When I was just a lad of ten (or so) I first heard the song “Wild World” from the album Tea For the Tillerman, by Cat Stevens (now known as Yusuf Islam but originally named Steven Demetre Georgiou ). It was a pleasant, upbeat melody with foreboding lyrics, warning the listener that it is a wild world and that there is a lot of bad out there. It’s the type of song whose melody lulls you into a state on unconsciousness and discourages you from really listening to the lyrics. A lady friend of mine, however, recently suggested that the song was more than a little offensive to women and such a thought had never occurred to me, so I gave the lyrics a close reading, and by god, Cat Stevens, aka: Yusuf Islam, aka: Steven Demetre Georgiou, clearly demonstrates an egotistical, chauvinistic and demeaning tone throughout the entirety of the song! That catchy melody disarmed my critical thinking and allowed me to indulge in, for decades, a trite, bitter, chauvinistic anthem about the inferiority of women as perceived by the narrator of this song.
Generally, when one gets a song written about them, especially one that becomes a big hit, it is a flattering thing indeed, even if it is a break up song. Not so in the case of “Wild World”. Let us examine these lyrics closely. The opening verse goes as follows:
Now that I’ve lost everything to you
You say you wanna start something new
And it’s breakin’ my heart you’re leavin’
Baby, I’m grievin’
But if you wanna leave, take good care
I hope you have a lot of nice things to wear
But then a lot of nice things turn bad out there
It starts out as a typical break up song. We hear the voice of a pathetic man who is too self-interested to consider the feelings of the other person. He employs a passive-aggressive approach, stating that his heart is “breakin’” and the he is “grievin’”, in an attempt to elicit sympathy, but then tells her to “take good care”. It’s like: “Hey, have a great life while I’m here mourning over the loss of you.” Not the most sincere tone. He even suggests that that he has lost everything to her, implying that she has taken from him without giving, or at least without leaving anything for him. The truth of the matter is that a person does not owe you anything because they began a relationship with you, and to blame them for losing everything is trite, especially if they have given much of themselves to you, and especially when you are doing well enough to score a recording deal that pays you millions via a song about the girl who took everything from you. It seems she has made your career for you, giving you much as opposed to taking things away from you. Who would know who Cat Stevens is today, without that song?
As for the passive-aggressive tone, yes, we have all been there, and we all know how pathetic it is in hindsight. It is a human response, but certainly not a mature one. It is the last couplet of the first verse where we see the condescending chauvinism rear its ugly head. Cat Stevens sings: “I hope you have a lot of nice things to wear”. This is more than a little condescending. It implies that while in the process of breaking up, the man assumes the woman has nothing more on her mind than what clothes she is going to be wearing, which undercuts his suggestion to “take good care” in that he immediately suggests that she is a shallow person who is overly concerned with appearance over substance. The truth of the matter is that it is the narrator who lacks the substance in this instance.
Enter the first chorus:
Oh, baby, baby, it’s a wild world
It’s hard to get by just upon a smile
Oh, baby, baby, it’s a wild world
I’ll always remember you like a child, girl
This reinforces the condescending nature of the closing couplet of the first verse. He warns his former lover that it is “hard to get by just upon a smile”. This implies that all the girl has to offer is a smile and that she has no other tools with which to cope with the world. It also implies that she does not have the cognitive ability to determine what is good or bad or to navigate the treacherous terrain of the human world. The fact that he refers to her as “baby” four times is also condescending as it implies that she is a mere infant. This, some may say, is simply a term of endearment, but the closing line makes the sentiment clear. He states that he will always remember her “like a child” and then calls her “girl”, denying her womanhood and adulthood throughout the entirety of the song.
The second verse reinforces what we have seen throughout the song:
You know I’ve seen a lot of what the world can do
And it’s breakin’ my heart in two
Because I never wanna see you a sad girl
Don’t be a bad girl
But if you wanna leave, take good care
I hope you make a lot of nice friends out there
But just remember there’s a lot of bad and beware
He suggests that, even though he is only three years older than the girl he was dating at the time (the song is addressed to model/actress Patricia “Patti” D’Arbanville who was three years Islam’s junior), that he has far more life experience than she and that he understands the world in ways which she cannot. It is like the 25-year-old sage offering words of wisdom to his 22-year-old neophyte. The singer suggests that she needs him to take care of her. He says he never wants to see her “a sad girl”. Islam seems to be asserting a paternal role in that he wants to protect her and deny her the human experience of sadness, and refers to her as girl again! Then he tells her not to be a bad girl, as if she would be incapable of making morally correct decisions without his guidance, and that whatever bad might befall her may be brought on by her own immorality. Then, after telling her that he hopes she makes “a lot of nice friends out there” he warns her to “remember there’s a lot of bad”, suggesting that she is lucky to have found him because he is one of the few nice ones, a sentiment that is easily scoffed at by anybody who is actually listening to the words.
The chorus is again repeated, and the third verse is much the same as the second, but shorter and starts with the line “Baby I love you”, calling her a baby again before repeating his warning that there is a lot of bad and concluding with another chorus where he again calls her baby four times, a girl once and likens her to a child. Seeing her as a child while suggesting all she has to offer the world is a smile and some nice outfits is insulting to her, yes, but it is also very telling of the narrator. The narrator claims that the woman being addressed is without substance, but the fact that he claims to be in love with her suggests that he is shallow.
The song clearly indicates that the voice speaking belongs to a man who cannot recognize a sentient adult woman as an equal, but rather sees her as a child that needs taking care of. Why is she leaving him? Likely because he is an ignorant douche bag who fails to recognize and respect the autonomy of another adult because she doesn’t have the same reproductive organs as him. He is like an imperialist tyrant who can’t figure out why the natives of the land he has conquered don’t wish to be taken care of (aka enslaved) by him. The arrogance of the narrator is obvious. He is probably so vain that he thinks Carly Simon wrote a song about him (news flash, the song is actually about Carly Simon: Everything is a self-portrait). As for the song to whom the girl was addressed to, Patricia “Patti” D’Arbanville has had a successful career without Cat Stevens, or Yusuf Islam, or whatever his name is. She has been in a host of films and television shows and had a successful modelling career, a career which she had put on hold to take care of Islam whilst he was ill (no mention of that in the song though).
If you enjoyed this post and would like updates on my latest ramblings, be sure to follow me on Twitter @JasonJohnHorn. In closing, I would like to share a Cat Stevens song I do like: “Tea For The Tillerman”.