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“A Bit on the Ironically Manifested Meaning of ‘In the Air Tonight’”

For his own right, Phil Collins has built himself up a pretty decent repertoire of hip-hop samples. Most ubiquitous of these is probably the Bone Thugz’ “Home,” which samples “Take Me Home” from the British singer-songwriter’s catalogue.

Then, just a second ago, I discovered that Lil’ Kim has a tune that uses “In the Air Tonight,” which is hardly surprising. “In the Air Tonight” is a song I still hear a lot, to this day, on the satellite radio at work, and it even gets a shout-out in Eminem’s “Stan.”

Is it important that Collins’ work gets so much attention from the hip-hop sphere? Well, it’s interesting, at least, and it also might be indicative of the genuine, bona fide emotion Collins funnels through his songs, if said metaphysical energy weren’t already apparent from a listen or two.

The funny thing is, “In the Air Tonight,” although it purports as a tale about a negligent person who let somebody drown [1], actually isn’t based on a true story. As Wikipedia reports, that is, Collins wrote the song after a divorce “spontaneously” and is “not really sure what the song is about, but there’s a lot of anger, a lot of despair and a lot of frustration” [2]. 

And it’s true: nobody who connects with this song really cares that it’s about a fatal incident on a shoreline, or whatever. They connect with these exact aspects of “anger, despair and frustration.” It’s like what Eminem is talking about in “White America” when he talks about “So many lives I’ve touched / So much anger aimed / In no particular direction / It just sprays and sprays”.

People like “In the Air Tonight” because it’s a song that’s commensurate of the pain they’re going through at the given time — Collins has been through the same thing and emerged with all his faculties intact, theoretically. This discussion, of course, begs certain interesting questions about the songwriting process, like how Collins went from thoughts of a divorce to these aquatic themes, themes of the grey masses, apparently, concert-goers [3], the shining, fatal, unflinching universal sneering at all of us when we go about our everyday lives. Well, they say, “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story,” and I guess “In the Air Tonight” is a case in point: it’s the feeling that people connect with, the raw, physical experience of the music and Collins’ voice, of which the narrative, the detailed events, are mere bi-products, like finite modicums bound to dissolve as our inner mechanisms live on.

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[1] Actually I got the idea to do this post yesterday. I was thinking, if Phil Collins witnessed this scene of somebody refusing to help someone from drowning, why couldn’t Collins himself jump in and assist? 

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[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/In_the_Air_Tonight.

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[3] This is kind of out of left field but the writing of “In the Air Tonight” was pretty close temporally to a dude at a Zappa show in England shoving him into an orchestra pit, causing his vertebrae to be fractured and relegating him to a wheelchair for close to a year, all because the guy was jealous of Zappa for winning his girlfriend’s verbalized amorousness. 

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