October 19, 2021

Against The World: Stronger

When Hanson announced Against The World, I committed to writing a blog entry per song. They chose this song-per-month release format to give each song the attention it deserves, and for better or for worse, I signed on to blog in that same format for the duration of the project. At first I kind of liked the idea of challenging myself to dig deeper into every song. There can be no skip songs here, and I was curious to see where that would lead.

While writing an entire blog post about a single song is not new territory for me, I have only ever done it when inspiration struck and I had some grand-feeling epiphany about a song. I have only ever done it when the words were already building up in my head and practically begging to be let out. Making an advanced commitment to write about a song I haven't even heard is a little scary. What if I don't like it? What if I don't "get" it and have nothing to say? What if I love it to death, but we're five songs in, and I'm just kind of over the concept of making myself do this thing that I have only ever done out of desire, and turning it into an obligation makes it not so fun anymore?

That's where I'm at now. "Stronger" is a truly amazing song, and I can already tell you it deserves better than this blog of duty when it might have been a blog of passion if I hadn't turned it into a homework assignment all those months ago. I sucked the fun right out of it, which is a shame because I do believe this is one of those songs that would have demanded my attention and my word count all on its own. I'll do my best to do it justice anyway.

So "Stronger." I want to take this one in a different direction and instead of forcing a close reading of lyrics that are already pretty self-explanatory, I want to take you through my first impression of hearing it. I accidentally watched a few seconds of a clip Taylor posted of his hands playing the piano on Instagram days before "Stronger" was released. When I heard the notes he was playing, I immediately thought "Dear God, PLEASE let this be from the new single, and if not, please don't let this beautiful piece of music stay hidden in the vault."

The first time I listened to "Stronger," I did it alone in my room at midnight with my earbuds in and my eyes closed. I didn't get distracted by all the pretty northern lights in the music video or the dramatic stage lighting (which is actually really cool and very well done). And when I pressed play for the first time and heard those opening piano notes, my grin was instant and involuntary. 

When the harmonies hit about 47 seconds in, I felt giddy. THIS is what good music feels like: adrenaline and butterflies and threats of tears regardless of whether you're experiencing it live in a symphony hall with the best acoustics or sitting alone in your room, completely transported by a pair of cheap headphones and the simple magic of stacked sibling harmonies. 

The 1:03 mark introduced strings, and with it, a subtle connection to String Theory. I found myself wondering if they ever play another String Theory show, would they consider reworking newer songs that fit the story and the style? "Stronger" is exactly the type of powerhouse that deserves to be backed by a symphony orchestra. (This is also the part where I admit that I initially thought this second verse was sung by Zac. It wasn't until I was watching the video for the first time hours later that I realized it was Taylor!)

At 1:16, we get five rapidly ascending notes from a harpsichord, and that was the first moment I went from fully on board and in love to suddenly unsure where this train was heading. Ten seconds before, I'd been imagining String Theory, and then suddenly I was transported to "An Evening At The Big Top," which is not a place I'm sure Hanson meant to take me. That minor introduction of a few notes on a harpsichord was all it took for me to hear the beat of the piano chords in an entirely new way, and I couldn't help but get this sudden cyclical circus-y feeling like someone was slowly turning the handle of a jack-in-the-box, and we're on a carousel inside. I didn't dislike any of it; I just no longer knew what direction this song was about to take. Maybe it wasn't the beautifully safe piano ballad I thought it was going to be.

At 1:47, an electric guitar sneaks in on top of those stacked harmonies, and I for sure no longer knew where we were headed, but man I wanted to go there anyway. The song progressively takes off from there with more guitar, more harmonies, and more Queen vibes before finally crashing back down to a single stripped-down note at the end. It leaves you feeling like that abrupt stop at the end of a great rollercoaster where you're already climbing out of your seat, but your mind and body still haven't caught up from the fact that you were hanging upside down at 80 mph just 20 seconds before.

"Stronger" is not the piano ballad I thought I was signing up for when I pressed play. During that first listen, it felt progressive and even experimental at times, not taking any of the safe, String-Theory-esque turns I expected it to take after such a simple and beautiful opening. After listening a few more times, I accepted the harpsichord and the guitar and the Queeny harmonies, and it no longer feels as "out there" as it did on that first listen. I still can't explain the circus feels and won't try to invent some conspiracy theory level explanation, but I'm curious if it was intentional, and if so, what was the intent?

Thematically, the lyrics are straight-forward and I won't bother with an analysis, but I will say that I like the overall sense that it's about someone striving to be better, and the song itself gets progressively "stronger" by adding in more voices, more instruments, and ultimately more support from others. Taylor also talked about this some in a speech he gave the first time they performed this song live back in September. He mentioned a special music teacher, Ron Anderson, who helped him at a time when he was struggling vocally to be strong enough to perform all over the world as a young band. It was a touching moment and I think one of my biggest takeaways from this song and from that bit of insight is that we are ultimately stronger when we work together and when we accept help from those who are willing to give it. 

I think if I had not roped myself into this series of ATW blogs, the blog I would have naturally written about "Stronger" would have been tying it to the themes in "All I Know" (and maybe also "Believe"). I would've talked about how "Stronger" feels like a progression of that utterly defeated person in "All I Know" waking up and feeling the slightest bit more hopeful that maybe he's not about to reach an end, maybe he can find his way, but all he knows is that he needs to be stronger to get out of that place. Maybe one day I'll feel like writing it, or maybe giving it one paragraph here is all it really needs anyway.

So final thoughts? Falling victim to the unavoidable wordplay opportunity here, I have to say that "Stronger" is the "strongest" song yet from ATW. The piano is breathtaking, the lyrics are powerful and full of raw emotion, and I never stood a chance against those harmonies. Despite its theme about not feeling adequate and striving to be stronger, "Stronger" itself is certainly not suffering from any of those shortcomings.

Hanson: *writes song about feeling weak and inadequate*
Song: *is the strongest, most impressive release of the entire project so far*

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