By: Gabriela Yareliz
Today, we are looking at “Set Fire to the Rain” by Adele from her album 21. There is a shared element in this song with her song “Make You Feel My Love” from her album 19, and that is rain. It’s an imagery she uses often. Rain is something that can impair visibility. It’s dramatic. It’s about the dark, stormy and chaotic feelings. This song was her 3rd U.S. number 1 single. Entertainment Weekly called this a “scorned-woman balladry” (most of hers are).
When the song starts out, you think, Ah! A romantic ballad. But then, things take a turn. She starts with a degree of powerlessness. She sings about letting her heart fall and then someone “claims” it. It’s up for grabs, apparently, falling into an abyss. The fact that she lets it fall sort of indicates a carelessness and/or weakness to the action. And here comes this fine dude (note sarcasm) and catches it in his hands. Safety? Not really. Just goes to show that in a moment of weakness, we can be hunted like prey, so to speak.
There is a lot of contrasting imagery, here. There is the idea that she was lost, but then he saves her with a kiss. Often, in fairy tales, a kiss brought a princess back to life. It “saves” her. This is consistent with a powerlessness characterization of herself (and most Disney Princesses).
Also contrasting, there are the images of being strong and weak at the same time:
/My hands, they were strong
But my knees were far too weak/
We have this idea that her “hands are strong.” Hands are often tied to action. Knees are what allow you to move, though. So, it’s almost like she knows she has to take action, but she is paralyzed. More powerlessness. However, it’s important to note that as humans, we are complex beings. Contradictions make us.
Then, we have the characterization of who she has fallen for:
/All the things you’d say
They were never true, never true
And the games you’d play
You would always win, always win/
This is the truth about him. He is a liar (nothing is true; she does say “never”). He seems to be manipulative because she talks about games. He sounds like a winner.
She is stuck and confused. The confusion can be noted because even after revealing what is wrong with this man, she states that she feels she can lie there forever with him, and she states, “You and me together, nothing is better.”
So, what relief does the listener get? (I don’t think the listener is actually seeking relief, by the way). She does finally wake up, and she takes an action. She snaps out of her powerlessness and her waiting to be chosen, and she sets a fire:
/But I set fire to the rain
Watched it pour as I touched your face
Well, it burned while I cried
‘Cause I heard it screaming out your name
She sets fire to the rain. Another interesting contrast. Rain is wet and doesn’t burn, it only drenches. Here, the rain drenches but with fire because somehow it consumes and burns. Rain is usually tied to some sort of cleansing element, and many times, so is fire. Also interesting is that they are both standing in it. We know this because she is close enough to touch his face. They are both burning, and she is crying.
Obviously, fire is often tied to elements like anger (and her voice unleashes an interesting fury and emotion at the chorus) and the scene of eternal damnation– but also, it represents passion and desire, and rebirth and resurrection. Another interesting element to fire is that it brings light. In the beginning, she says she let her heart fall when it was dark. At this point, she changes that. Fire illuminates, especially if it falls like rain, canceling out the bad visibility.
The fire here “screams out” his name. The fire isn’t crackling or dying, but it’s “pouring.” It’s steady and consistent. When something burns, it changes composition and often cannot go back to its original pre-fire form. It is altered forever.
She sets the fire, and yet she is saddened by it. Another contrast of ideas. It’s like when you do something because it’s for your good, but it brings you pain, even though you know it’s right. Also, going back to the fact that they are both standing in it, a part of her is also being destroyed. Maybe she sees it as a heart suicide.
This fire marks the end of something, when she sings at the end:
/I set fire to the rain
And I threw us into the flames
When we fell, something died
‘Cause I knew that that was the last time
The last time, oh/
When thinking about this song, it’s easy to just dive in headfirst to discuss what makes an unhealthy relationship. Clearly, there are a lot of obvious things we can point to: her self-perceived lack of choice and “falling” into the situation, the constant deception (and the unhealthy fact that she weirdly feels amazing around someone who lies to her repeatedly)… We also see that in the end, reality is more powerful than feelings.
Another thing we see clearly is that when it comes to relationships, without integrity and honesty, we have nothing but darkness. Love isn’t a game that someone wins. We need to set a clear definition of what love is and make sure we set a standard for those around us (as to how we want to be loved and treated).
But I guess the greater mystery that I can’t even begin to tackle is how to we end up in these toxic situations. Is it that we see the signs and ignore them? Is it that we don’t see the signs at all? (And how does this happen? Is it lack of guidance, culture, youth, stupidity, misplaced hope?) Is it based on our past perceptions of what is acceptable in love? I mean some people gravitate toward dysfunction because it feels normal and yet some choose the opposite for the same reasons. I guess there is no one answer to this. I’ve seen intelligent, attractive, and even experienced people fall into these dynamics. I don’t know.
All I do know is that we at some point need to reflect long enough to see the patterns and stop the cycle. One thing we can take for certain from this song is that change or an end to something toxic takes action. The action may be painful. It may “burn” us too, so to speak. Often, an end to something feels like it will destroy us, but it results in something new.
Is our rage part of what helps us forgive ourselves and heal? I don’t know. (There are a lot of “I don’t know”s in this post. I know). Let me know your thoughts in the comments. I won’t pretend to know the answers to these complex questions. Maybe, we are all handicapped when it comes to love just due to our nature and whatever holes exist in our hearts.
What I do know for sure is that you shouldn’t settle for less. You were made for true love. You weren’t made for rain but for sunshine.