For the second of our three non-Christmassy songs that were big Christmas hits, we turn to the UK’s Christmas Number One in 2003 — “Mad World” by Michael Andrews and Gary Jules.
Perhaps ironically, given the previous article in this short series was about Lily Allen’s version of Keane’s “Somewhere Only We Know”, Michael Andrews and Gary Jules’ version of “Mad World” is also a cover.
“Mad World” was originally released by Tears for Fears in 1982, when it made number three in the UK charts.
If you’re a fan of the early-80s synthesizer sound, you’ll like this Tears for Fears song. (Here, if you’d like a listen… https://youtu.be/SFsHSHE-iJQ )
It’s easy to think of Christmas as a happy time of year. For many people it is. If you’re lucky enough to have family and friends around you…children and grandchildren…those you love and those who love you back…it can be a magical time of year.
But if you don’t have any of those things, Christmas can be a very upsetting time of year. And if you’re deeply sad inside, it’s actually made worse by having to get through each day hearing about the fun people are planning to have over Christmas, the loved ones they’ll get to see, the memories they’ll create together.
It’s no wonder that for counsellors and those who support lonely and vulnerable people, as well as their clients and charges of course, Christmas can be a very challenging time.
This is the spirit Michael Andrews and Gary Jules’ version of “Mad World” taps into so well.
They recorded it for the 2001 movie “Donnie Darko”. Although that movie wasn’t a huge hit when it came out, it was something of an underground smash and went on to achieve cult status among moviegoers.
The increasing popularity of the film led to pressure for Michael Andrews and Gary Jules to release their version of “Mad World” as a single, which they did a couple of years later, eventually staying in the top spot for three weeks as 2003 gave way to 2004.
I never know what to feel about such a sad song hitting the Number One spot at Christmas-time.
Are there really that many people so sad over Christmas that Michael Andrews and Gary Jules’ downbeat version of “Mad World” spoke directly to their feelings and compelled them to buy enough copies of the record to keep it at Number One for three weeks?
Of course, I’m always pleased when artistic endeavours get the recognition they deserves. On that basis, I’m delighted it did so well for Michael Andrews and Gary Jules.
At the same time, I’m saddened that so many people in the world aren’t having the sort of Christmas that a large proportion of the population takes for granted.
Let’s consider these lyrics…
All around me are familiar faces
Worn our places, worn out faces
Bright and early for the daily races
Going nowhere, going nowhere
Their tears are filling up their glasses
No expression, no expression
Hide my head, I want to drown my sorrow
No tomorrow, no tomorrow
Be honest — these lyrics are about as far away from the stereotypical happy-clappy Christmas song as you could possibly imagine, aren’t they?
This is the tale of someone who is going through the motions of life, without really living. He has people around him, but nobody is there for him. Tomorrow shows no signs of being any better than today…perhaps today’s the day to end it all, he wonders, almost casually.
Make no mistake about it…despite Tears for Fears’ fairly upbeat, synth-pop treatment, these are not happy lyrics.
They are, however, very clever lyrics — throughout the song, the idea of every other line repeating the same phrase as if to ram home the point and make sure you were paying attention is a really clever one. Hard to pull off as you concede so much lyrical real estate to essentially saying something you’ve already said. But really effective when done well…as Tears for Fears band member and songwriter Roland Orzabal managed here.
Under normal circumstances, if you take lyrics like the ones quoted above, slow down the song and strip away every musical device that adds a little cheerfulness to a very dark set of lyrics, what you’ve got left is probably wrist-slittingly depressing.
However Michael Andrews and Gary Jules were very clever with their delivery.
I’ve heard the song many times and I still can’t work out how they did it…but they introduced a degree of emotional detachment in their delivery. They performed in a cool, chilled-out, almost matter of fact way which let the lyrics do all the emotional heavy lifting by themselves.
This is remarkable, because it’s the exact opposite of what performers usually try to do. It’s their job to take a song and ramp the emotions up to 11, so you can feel them even more strongly, even more personally, than the words written down on a piece paper could ever hope to do.
This time round, the words of “Mad World” on paper are more than strong enough to deliver as much emotion as just about anyone is capable of handling. There’s no need to add any more, so they don’t.
As regular readers will know, I always admire artists who have the insight to know when they don’t need to do any more with a song to make their point…and that they’ve reached the point where adding something extra would make the song less, rather than more, impactful.
It takes great strength, and a high level of creative insight, to know not to add a single extra thing to the work you’ve done and leave it there for the world to discover. That’s what Michael Andrews and Gary Jules do in “Mad World”.
Yet their emotional detachment actually makes you feel the emotions even more strongly…somehow the song becomes even darker, and hits home even harder.
This combination of dark lyrics, apparent emotional detachment, and a delivery that really allowed the lyrics to hit home with large numbers of people made Michael Andrews and Gary Jules’ treatment of “Mad World” a very well-deserved UK Number One at Christmas in 2003…despite being not at all Christmassy.
While I hope you’re having a great time this Christmas, if the lyrics of “Mad World” hit home with you a little harder than you feel comfortable with, please do something about it.
You might think at first there’s nobody you can talk to, but there always is. If you’re not comfortable talking to friends and family, there are plenty of professionals who can help.
But don’t stay in the place you’re in at the moment. The only person who suffers is you. And you deserve better than that.
Not just at Christmas, but every other day of the year as well.
Here’s Michael Andrews and Gary Jules with the UK’s Christmas Number One back in 2003…their bleak and emotionally-challenging version of Tears for Fears 1982 hit “Mad World”…
PS — just before we get to the video, if you enjoyed this article, please consider following me here on Medium to get new articles as soon as they’re published. You can also find me on Twitter here.
And if you prefer to listen to the track on Spotify, you can find that here… https://open.spotify.com/track/3JOVTQ5h8HGFnDdp4VT3MP