Monday, January 13, 2014


"Hey There Delilah" /
Plain White T's

[No, not Tom Jones' "Delilah." Please.]

Let's not get stuck in the past, now. Songs are still being written about girls in the 21st century, and here's one of them, from a young band out of Chicago. I saw them play live a couple of years ago, on a fun triple bill with Panic at the Disco! and the ever-wonderful Motion City Soundtrack. I had no idea who they were, but I instantly liked their melodic, upbeat music.

Then lo and behold, the next summer this number was all over the radio. As long-distance relationship songs go, it's winning indeed:
Acoustic strum, a breathy tenor -- we're in sincere territory from the first note. "Hey there Delilah /  What's it like in New York City? /  I'm a thousand miles away [love the voice break on thousand] /  But girl, tonight you look so pretty / Yes you do" -- shifting down to that earnest "yes you do," he breaks up the A-B-A-B simplicity. Time to sneak in a little flattery while he's at it, too: "Times Square can't shine as bright as you / I swear it's true." There's more words than melody here, the chord shifting simply from one major key to its relative minor. I can easily imagine this as a late-night internet conversation, a little drowsy and aimless.

It's definitely a post-modern pop song, angling to sound authentic and unclichéd. No hormone-raddled teenagers here, but young adults with things on their plate, who've accepted the discipline of long-distance relationship for practical reasons. Tortured longing has to be kept at bay somehow: "Hey there Delilah / Don't you worry about the distance /  I'm right there if you get lonely / Give this song another listen / Close your eyes." Okay, that lowered voice on "close your eyes" does get a little seductive, especially followed by "Listen to my voice, it's my disguise / I'm by your side." Gives me a warm feeling, I know that.

In the chorus, though, he permits himself to crank up the emotional temperature, heading into his upper register to wail: "Oh it's what you do to me." He repeats this four more times, alternating high and low, a riding a roller coaster of frustrated yearning. That "what you do to me" is intentionally vague -- you can hear it as "what your effect is upon me" -- totally innocent, right? But I can also catch a hungry hint of her doing something more specific to him, perhaps in bed. And as he sits there at the computer screen, he seems to be looping a re-run of it over and over in his head.

Yet he collects himself for the verses, commiserating with her struggles -- "I know times are getting hard" -- and promising "Someday I'll pay the bills with this guitar."  (It's a great exercise in delayed gratification.) For the moment, all they have is "ifs" -- if she could only hear the songs he's been writing to her, he declares, she'd fall even more in love with him.

In the bridge, he wrestles with logistics: "A thousand miles seems pretty far / But they've got planes and trains and cars / I'd walk to you if I had no other way." That's the kind of extravagant offer that's been sung in so many pop songs, even he realizes it doesn't sound authentic. He pulls back, acknowledging "Our friends would all make fun of us." But damn it, this IS the way he feels, and he reaches out to make sure she's on the same page: "And we'll just laugh along because we know / That none of them have felt this way." There they are, in that cocoon of two-ness that makes them feel so special, where "the world will never ever be the same" -- okay, another cliché, which he rescues with the teasing phrase, "And you're to blame."

The last verse, the sign-off, straps back on the blinders of reality: "Hey there Delilah / You be good and don't you miss me / Two more years and you'll be done with school / And I'll be making history / Like I do." Another ironic little wink there -- even he knows that he's not really "making history." But while she's smiling at his self-deprecating joke, maybe she'll accept his heartfelt pledge, "You'll know it's all because of you. . . . This one's for you."

There really is a Delilah, it turns out: track star Delilah DiCrescenzo, who met the Ts' songwriter and lead vocalist Tom Higgenson in the summer of 2002 at the House of Blues in Chicago. They kept in touch via instant messaging after she returned to New York City, where she was at Columbia University -- but here's the kicker: Delilah already had a boyfriend, whom in fact she's still with. (Aha -- that explains the reined-in emotions of this song.) In interviews, Delilah recalls being mortified when Tom gave her an advance copy of the Plain White Ts' 2005 CD All That We Needed and she first heard "her" song. She'd had no idea Tom had such a crush on her, while she'd had this other steady boyfriend the whole time. Well, these things happen -- and at least he got a #1 single out of it.

4 DOWN, 48 TO GO


Alex said...

Lovely song... and nice to solve the mystery of "who did that song again?"

#1 single? I must be farther out of the loop than I thought these days.

Amy Kefauver said...

My daughter Justine introduced this song to me, and I think it is haunting and beautiful. I just shared your blog with her -- lovely post.

Holly A Hughes said...

This is a reason to have children -- so they can drag you to concerts and make you listen to music you would otherwise not have listened to in a million years. And in fact there are any number of worthy little bands out there, trying to fight through the music industry's sad collapse, that deserve to be heard. These guys are the real deal.

NickS said...

Delilah already had a boyfriend, whom in fact she's still with. . . . In interviews, Delilah recalls being mortified when Tom gave her an advance copy of the Plain White Ts' 2005 CD All That We Needed and she first heard "her" song.

I have to say, that makes it seem slightly obnoxious for him to use her real name in the song -- forgivable, and certainly other songwriters have done worse, but still more than a little pushy.

Looking for more details I found this article which makes it sound like she has made peace with it. Though there are some interesting details.

You are not the only person to have noticed the ambiguity in the chorus: "When my dad heard the lyrics 'Oh what you do to me,' he said, 'Delilah, exactly what did you to do this guy?'"

This does sound slightly awkward: "To be honest, the publicity was distracting me from my running, but at least it was good PR. ... And I know Will was relieved. He'd been defending himself to his friends. They were like, 'Aren't you two together?' I understood -- it seemed like I was two-timing Will. It was a relief for him to see me on national TV and say, 'I'm with Will.'"

Finally, is it just me or is there a bit of a put-down in this final comment(emphasis mine): "Maybe he didn't get the result he originally wanted, but he got a hit song, two Grammy nominations -- much more than he would have gotten out of a date with me, that's for sure."