You probably have to be a mega-super Hanson nerd of a very small niche to care what I’m about to say next, but if you happen to fall into the super fan category AND you loved English class, read on.
Both songs are narrated from the perspective of a(n assumedly) male protagonist in some sort of dance scenario with a girl. For the sake of this analysis, let’s say we’re talking about 14 year old Taylor approaching a girl vs 27 year old Taylor approaching a girl. The two songs are like snapshots taken in the same place of the same subject 13 years apart. Let’s look at the one from 1997 first.
“Look at You” is about a boy who hasn’t found his inner confidence or comfort zone just yet. We don’t know the exact setting. Middle school dance? Cool kids’ party? It doesn’t really matter. What we know is that he’s at some sort of dance and he’s being your stereotypical nervous fly on the wall at the beginning: “Standing in the shadows wondering what I'm doing here/Wishing something would happen, maybe I could disappear." Then in walks this girl with all the confidence in the world making it look so easy. (This is your basic Jake Ryan/Samantha Baker role reversal, Sixteen Candles fans). He knows that you don’t get the girl by staying in the corner, and you can hear him talking himself into action in the bridge: “Just kick off your shoes, get on the floor/This is what we came here for…Just get on the floor.” For years I took that more as a generic instruction to the person listening to the song, the all-knowing singer urging the audience to go dance and have a good time. I really think it’s the main character’s advice to himself, though, psyching himself up to do something he’s nervous about. It rhymes and flows a lot better than “Suck it up and get out there!” but that’s the basic plot so far.
Then comes the chorus which boils down to a whole lot of looking and not so much happening (Sorry, kid. You won't get any action verbs in your chorus for another decade).The next verse starts with “In the middle of the dance floor, lights shining in my face,” so at this point our protagonist has advanced from the shadows and joined the crowd on the dance floor. But before he can make any big decisions, the girl makes the move for him and encourages him with “why don't you come and give it a try/Get on the floor, just kick off your shoes/You ain't got a thing to lose.”
Presumably, boy gets on the floor. Boy kicks off shoes. Boy loses nothing except his nervousness, and ultimately, boy grows up to voice a much more confident dance scenario as a result.
Next is Zac’s crazed rambling at the end of the song. I always enjoyed his rant about a purple moose as much as the next 9-year-old girl, but even back then the shy guy at the beginning never meshed well with the shouting frenzy at the end to me. I appreciated it because it sounded fun, but it never really made any sense. This guy wants to disappear into the shadows at the mere thought of dancing, and then roughly three minutes later, he wants to be turned loose “like a one-eyed purple moose?” and is comfortable shouting “Let’s do it?” I’m not buying it. We’re only getting the perspective of one guy throughout the song, so it never crossed my mind to assign Zac’s part to some other character. Listening to it this time, it occurred to me: what if Zac’s letting loose at the end is a representation of the shy guy’s inner voice? He’s the voice of the dancing maniac locked deep down in a shy guy shell, awoken finally at the insistence of a confident girl with moves and hips. Maybe I’m reading too much into it or finally understanding something really obvious about 18 years too late, but it’s an interesting possibility and one that makes Zac’s part of the song finally make sense to me.
Now let’s look at “Give a Little.” You can tell within the first sentence that the guy has grown up a bit. Yeah, he’s still a little insecure and worried about being teased for his “flirty quips” or for choosing the wrong words to say to this girl, but the bigger victory is that he spoke to her at all. No more trying to disappear into the corner. You can still hear that same inner voice of encouragement trying to talk himself into action, though: “You gotta show her why she can't resist/Make her blush when you put your hand on her hips.” Again, I always took this as an instructional how-to to the listener, but I really think he’s talking himself through his own process, only this time it’s with such a confidence that he could be teaching someone his moves.
One of the subtle details I find the most interesting is the way the power has shifted from the girl in “Look At You” to the guy in “Give a Little.” You can make your own judgments about what that means, but I choose to see it as a simple shift in self-confidence. The guy in the second song isn’t the shy guy from before. He has learned that you have to put yourself out there to get what you want, and he has a better idea of how to do it thirteen years later. In “Look at You,” the girl is the one that “walks in with that look in her eye,” but in “Give a Little,” he suggests “You gotta hold her, with that look in your eyes.” He’s the one with “that look” of confidence now, and he no longer looks at her and wonders what she’s going to do. Then there’s the mention of hips in both songs. In “Look at You,” he says “She breaks the silence with a move of her hips/You better hang on don't want to lose your grip.” She has all the power here, and he’s just trying to keep up. In “Give a Little,” her hips are a way for him to turn the tables and control the situation: “You gotta show her why she can't resist/Make her blush when you put your hand on her hips.”
My favorite line to support this interpretation is this: “She loves to keep you in suspense/ But you know she just wants to dance.”
He spends the whole first song not being too sure of anything; suspense is an understatement for how he feels about her. But this line in “Give a Little” reads like a before and after for someone who has been there and finally figured it all out. She wants to appear suspenseful and complex (“everybody wonders when they look at you,” “She's gonna keep on playing until you stop chasing”), but underneath it all, you (finally!) know she just wants you to ask her to dance. He goes from wondering to knowing, and it shows in the way he describes the two situations.
I think we're out of time for today, but if you're the type that likes homework: Think about the next incarnation of the dance song scenario and track the change in confidence from from "standing in the shadows, wondering what I'm doing here" all the way to "you’re in my top ten, I like the way you bend/You’re cooler than ice, you don’t have to pretend." Taylor Hanson: Wallflower to unabashed DJ in 18 years.
Class dismissed. :-)