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My name's Clifford Stumme, and I explain the deeper meanings of popular songs. Let's have a conversation about what you think about the songs and go deeper together. Feel free to email me at clifford@popsongprofessor.com with questions or ideas!

What does "Green Light" by Lorde mean?

What does "Green Light" by Lorde mean?

"Green Light" Lyrics Meaning

I should preface this by saying that I'm a huge Lorde fan, but I won't let that color my explanation and analysis of her song. Pure Heroine was the first time, personally, that a new album came out that I could listen to straight through and then start again. Every song on that record was amazing, and I loved them all. It opened me up to the new experience of listening to an album as a whole, which is more difficult than you might think in a world that runs on singles.

Of course, my job on this blog is still to be as invisible as possible. I've had my fun above talking about my experience, and I'll mention my thoughts again near the end, but for now I want you to be able to leave with a deeper understanding of "Green Light." 

Psst! Check out my podcast on "Green Light"!

Lyrics Meaning: Heartbreak and Moving On

After a few listens through, I think most people will understand that the overall idea of "Green Light" is heartbreak, the ending of a relationship, and the inability to move on until the narrator sees that "green light." That's the main idea of the song, and it's accomplished masterfully through the anecdotes, symbolism, and music of the song.

To speak on the music for a moment, "Green Light" begins like many other Lorde songs--low, dark, and intense--perhaps proving to us that she's still the same artist. But the pre-chorus ushers in a bright bit of piano that lightens the mood and suggests the moving on that she's so eager to do in the lyrics. That portion also proves to us that she's ready, perhaps, to move on as an artist and that she has more tools in her kit that some might give her credit for after Pure Heroine. 

In any case, the musical element of the song does a wonderful job of supporting the lyrical meaning. And as far at that lyrical meaning goes, I think it's one of the better-developed explorations of heartbreak that I've seen. Lorde has confirmed that it is about heartbreak in an interview on Beats 1 Radio:

The song is actually about a heartbreak. And it’s not something that I really am used to writing about. It took me a while to be able to figure out how to write about that. It was my first major heartbreak. The song is really about those moments kind of immediately after your life changes and about all the silly little things that you gravitate towards. 

For being a heartbreak song, it doesn't give away the story too easily, it gives an actual personal perspective, and it sets the heartbreak inside of the larger narrative of recovery so that we aren't encouraged to relish those painful loss-based emotions. "Green Light" may not be deep on the surface--ironic sounding I know--but compared to other heartbreak songs' usual sappy emotions and one-dimensional sound, you're going to find quite a bit to grapple with here.

Verse 1

I do my makeup in somebody else's car
We order different drinks at the same bars
I know about what you did and I wanna scream the truth
She thinks you love the beach, you're such a damn liar

In the first stanza, Lorde shows us that she's in a state of separation. She doesn't do her "makeup in" her boyfriend's car; she does it in "somebody else's car." Not only that, but the way that they order "different drinks at the same bars" further suggests the separation by showing their different preferences despite being in the same places. 

Apparently, this ex isn't that great of a person, and Lorde sings that she "know[s] what you did, and I wanna scream the truth." Perhaps he cheated on her or did something cruel to her, but it appears to be something that could get him in a lot of trouble if everyone knew. He'd probably be most likely to get in trouble with his new girlfriend of whom Lorde sings, "She thinks you love the beach; you're such a damn liar." Lorde can see right through his attempts to get with this new girl, and it makes her madder at him.

Refrain

Those great whites, they have big teeth
Hope they bite you
Thought you said that you would always be in love
But you're not in love no more
Did it frighten you
How we kissed when we danced on the light up floor?
On the light up floor

Here in "Green Light," the "great whites" who "have big teeth" seems to refer to the beach that was just mentioned in the first verse, and Lorde is using them to which comeuppance on this fellow when she sings, "Hope they bite you." In the second iteration of the refrain, she changes "[t]hose great whites" to "All those rumors," to suggest that what other people say about him are going to haunt him. 

He had, apparently, told her that he "would always be in love" with her, but he no longer is, and she's angry at him for now. She wonders if it "frightened" him when they "kissed" and "danced on the light up floor." Apparently, it was an intense emotional moment for the two of them, and she suspects that maybe it was too intense for him. Perhaps it felt too much like emotional commitment. 

Pre-Chorus

But I hear sounds in my mind
Brand new sounds in my mind
But honey I'll be seein' you 'ever I go
But honey I'll be seein' you down every road
I'm waiting for it, that green light, I want it

In the pre-chorus lyrics of "Green Light," Lorde mentions "new sounds" in her "mind," suggesting that she's being led somewhere new. Because this is where the music changes and becomes much more upbeat, I think this is symbolic of two things: she's feeling the first surge of energy that will take her to a new phase of life outside of this relationship, and she could be referring to how it's inspiring her to write new music in new styles.

Concerning that second theory, I think it would be almost too much of a coincidence for this song to mention "new sounds in my mind," be the lead single for a long awaited album, and then to not be a reference to that new music. That doesn't make it conclusive, but these lines do make me suspicious. 

When Lorde refers to seeing her ex "'ever I go" and "down every road," it's going to be difficult for her to do so, but she'll make it because she's "waiting for it, that green light . . ." Several listeners have theorized that the green light in the lyrics and title is a reference to the green light in The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, which is a reference to the hope of the future (among other things). As exciting as that would be for me, Lorde has responded on Twitter, "not a gatsby ref actually! More like standard traffic light type meaning of green light :-)" 

The green light here then evokes the image of her waiting in a car at a red light waiting for the ability to move past this relationship and to be her own person and explore new things again. She'll get there--the light will come--but it just takes time. 

Chorus

Cause honey I'll come get my things, but I can't let go
I'm waiting for it, that green light, I want it
Oh, I wish I could get my things and just let go
I'm waiting for it, that green light, I want it

Essentially, Lorde has officially ended the relationship and will be getting her things, but emotionally she still feels conflicted and confused. She's trying to figure things out and has found her "green light" yet even if she wants it badly. 

Verse 2

Sometimes I wake up in a different bedroom
I whisper things, the city sings 'em back to you

This verse, while shorter than verse 1, refers to the same things. The line about "a different bedroom" is again, like the first line of the song, telling us that Lorde is either with someone else or at the least separated from this fellow. It's a reminder to herself or a bit of narration for us. The lyrics about whispering and the city seems to refer how she knows he's going to hear about what she's doing. People will talk about her to him, and, perhaps, he'll find out that she's been sleeping with someone else (if that's what she's doing). At the least, he'll hear about her the same way that she seems to keep hearing about him. 

The Deeper Meaning of the Lyrics of "Green Light"

I think I've basically covered this in the above explication--I did get a little carried away on a few things--but I'd like to summarize that deeper meaning by saying that "Green Light" is about a real heartbreak that Lorde experienced and that she's trying to get over. She needs a little time, but then she's positive that the future will hold brighter things for her and that she'll be free to move onto the next phase of her life. 

As she says in a long Facebook post to fans, "Writing Pure Heroine was my way of enshrining our teenage glory, putting it up in lights forever so that part of me never dies, and this record - well, this one is about what comes next." We're moving into different territory in Melodrama, and I'm excited to see what Lorde comes up with next!

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