Written by Candace Edgley. 3 November 2015.
“If I Die Young,” which reached #1 on Billboard’s Hot Country Chart and Hot Adult Contemporary Tracks in 2010, is a song that at first listen has dark themes surrounding the death of a young girl, taken too soon. The song is performed by Kimberly Perry, with her brothers Neil and Reid singing harmonies and playing various instruments throughout the song.
The song was The Band Perry’s second single release and by far their most successful, coming out a week after “Hip To My Heart” fell from the charts (June 2010). Through sweet and simple lyrics, and by utilizing strong imagery and accenting the religious beliefs of a large portion of their target audience, the band relays a positive message about making the most of the time that you have, and being happy with your own life.
Kimberly Perry (henceforth Perry) was singing solo for a while, and had her brothers performing as her opening act shortly thereafter, but the trio didn’t link up until 2003 and “If I Die Young” was written by Perry and recorded by the group right before the signing of a record deal in August 2009. The lyrics “and maybe then you’ll hear the words I’ve been singin’ / Funny when you’re dead how people start listenin’” depict their desire for their music to be appreciated by a larger audience than the one that they were reaching pre-record deal.
According to Wilkening, “At first glance, it’s a set of instructions… However, dig a little deeper and you’ll find it’s actually helpful advice for all of us to follow while we’re still alive.” The song was written “on a cloudy day in east tennessee” to describe how satisfied the trio was with their live’s progress now that their dreams were becoming a reality. For The Band Perry personally, the song means “if it all ends at this moment, look at what we’ve gotten to do” (Conaway 2010). It’s a ballad of contentment, and about not diminishing what you’ve achieved by what you could possibly achieve with more time.
For many of their fans however, the song and its themes touched far closer to home. Perhaps unforeseen by the band, many people had very personal experiences that allowed them to relate to the song on a deeper level than even the writer can. The song is presented from the perspective of a young girl expressing her sentiment toward passing away suddenly, and how she wants to be remembered fondly, and without sadness.
In an interview with Josh Armstrong, Perry recalls the first written letter the band received about the song, and how the song saved a fan from committing suicide. The girl had lost a close friend at a young age to cancer and was struggling through life as a result, but she “heard so much life in that song, [she] decided not to” end her own. She discusses another fan in the crowd at a show they performed holding a sign with a name on it that said “she died young” and how heartbreaking that was during the performance.
There are also countless Youtube comments and Amazon reviews by users who have lost loved ones and it is easy to see the extensive effects this song has had; one Amazon user wrote “Great song I can’t help but to start tearing up when I listen to it. My youngest daughter past away 2 years ago and it reminds me of her only 20 years old. Gone too young”. Perry says it best in the Armstrong interview, claiming “at the end of the day, this song is making a difference. It meant something to this girl, and that makes all of it so much more worthwhile”. Even if the original intent for the song was somewhat basic, the effects it has had on its audience are anything but superficial.
Many lyrics throughout the verses refer to Christian-based afterlife beliefs and concepts, which are important to the song’s fundamental claims. In December of 2009, a Harris Poll found that 73% of Americans identify as Christian, a vast majority of the band’s target audience at the time. The first two verses are a conversation between the narrator and her God; In verse one Perry references the “Lord” and in verse two she talks about entering his “kingdom”. These are direct indicators of a Christian foundation and are very pointed, placed at the beginning and end of lines to get attention and to maintain it, respectively.
Later in the final verse she references a dove, which is a major christian symbol used both in biblical stories (Noah’s Ark) to symbolize perpetual peace. By referring to the song as a “ballad of a dove” Perry further presses the concept that she is at peace with her life’s end, and the previous verses depict the typical Christian idea that when she dies she will be headed to a better place (The Lord’s kingdom).
All three of these references to God occur at the very beginning of their respective verses, within the first sentence of each, indicating the importance of these fundamental values to the narrator of the song, and therefore to the targeted listener as well. These ideas impress that a life cut short is not to be mourned, but to be celebrated- she’s off to sit beside the Lord in a place of contentment.
Several references to purity and chastity, both of which are held in incredibly high regard in Christian denominations, are made throughout the song as well. For one, Perry selects pearls as her funeral adornment of choice during the song’s bridge.The pearls are a slightly less transparent reference to purity, although even today they are associated with class and esteem. Matthew 13:45 says “the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls” associating the mineral with divine and pure qualities worthy of entering the heavenly gates (also commonly referred to as the ‘pearly’ gates). The pearls are mentioned first immediately following the instrumental and then again as the very last part of the song, indicating the finality of her life and perhaps the finality of the “merchant”‘s search.
The second reference to chastity is that the narrator will “be wearing white”, followed by the blatant statement “I’ve never known the lovin’ of a man”(Verse 2). These two examples reference virginity specifically, making it abundantly clear that the narrator has never experienced a sexual relationship- one wears white to a wedding in Christian practice when this is the case- which places the narrator in a higher regard for a Christian audience, whilst also perhaps creating some sympathy from listeners who feel that their procreates are what make their lives meaningful.
The narrator of the song quells any concerns the audience might have about her lack of family in the third verse of the song by bringing in a more lighthearted speaking style and discussing other ways that her legacy lives on. It’s a more worldly positive take on her passing- indicating that good will not only come to her in heaven but to the people she leaves behind as well.
The last verse of the song is very similar to the previous verses; however the lyrics are more flowy and ballad-esque, which gives the listener a sense of heightened importance, coinciding with an important message of the song: “gather up your tears / keep ‘em in your pocket / save ‘em for a time when you’re really gonna need ‘em”. This indicates the importance of coming to terms with loss, and finding peace with it. The verse itself is more positive than the previous ones, as the song nears the end of its journey with the listener leading past the grief that comes with loss.
The pre-chorus of the song begins using intense imagery “the sharp knife, of a short life” and finalizes with the lyric “Well, I’ve had just enough time” which is very representative of the song and its rhetorical strategy on the whole. Those two lines are the most memorable part of the song for myself personally, as they are repeated several times and have more thematic relevance than the chorus itself, which isn’t much more than an image of a beautiful burial. There is a strong tension between the two lines, just as there is a tension between the sadness of the loved ones she has left behind and the satisfaction the narrator has with her life and its fulfillment.
The knife represents the pain inflicted on the people that love her by her death, and also implies that her death was unexpected, violent crimes aren’t typically foreseen. It also adds an additional layer of relatability for an audience that has lost someone due to violent crime, without taking away from everyone else’s ability to engage with the song.
Furthermore, each time Perry sings the pre-chorus the final word- “time” is sung differently, gaining power each time. By first increasing the length of the word, and later the volume, pitch, and pitch variability the listener gets a sense that the aforementioned tension between sadness and satisfaction is waning in favor of the narrator- the audience becomes more convinced that there is no reason to grieve the young girl as the song continues and in the final pre-chorus almost the entire line proceeding “time” is belted, or shouted, overpowering the pain of the loved ones that the knife has caused.
“If I Die Young” by The Band Perry, has more themes and messages than are obvious at first glance and by delving into the personal lives of the artist, the reactions from the audience, and the actual song itself these become more clear. It is a perfect example of the subjectivity of music and the power of the listener to influence its meaning to them specifically. The focal point of the song- to make the most of the time you have, is successfully portrayed along with other sub-themes of Christianity and coming to terms with loss.
|0:00||Chorus||“If I die
|The song contains no intro, going straight into lyrics accompanied by guitar chords and followed by the ‘hook’ of the song (uh-ohs).|
|0:23||Verse 1||“Lord make me
|This verse uses soft vocals and simple, sad lyrics to make the listener feel sympathy for the mother of the narrator. Drums enter here to emphasize the story is beginning. There is a reference to a higher power and an assumption of afterlife is necessary.|
|This verse utilizes a violent metaphor to indicate the tension between the contentedness of the narrator and the pain of those she is leaving behind.|
|0:53||Chorus||“If I die
|During this chorus the brothers join in, harmonizing. This adds depth to the chorus and makes it more memorable than the first time.|
|Again we see the violent metaphor, but this time “time” is held longer, emphasizing the contentedness more, almost like she’s arguing more strongly.|
|1:22||Verse 2||“And I’ll be
|This verse contains happier lyrics, or at least less depressing ones. It also contains more harmonizing, bringing the listener up closer to the light, out of the pit of sadness they fell into in the beginning.|
|Time again is louder, longer, and higher indicating an even stronger argument from the narrator.|
|The harmonica provides a novel sound to the song that masks the fact that the guitar is just playing a verse without words. Its softer sound allows the listener to wallow a bit without seeming overwhelmingly sad.|
|2:14||Bridge||“So put on your
|There is a change of pace here, and a reference to pearls. For the first time there is an indication of some sort of formal funeral gathering besides just a burial.|
|2:23||Verse 3||“A penny for
|Much more playful tone, almost joking about selling thoughts after she dies, which couldn’t actually happen. The voices are much more powerful than the instruments behind them, which goes to prove the importance of this verse.|
|2:47||Chorus||“If I die
|Melody changes slightly, higher and more powerful/louder sound, serves to make the chorus stick out more, avoid too much simplicity.|
|3:03||Verse 4||“The ballad
of a dove…”
|The lyrics are more static, not as flowy which separates this from the other verses.|
|The entire second sentence is louder and higher than the others, overpowering the sharp knife section completely.|
|3:32||Bridge||“So put on your
|The music fades out before lyrics are complete, reflecting finality and yet again mentioning the pearls.|
“Amazon Customer’s Review of If I Die Young.” Amazon.com. N.p., 27 Nov. 2012. Web. 04 Nov. 2015.
Armstrong, Josh. “The Band Perry Debuts Self-titled Album.” JoshArmstrong.com. N.p., 07 Oct. 2010. Web. 04 Nov. 2015.
The Band Perry. If I Die Young. UMG Recordings, Inc., 2010. YouTube. Web. 04 Nov. 2015.
Conaway, Alanna. “The Band Perry, ‘If I Die Young’ – Story Behind the Lyrics.” The Boot. N.p., 16 July 2010. Web. 4 Nov. 2015.
Hall, Alyssa. “What People Do and Do Not Believe in.” The Harris Poll (2009): n. pag. 15 Dec. 2009. Web. 4 Nov. 2015.
Wilkening, Matthew. “The Band Perry, ‘If I Die Young’ – Lyrics Uncovered.” Taste of Country. N.p., 01 Dec. 2010. Web. 04 Nov. 2015.