Like many around my age or younger, Gary Jules’ cover was my first introduction to this song. It wasn’t actually via Donnie Darko originally however, rather through a true crime documentary titled The Real Blair Witch which unfortunately doesn’t seem to be available online anywhere. It was an extremely unsettling documentary centered around an allegedly staged kidnapping in Flint, Michigan by some over zealous fans of The Blair Witch Project. It was chilling, with this song playing out over the closing scenes, and from that moment it was ingrained in my mind as a haunting and sinister song. Suffice to say I was fairly surprised then to discover that the original is a synth heavy number with less obvious sinister undertones, but were they ever there to begin with?
Song association can be a crazy thing. Another go-to example in my own mind is Stuck In The Middle With You. Fairly upbeat and though lyrically it might not be merry, it’s hardly sinister. Yet if your first association with it comes from Reservoir Dogs you’ve a connection there that’s next to impossible to break. That song will forever remain associated with that movie and that scene in my head. Is it all that important? Well maybe not. I suppose it depends on how you read and connect interpretations in music. For me my first approach with songs is their overall “feel”. Happy, sad, upbeat etc, I always prefer to get that measure of the song first before I let the lyrics make my mind up.
In the context of Mad World, the overall mood of the Gary Jules version is simply haunting in an overall capacity. Then you go and watch Donnie Darko and it’s haunting for all kinds of other reasons. Ultimately you hear the original and can’t figure out for love or money what it is, the synth and drums defying the melancholy of the Jules version. It’s a great situation to find yourself in though, having conflicting ideas in your head about how you interpret the song and having so different emotions applied to it. For me, I’ve always been drawn to some of the more ambiguous songs. The more open to interpretation the better.
Mad World, according to the songwriters, relates to what they’ve described as the “teenage menopause” which is a fantastic description of that jumping-off point as you enter adulthood. When you first learn what anxiety truly is. When you learn how wrong so many of the things you’d been told up to this point were. When you realise that this shit is damned hard. It’s far from optimistic but it is comforting, providing solace through solidarity. Had the original version been the first I’d heard, I’m not entirely sure I’d be able to align with that interpretation. The early eighties production and slightly faster tempo might have thrown my initial perception of the overall “feel”.
Now, I did also say above that I prefer songs with some ambiguity. I do however prefer when I can find some interpretation of it for myself. There is such a thing as a song being too ambiguous in my book. So what we have here with Mad World is that by me being introduced to it as I was, with the version that it was, I find myself being able to look back retrospectively and say “Yep, got that one right”. Whatever right is. Weirdly enough, my own take on it I’ve always felt is a more light hearted approach. I’ve generally tried to perform my version as a sort of “end of the night, time to shut up shop” type of thing. But hey, maybe it’ll be the first version someone else hears someday. As always, watch, like, share and subscribe!