The Police released no singles that matched the popularity and longevity of 1983’s “Every Breath You Take.” It marked a high-water mark in the group’s career, despite the circumstances surrounding it.
Accompanied by a solid b-side, “Murder by Numbers,” and a clean and ageless music video, the band’s four-minute signature song creates a tender atmosphere that dives straight through the chest and into a place of deep vulnerability reserved only for inner-monologues.
Sting’s ambiguous and heartfelt lyrics find safe haven behind Andy Summer’s steadily uncertain strumming, two components the song that would earn the band two Grammy awards and an endless flow of royalties.
But for all the acclaim placed on “Every Breath You Take,” the song’s meaning — or rather multiple meanings — is not typical of a record with such a level of popularity. Unlike the generally straightforward contemporary pop songs by artists like Adele or Ed Sheeran, Sting’s relaxed composition suggests multiple interpretations with a narrator who is either exceedingly devoted or exceedingly obsessive. And the only way to discern among the two possibilities is by the recipient of the song’s message.
Each time the “Every Breath You Take” plays on a classic rock radio station or in the background of a restaurant, without fail someone comments on the creepy, stalkerish undertones within Sting’s lyrics. In interviewers, Sting himself has called the song “sinister” and “ugly,” despite initially intending to write a love song.
However, this question is the entire draw. The narrator reaches into a gray area of love and loss that only makes itself known within the level of the subjective psyche. Is it worth trying to hold this together, is it no longer love but jealousy, and when is it time to let go?
Sting wrote the track in the Caribbean between a divorce with his ex-wife and a blooming relationship with his future wife. Writing in the same space that Bob Dylan did for 1975’s Blood On the Tracks, Sting inhabited a strange limbo of emotional loss and newfound affection. Knowing this position, it is difficult to decipher which person the song is more directed toward.
Perhaps the residue of the former relationship lingers in the narrator’s mind, stalking him with curiosity. But it’s also possible that the narrator simply wants to give his new lover the attention that he feels she deserves, giving notice to her every move out of pure affection.
The lyrics simultaneously contrast endearing love with what we mistake for love after it has left.
Additionally, the song might also apply to the sort of relationship between a government and its citizens. The government loves its citizens so much that it needs to monitor their every breath and every move, which adds to the “sinister” aspect of surveillance whether by authority or a former partner.
With the syntax of such simple statements, Sting manages to leave enough ambiguity in the song to keep people wondering about its real meaning, which is undoubtedly in human nature to do.
If anything, “Every Breath You Take” exemplifies that great works of art can arise during times shrouded with domestic unraveling general tension. It shows that, if harnessed correctly, energy from the lowest point can lead to success and recognition.
Certain truths and revelations can only be expressed by those engulfed by them, and the expression in “Every Breath You Take” is not one from a commonly explored space, but one that manages to encompass the full spectrum of loving and loathing.