In an old interview given to a local Sicilian broadcaster, Video 3, Franco Battiato said, “Today, I can definitely say that I prefer light to darkness.” You can currently see an extract from the interview on YouTube.
In the video, Battiato is sitting in a light blue armchair and wearing a loose, dark jacket. He has the physical appearance of a mystic and the focused stare of a sage. The video begins with a reflection on the dualism of good and evil, light and darkness. We can’t escape these dualisms as we’re born with them. But that’s not as dramatic as it sounds, because “a negative force reinforces a positive one, you just have to pass through certain states” to reach a form of awareness where, like Battiato, you too can say that you prefer light to darkness. The Sicilian singer has even written a song about this antithesis: L’ombra della luce (on the album Un cammello in una grondaia, 1991). It was composed in a state of meditation (as Battiato himself explained to Rai Educational) and the narrator invokes the light of salvation against the darkness of pain, ignorance and sin.
In music, however, light does not only appear as a contrast to darkness. It is a central narrative theme that many song lyrics explore. Here, then, are 5 songs that talk about light.
1. Lights of Home - U2
The story in this song focuses on the border between life and death and is autobiographical, as a few years ago, the leader of the Irish band, Bono Vox, risked his life in a serious bicycle accident. Right from its first verse, the first-person narrator admits that he shouldn’t actually still be here to tell this story as he should be dead. His story revolves around the lights that appeared before his eyes during this supernatural, near-death experience. This includes the flashing light of the ambulance, the glare of the operating theatre, the light of hope at the end of the tunnel and the familiar, reassuring light of home that he returned to after escaping death.
2. Flashing Lights - Kanye West
Before Kanye West married Kim Kardashian, his heart beat for a number of other women. In Flashing Lights (from Graduation, 2007) the Atlanta-born rapper cannot stop thinking about his former girlfriend. He accuses her of being too materialistic (“She don't believe in shootin' stars / But she believe in shoes and cars”) but he suffers when she leaves him and feels as if he had been battered by hurricane Katrina. Kanye tries to bring some order to his feelings and emotions, but is interrupted by the flashing cameras of the paparazzi. The light, in this specific case, is extremely aggressive. It is the materialisation of an attack on his privacy, an obstacle that does not allow him to experience his feelings in peace and without being crushed by them.
3. NYC - Interpol
One of the topoi of romantic literature is to mirror the protagonist’s inner feelings in the surrounding landscape. Two centuries later, this topos is clearly still alive, as Interpol’s NYC demonstrates. The narrator is alone and wounded, just like the city around him, which in this case is New York City after 9/11. The breakthrough comes in the chorus: New York cares about you (“New York Cares” or NYC brings new meaning to the famous acronym, as well as referencing the city’s voluntary association New York Cares). In the outro, hope literally comes alive again, when the narrator realises that it is up to him to turn the lights back on in his life, in the same way that New York City switched its sparkling lights back on to exit the darkest period in its history.
4. Lights On - FKA twigs
The trust between two people can also be a question of light. In this song from 2014 (from LP1), FKA twigs talk about the delicate balance of strengths that is built up in a couple. Light and shadow are used to show or hide both partners from each other. The man’s identity is defined by the way he behaves in the light, i.e. in the eyes of society (“'Cause the man that you are is defined / By the way that you act in the light”), but there are shadowy areas, too, that push the woman back (“You'll be the first one to find / The shadows that make the girl you undo”). The theme of faith, which is the keystone in the relationship between the narrator and her partner is emphasized in the chorus, where the first-person narrative voice affirms that they will only be able to make love with the lights on when they trust each other.
Light here is fundamental. It shows people for whom they really are, and with all the faults, flaws and mortality that are embedded in their naked bodies. For the narrator, choosing to reveal yourself to your partner in the light (which is described with cold objectivity and has no positive or negative connotations) means exhibiting your nakedness, not just of your body, but also, at a metaphysical level, of your soul, your personality and your character.
5. Torneremo ancora (We’ll be back again) - Franco Battiato
It is only right to finish this journey into the light that illuminates music where it began. So, let’s return to Franco Battiato and his last and definitive song.
According to Battiato, sound and, above all, light are emitted from a cosmic dimension in which there is an “absence of time and space” to fill the entire universe. And, it is this light that allows a narrative transition from the infinite vastness of the cosmos to the infinitely minute dimension of human destiny. Light also touches the citizens of the world who “are looking for an earth without borders”. It illuminates their lives, like a kind of balm, because it reminds them that their existence does not end with death, but is cyclically repeated until they are completely liberated from the physical limits of their mortal bodies.