For a variety of reasons, I had the song “Live To Tell” in my head all day, and before analyzing the lyrics to this very straightforward and melancholy ballad, I thought it would be worthwhile to talk about the song and its place within the music I listen to and think about, and its context in the career of Madonna as well. First, there was a wide variety of songs that were released during my childhood and early teen years that related to a similar set of concerns . For me, as astute readers of this blog will guess, I can relate all too well to songs that wrestle with difficult upbringing and its consequences. Among those consequences, lamentably, is the compulsion to tell what I am thinking or feeling to keep things from being bottled up inside of me , even though I can sometimes manage to tell only one person instead of telling the whole world and making my problems even greater.
For Madonna, this song had a particular context as well. It was released from her third album, which contained her first reinvention from sassy material girl to a more subdued balladeer. The song was written by one of her early producers, Patrick Leonard , and was released as well on a movie by her then-husband Sean Penn that dealt with a very abusive and unhappy childhood involving the threat and presence of a lot of violence. The marriage between Sean Penn and Madonna did not go well, but this song, which serves as a sort of soliloquy to the main character’s thoughts, sung vulnerably by a woman from the point of view of a man, is certainly an arresting and perhaps somewhat ambiguous sort of context. The result is that we have a slow and sad ballad that helped reinvent its singer and also provide an important context to a movie about a deeply disturbing subject. The juxtaposition of images of threatened violence with the sad and gentle words and music made it a Number one hit on the mainstream and adult contemporary charts, and certainly did not hurt Madonna’s reputation for controversy.
The lyrics of the song read as follows. There is a short verse, a chorus, another short verse, a second chorus, a bridge, and the second chorus again, making this a very simply structured song:
I have a tale to tell.
Sometimes it gets so hard to hide it well.
I was not ready for the fall,
Too blind to see the writing on the wall.
A man can tell a thousand lies,
I’ve learned my lesson well.
Hope I live to tell
The secret I have learned, till then
It will burn inside of me.
I know where beauty lives.
I’ve seen it once, I know the warm she gives.
The light that you could never see.
It shines inside, you can’t take that from me.
The truth is never far behind,
You kept it hidden well.
If I live to tell
The secret I knew then,
Will I ever have the chance again?
If I ran away, I’d never have the strength
To go very far.
How would they hear the beating of my heart?
Will it grow cold?
The secret that I hide, will I grow old?
How will they hear?
When will they learn?
How will they know? “
The meaning of this song, especially in the context of its video, is very straightforward. The narrator is singing about the compulsive need to tell a tale. I have myself felt the compulsion many times to tell my tales, whether those tales were the dark stories of a horrible childhood, or the tales of my own fears and longings, my anxieties and personal drama. Not all of these tales are enjoyable to tell, and not all of them bring any great degree of happiness or pleasure to either the teller or the audience, but this is a song not about the reasoned crafting of a rhetorical argument but rather the anguished cry of the heart that struggles with the tension between blunt and open honesty that is perhaps a bit too painful and embarrassing and the comfort of hiding behind secrets and lies but feeling like a hypocrite and a fraud. This tension is surely not an unusual one, and by wrestling with that tension, the songwriter is in good company with many people, myself included.
There are a lot of fears and longings wrapped up in this song. The narrator wonders if a long life is possible with all of those secrets staying inside as a burden. There is the concern about lost opportunities, the ravages of time, the desire to escape but the knowledge that ultimately one cannot go far enough to leave one’s troubles behind if one carries them along like so much luggage. There is the longing to have one’s internal beauty and worth respected by others, to have one’s story heard, to be cared for, to be appreciated. These are common, even universal, wants, but sometimes hard to find in our lives. We wonder often if we have lost our chance for what we wish for the most, and whether we will live long enough to speak of the thoughts of our heart and mind. If this song is not necessarily a happy one, it at least is sincere and heartfelt, and expresses a great deal of my own concerns in life. Like so many other songs, I first appreciated this song while young, and find it still speaks to where I am. I wish I could be further along by now.
 See, for example: