I have recently become obsessed with the song “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)”, by The Proclaimers. The first time I noticed it was while watching How I Met Your Mother. At first, I found it annoying. The voices are unpolished, the chorus is repetitive, and musically there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot going on. Years went by without the song really being on my radar. A few months ago, I wound up having it stuck my head and, while searching for relief on YouTube, I discovered a charming video with clips from the 1993 movie Benny and Joon. As I watched, I noticed how perfectly the song captured the hesitant tenderness depicted in the film. I was instantly won over.
My sudden change of heart made me wonder what it was that I, and many others, see in this simple song. Looking past the obvious appeal of its energy and catchy rhythm, I noticed that it approaches the subject of love quite differently than most popular music. The lyrics are incredibly straightforward and down-to-earth. The singer is under no delusions of grandeur, and he even seems to poke fun at his own imperfections: “And if I haver, hey I know I’m gonna be / I’m gonna be the man who’s havering to you.” To haver, in case you didn’t know, means to babble foolishly.
The emotional climax of the song centers on the idea that the singer’s devotion is so strong that he would literally walk a thousand miles to be reunited with his love. But the song still doesn’t take itself too seriously – even after proving himself this way, the singer expects nothing more than to collapse on the doorstep.
As I tried to determine why this song is so emotionally satisfying, I was reminded of a concept that John Keats brings up in his sonnet “When I Have Fears That I May Cease To Be”. Just before the final couplet, Keats writes “That I shall never look upon thee more, / Never have relish in the faery power / Of unreflecting love”. This is not a love poem, but I have always found the idea of unreflecting love captivating. Unreflecting love, I believe, exists without the expectation of receiving anything from another person; it is not caught up in the lover’s ego. This sort of love transcends delight in physical beauty. Instead, it finds joy in the very existence of this other soul. It has no reflection, no shadow. It is love that does not require a counterpart.
In the same way, “I’m Gonna Be” focuses on everything the singer will do to prove his love. The question of what he gets in return does not even come up. If anything, this song totally eschews the ubiquitous metaphor and poetic description of most pop music, in which it can seem like the singer will say anything to “get the girl” (or guy). Feelings and fancy words are shifting and slippery – they allow room for ambiguity and change. In contrast, “I’m Gonna Be” leaves no doubt about the future. Whatever happens, the singer is going to be there. He does not offer the most exciting life or the most romantic gestures, but he states his willingness to put every ounce of his energy into this person as emphatically as possible, even if he looks foolish in the process.
To me, this is the real magic of the song. It does not put on airs or hide behind sentiment which might ebb away tomorrow. Instead, it describes a love so blind that it almost doesn’t matter what the other person does, because the singer doesn’t expect anything from her. He is realistic and unpretentious about himself and the future. This is a song about love, but not about a feeling. After all, anyone can claim to be in love, but showing it in your actions for the rest of your life is a commitment on an entirely different level. Surely, if anything can be called unreflecting love, this must be it. It is love so direct and unassuming that it does not even view itself as an emotion, which can vary or fade, but as something certain and tangible, like the path ahead.