When I taught ethics one of the ways I would engage my students was to spend ten or so minutes at the start of every class analyzing the lyrics of songs that might teach us something. My favorite song to start with was “Behind Blue Eyes” by The Who with lyrics by Pete Townshend. It’s such a beautiful, engaging tune with brilliant lyrics that pull us in and make us want to sympathize with the singer. “No one knows what it’s like” is of course an instant invitation to feel seen as someone who also feels unseen or misunderstood. Who hasn’t felt some version of this?
But there is a darker interpretation to this song that I imagine many people never delved into. It can be interpreted as a lament of a misogynist who claims victimhood and attempts to convince us he is actually a good guy, just misunderstood.
No one knows what it's like
To be the bad man
To be the sad man
Behind blue eyes
And no one knows what it's like
To be hated
To be fated to telling only lies
The singer is set up almost as the cliche “bad boy” who acts the jerk but supposedly has that soft side somewhere inside. He knows he is seen as the bad guy, but he is already pretending he has no agency in the matter as it’s his “fate” to be a liar. You see, it’s not his fault he lies because those people hating him drive him to it.
But my dreams they aren't as empty
As my conscience seems to be
I have hours, only lonely
My love is vengeance
That's never free
And then we hear his claim for redemption as his dreams and thoughts aren’t as bad as the actions he performs. His loneliness drives him to vengeful relationships which in his mind he should not be held accountable for.
No one knows what its like
To feel these feelings
Like I do
And I blame you
No one bites back as hard
On their anger
None of my pain and woe
Can show through
Here he really does think he is alone in his pain and sadness. This is important as he is the only person with pain which both imparts upon himself a feeling of specialness and denies the ability of others to feel pain themselves. This concept of being the only person capable of feeling pain frees him to inflict pain upon others. And of course the source of his pain and loneliness could never be himself, and so he blames the other.
[Chorus then Bridge]
When my fist clenches, crack it open
Before I use it and lose my cool
When I smile, tell me some bad news
Before I laugh and act like a fool
And if I swallow anything evil
Put your finger down my throat
And if I shiver, please give me a blanket
Keep me warm, let me wear your coat
In the bridge we see the full extent of his inability to take responsibility for his own actions. He places the burden to prevent him from suffering or attacking not on himself but the other. We are responsible if he looks stupid. We need to sacrifice for his comfort. We need to calm him down before he hurts us or others thereby making us responsible (in his mind at least) for any violence he may commit. We see that the person acting in evil ways may see themselves as misunderstood or perhaps forced into their actions. But dreaming of acting better while never changing your negative actions is no defense.
The usefulness of this song is to understand how people who oppress others are able to twist their logic in such a way as to come out the victim. By recognizing the pattern we can more quickly call out the bullshit and not fall victim to it ourselves.
We see Republicans perform this act all the time. In Trump we see a man incapable of owning the responsibility for his own actions. We see a man playing the victim and demanding we acquiesce to his needs. But mostly we see a very small man tortured by inner demons who unfortunately seeks to assuage his pain by inflicting pain upon the rest of us. Better understanding the song is unfortunately no magic bullet for defeating the evil we are up against. But every little bit of wisdom regarding people’s nature, even our darker natures, can hopefully add up to our better coping with the damage sent out by these twisted souls. And perhaps, with a lot of work, we just might guide people towards true love free from dominance and manipulation.
I’ll make some edits to the diary once I get time to process the interview. I was unaware of it. I’ll be standing by my basic analysis but will fix improper attributions to Pete Townshend’s motives. Thanks for the comments, even the disagreements! I always warned my students to question me and not trust what I said without properly thinking it through themselves.
Okay, just removed the inaccurate Pete Townshend intentions and will let this rest as my alternative take on the meaning.