So this week on Lyrics, Weakly we take another request, the Wilson Phillips song “Hold On”. This was the first single from their debut album, and it hit #1 on the US charts in June 1990, and was actually the #1 single for the entire year. The album as a whole was a huge success, going quintuple(!)-platinum and spawning four top-five singles, three of which hit #1.
And really, as you listen to the song, you can understand why. Wilson Phillips is made up of Carnie and Wendy Wilson, daughters of Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, and Chynna Phillips, daughter of John and Michelle Phillips of the Mamas & the Papas. That’s a lot of harmony in their bloodlines, and as you listen to them, they certainly live up to it.
So the harmonies are sweet. The songwriting? Not so much. So cue the cheesy 80s ice piano, and…
I know this pain
Why do lock yourself up in these chains?
Dude, don’t question it. Some people are into that sort of thing—live and let live, that’s my philosophy.
No one can change your life except for you
Don’t ever let anyone step all over you
Wait, i’m confused. So you’re saying that i’m strong enough that nobody can mess with my life, and so i should keep people from stepping all over me? But if i’m really that all-powerful, and the only one who can change my own life, then, logically, i really shouldn’t care whether they’re stepping all over me—it’s not going to actually mess with me.
And besides, what if i like having people step all over me? What then? Your platitudes don’t seem so perfect then, do they?
Just open your heart and your mind
Is it really fair to feel this way inside?
Is it fair? I think it is—but maybe i’m just not understanding what you’re asking. I wonder what your basis for comparison is.
Oh, some day somebody’s gonna make you want to
Turn around and say goodbye
Until then baby are you going to let’m
Hold you down and make you cry
So you’re saying that i’m in some sort of relationship with someone (romantic, friendship, whatever), and one day they’re going to do something that’s going to make me want to leave the relationship. Yeah, stuff like that happens every day—saying it will is a pretty safe bet, actually. But in the meantime they’re holding me down and making me cry? But wouldn’t that make me want to say goodbye right now?
(Well, unless i’m into that sort of thing—see above. But if that’s the case then yes, I certainly am going to let them do that to me.)
Completely seriously, this song has pretty opaque lyrics for being such a transparent thing. I mean, if you listen to the whole thing it’s clear that this is one of those “you’re good enough, you’re smart enough, and gosh-darn it, people like you” songs. No problem—there’s a place for stuff like that in this world. But then you start looking at the details of how that’s being said, and it all starts to feel a little darker.
Don’t you know?
Don’t you know things can change
Things’ll go your way
If you hold on for one more day
Help! I’m trapped in a fortune cookie factory!
Can you hold on for one more day?
Like i said earlier, bland happiness and then sudden darkness. I particularly like the way this line is delivered, with the can you that turns it into a question muttered more softly than the rest of the line, in an apparent subliminal attempt to undercut the confidence of the person they’re singing to.
Things’ll go your way
Hold on for one more day
Really, could y’all make up your collective minds? Are you questioning whether things are actually going to go my way, or are you expressing certainty? ’Cause i’m getting mixed messages here.
You could sustain
Or are you comfortable with the pain?
Okay, i give up. I’ve been trying to write something about this couplet for several minutes now, and i can’t come up with anything.
The main reason for my mindblock, i think, is that it makes absolutely no sense. I mean, you try it. Imagine a friend coming up to you and saying “Here’s what i think: You could sustain, or are you comfortable with the pain?” What would your reaction be? That’s right, it’d be “Huh?” You know why? Because that’s not something anyone would ever say! In fact, i suspect it’s not even a sentence that would ever occur in English—it appears to follow the grammatical structure of some other language. Mses Wilson and Phillips all grew up in Southern California, so maybe this is actually an example of the indigenous language of that region.
(Warning: Turn down the volume for the last ten seconds or so of that last link if you’re at work, or around your parents.)
You’ve got no one to blame for your unhappiness
I really hope that when pop/rock songwriters go to school, this line is used in the class on rhythm and meter as an example of what not to do.
Oh, what’s that? People don’t go to school to become pop/rock songwriters? Well, that explains lines like that one, then, doesn’t it?
No, baby, you got yourself into your own mess
Lettin’ your worries pass you by
Don't you think it’s worth your time
To change your mind?
See? Darkness again. Apparently it’s time for tough love, as we get told about all the horrible things we’ve been doing, particularly by ignoring all the things that could have been worrying us. But wait…I’m confused again.
After all, it’s not that long ago that these very singers in this very song were talking about how we’re letting ’m (seriously, i can’t tell if they’re singing ’em or him, which bothers me a little bit) hold us down and make us cry. That doesn’t sound very much like letting our worries pass us by—it sounds like an emotional crisis, something you can’t let pass you by because it’s right there, taking all your attention.
Not to mention that the entire message of this song, at least as far as i can tell, is that if you can just hold on for one more day everything’ll get better. So basically, they’re saying they’ll yell at us for doing whatever it is that we’ve been doing all this time, and then when we take their advice to just hold on for one more day—which would involve letting our worries pass us by, one would think—they get to yell at us for doing so and getting ourselves into this mess?
Sorry, but i don’t need to take this sort of thing from you.
Wait a minute…Unless the ’m who’s holding us down and making us cry is actually Wilson Phillips, and this is actually one of those cases where they’re expressing contrition and working on reconciliation, just so that they can come back and abuse us later on. Yeah, that’s right, i’m on to you! You’re not going to get away with it this time!
But then the chorus gets repeated, and we get distracted by those sweet, sweet harmonies.
I know that there is pain
But you hold on for one more day and
Break free from the chains
Yeah, I know that there is pain
But you hold on for one more day and you
Break free, break from the chains
Seriously, what is it with the chains and pain? I mean, you know, other than the obvious answer—that they keep using those words ’cause they rhyme and they couldn’t think of anything else to use.
And really, it’s a bizarre idea, anyway. I mean, think through what they’re saying logically: They’re saying that if you’re in chains, even though it’ll hurt you should stay in them for one more day, ’cause then they’ll go away. Sorry, but that’s not the way people who chain you up and torture you generally work.
But then we get the chorus again with its amazing harmonies, and we get to forget for a moment how utterly silly this whole song is.
Don’t you know things can change
Things’ll go your way
If you hold on for one more day,
If you hold on
Can you hold on
Really, this is an utterly innocuous feel-good song—but there’s no law against innocuous feel-good songs making sense, is there? Well, maybe there is—who knows?
7 years ago