one fine day

According to Orzabel, “so Mad World’s pretty much the same.” Orzabel wrote it at a time when he was unemployed while his wife was working three jobs to pay the bills. “It’s like sitting in the window of this apartment and watching everyone go about their business nine-to-five…it’s quite sort of a bizarre viewpoint to sorta watch people go around their daily routines and having to work for a living when you’re sitting in a flat unemployed. So, that’s where it came from.”

No matter how mad the world looked from his window, the song doesn’t seem to be written from the viewpoint of a suicidal person. So, what of the lyrics:

The dreams in which I’m dying
Are the best I’ve ever had

Certainly sounds like the song is about someone who wants to die. As Orzabel explains, however, that’s not exactly true. At the time, Orzabel and Smith were influenced by the writings of The Primal Scream author, Dr. Arthur Janov: “All he was saying was that some of the most dramatic dreams we have release the most tension. So we can have this ridiculous dream and wake up feeling a lot better. So, the dreams in which I’m dying are the best I’ve ever had doesn’t necessarily mean ‘I can’t wait to die.'”

Like most lyricists, Orzabel seems to invite us to make our own interpretations, but his original intentions, clearly, were not to invoke suicidal thoughts.

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