The music world is full of misinterpreted songs – people hear a beautiful tune, but don’t really fully understand the actual lyrics. For example, R.E.M.’s “The One I Love” is about using somebody, not loving them. While Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” is not patriotic, but an anti-war song. However, one of the most amusingly misinterpreted songs ever is the Police’s “Every Breath You Take.”
The tune sounds so romantic and it’s actually a favorite for weddings. Yet if you research your wedding playlist beforehand you’ll find multiple people warning you that the tune is far from appropriate for a first dance. Listen to what the song’s author and singer Sting is saying and you might find yourself feeling uneasy.
“Every Breath You Take” has a grim meaning, because Sting was in a dark place when he wrote it. Lyrics such as, “Every bond you break, every step you take, I’ll be watching you,” pepper the song. But once you’ve heard the full story about how the tune came to be, you’ll certainly never hear romance in it ever again.
For its part, “Every Breath You Take” was a massive hit when it was released in 1983. It spent eight weeks at the top of the 100 singles chart. It also was nominated for three Grammys: Song of the Year, Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals and Record of the Year. And in the end, the Police went home having won the first two of those.
Indeed, “Every Breath You Take” seemed to only grow in popularity as time went on. At the end of 1983, it was declared the song of the year by Rolling Stone after a poll of their reviewers and readers. It still to this day appears on “best of” lists – and it reportedly still accounts for at least a quarter of Sting’s music-related income.
And yet, for all the good things the song ended up bringing to Sting, he was definitely not in a good place when he wrote it. When he put pen to paper in 1982 he was in the middle of a romantic scandal. Indeed, he was having an affair with the best friend of his wife Frances Tomelty, a woman called Trudie Styler – and the media ate up the controversial love triangle.
For his part, Sting was married with two children, but he nonetheless pursed Styler. And in his 2003 book Broken Music he spoke obliquely about what had happened. The singer wrote, “[Tomelty] will give birth to our daughter, Kate, but we will be divorced soon afterwards. There would follow a season in Hell for everyone involved.”
Then when news of the affair got out, Styler was cast in the role of homewrecker. Newspaper headlines taunted her, and even made reference to her facial scarring, the result of a nasty childhood accident. Meanwhile, her acting career suddenly evaporated and all of a sudden nobody would hire her.
In among all the chaos and the press intrusion, Sting started working on “Every Breath You Take.” He retreated away from the media and went to a place loaded with literary significance. This was the Golden Eye Estate in Jamaica, where author Ian Fleming wrote about the legendary fictional spy James Bond.
In fact, Sting wrote “Every Breath You Take” while sitting at the exact same desk where Fleming wrote his James Bond adventures. Ironically, just like the song in question, Bond the character is often misinterpreted as being romantic when he is not. Indeed, the novel version sometimes comes across as an out-and-out predator.
Once the lyrics were done, Sting then took the song to Utopia Studios in London. At the time, the Police were falling apart. Apparently, just getting all the band members – Sting, Stewart Copeland, and Andy Summers – to cooperate long enough to record the song was a Herculean task.
Summers talked about the production of the song to Revolver magazine in 2000. He said, “This was a difficult one to get, because Sting wrote a very good song, but there was no guitar on it. It certainly didn’t sound like the Police, with that big, rolling synthesizer part.” He added, “At that point we were in a really gnarly state as a trio. We had sort of reached the end of our rope.”
Meanwhile, Copeland has also talked about creating the song. He told Rhythm in February 2019, “The drum part was composed rather than played. That was done with a click and we had a big battle about it. By that time, Sting had bonded with the Oberheim hi-hat sound, which did have a hypnotic quality. I insisted on playing the hi-hat myself.” Copeland continued, “We went back and forth finishing that song and we fought like cat and dog over the f***ing hi-hat.”
Elsewhere, other people who were around for the song’s creation have talked about how deep the rift between Sting and Copeland was. Co-producer and engineer Hugh Padgham told Sound on Sound in 2004 that sometimes physical fights broke out in the studio. He noted, “Sting and [Copeland] hated each other.”
Indeed, things frequently got violent between the band members. Padgham continued, “I’d try to be Mr Producer and get in the way, saying, ‘Come on, do you have to kick the s*** out of one another?’ But they’d just turn around and shout ‘Get out of it! What do you know? You don’t know anything about us!’”
And there were other difficulties even beyond the Police band members fighting. Padgham added, “It was hot, there was no air conditioning where [Copeland] was playing and he’d be really sweaty, so sometimes the sticks would fly out of his hands when it all got very exciting.” He continued, “In fact, I even gaffered the sticks to his hands and the headphones onto his head to keep them in place.”
And Padgham had criticism for Sting too. He told Sound on Sound, “Although he’s a terrific musician, I have to say that his playing could be quite sloppy. This wasn’t helped by him bouncing up and down on his jogging mat, and asking him to please bounce a little less would only encourage him to do it more.”
Meanwhile, the Police band members continued to clash as the recording continued. Padgham explained, “Sting wanted [Copeland] to just play a very straight rhythm with no fills or anything, and that was the complete antithesis of what [he] was about. [Copeland] would say, ‘I want to f***ing put my drum part on it!’ and Sting would say, ‘I don’t want you to put your f***ing drum part on it!”
Eventually Copeland’s brother Miles, who was also the band’s manager, was called in. At a swimming pool near the studio, he finally managed to convince everybody to stop fighting and continue the sessions. And without that meeting, “Every Breath You Take” might never have seen the light of day.
But, of course, “Every Breath you Take” was recorded and released – and ever since it became a hit, Sting has been baffled by people who think the song is romantic. The singer told NME magazine in 1983, “I don’t think it’s a sad song. I think it’s a nasty little song, really rather evil. It’s about jealousy and surveillance and ownership.”
Sting continued, “I think the ambiguity is intrinsic in the song however you treat it because the words are so sadistic. On one level, it’s a nice long song with the classic relative minor chords. And underneath there’s this distasteful character talking about watching every move.”
Sting was also adamant that “Every Breath you Take” wasn’t a love song, telling NME, “I enjoy that ambiguity, I watched Andy Gibb singing it with some girl on TV a couple of weeks ago, very loving, and totally misinterpreting it. I could still hear the words, which aren’t about love at all… I p***** myself laughing.”
Indeed, the lyrics are extremely creepy when you pay attention to them. The song goes, “Oh can’t you see, you belong to me. How my poor heart aches with every step you take.” It continues, “Every move you make and every vow you break, every smile you fake, every claim you stake, I’ll be watching you.”
Sting went even deeper into the meaning of the song in a 1993 interview with the Independent newspaper. And in the conversation, he discussed the “I’ll be watching you” lyric. The star said, “I woke up in the middle of the night with that line in my head, sat down at the piano and had written it in half an hour. The tune itself is generic, an aggregate of hundreds of others, but the words are interesting.”
Sting revealed that the song had some political elements to it. The singer told The Independent, “It sounds like a comforting love song. I didn’t realize at the time how sinister it is. I think I was thinking of Big Brother, surveillance and control. These were the Reagan, Star Wars years.”
Perhaps Sting was thinking of the media intrusion and paparazzi cameras which surrounded him and Styler when he sat down to write the song? However, despite the animosity towards them when the affair took place, Sting and Styler are still together. They married in 1992 and ended up having four children.
Meanwhile, the other members of the Police have had mixed feelings about “Every Breath You Take” and the song’s success over the years. Copeland told Revolver, “In my humble opinion, this is Sting’s best song with the worst arrangement. I think Sting could have had any other group do this song and it would have been better than our version – except for [Summers’] brilliant guitar part.”
Copeland went on, with his two bandmates present, “Basically, there’s an utter lack of groove. It’s a totally wasted opportunity for our band. Even though we made gazillions off of it and it’s the biggest hit we ever had, when I listen to this recording, I think, ‘God, what a bunch of a**holes we were!’”
Then more animosity arose between the band when Puff Daddy sampled “Every Breath You Take” for his song “I’ll Be Missing You” in 1997. Even though Summers’ guitar could be heard on the track, he wasn’t compensated – but Sting was. Indeed, in 2012 Summers told AV Club he thought the incident was “the major rip-off of all time.”
Such is the popularity of “Every Breath You Take” that it’s been used in multiple works of fiction. In 2018 Styler appeared in the mind-bending Netflix show Maniac, with the song featuring as a sort of Easter egg. It’s sung as a romantic song by a character while Styler, his onscreen mother, watches.
“Every Breath You Take” was also featured in the final scene of season two of another Netflix show, Stranger Things. Indeed, it plays when Eleven finally enters the Snow Ball and dances with Mike Wheeler. However, the song is in there specifically because the lyrics touch on the notion of surveillance, keeping in theme with the show’s plot.
In Beyond Stranger Things, the after-show for the hit series, the cast and crew talked about why “Every Breath You Take” was chosen. Gaten Matarazzo, the young actor who plays Dustin, called it “the stalker song.” And director Shawn Levy elaborated, saying, “The idea of ‘I’ll be watching you,’ given how the season ends, and the fact that there is still something watching… [was] not accidental.”
The music supervisor for Stranger Things, Nora Felder, said a similar thing in a 2019 interview with Bustle. She said, “As many hardcore fans have noted, the lyric in the song, ‘I’ll Be Watching You,’ could be a reference tying in our Season two ending, in which the viewer becomes aware there is a monster, lurking in the shadows,” she said. Indeed, Sting’s so-called “nasty little song” serves well as a tune heralding a monster.
Meanwhile, Sting talked in 2018 about the “stalker” aspects of the song and how that related to the wave of women speaking up about sexual harassment. He told the Yorkshire Evening Post, “People get married to that song. I never contradict them.” And, he said, he wouldn’t write it any differently today.
In 2019 Sting released the album My Songs, in which he went back and discussed his greatest hits. That same year, he explained to uDiscoverMusic, “[‘Every Breath You Take’] still manages to be both sinister and oddly comforting, which might explain its continuing prevalence as one of the most played songs on the radio.”
On the website Song Meanings, lots of people have reported on Sting’s description of the song as non-romantic. However, others have also suggested their own interpretations. One person, referencing the “every vow you break” lyric, argued, “It seems to me like the song is about marriage separation because of a lying or cheating spouse.”
However, others have different ideas, ones that may be different to what Sting intended, but are interesting nonetheless. Another user wrote, “I know that the typical take on this song is that it has a stalkerish aspect to it. However, another take on it might be the love and devotion a parent feels towards their child.”
The user on Song Meanings suggested, “The parent watches their baby grow up and eventually away from them. They feel pain when the child leaves for his or her first day of school, first date [or] prom and eventually leaves to go to college or whatnot. But no matter where or what happens to the child that parent will always be watching over them.”
So far, “Every Breath You Take” seems like it’s been applied to every scenario under the sun. It’s been a song about a wedding, a stalker, an affair and more. Sting may have once called it “evil,” but it seems he’s mellowed regarding that, even though he wrote it during a time of turmoil.
Sting said to the Telegraph in 2016, “‘Every Breath You Take’ is such an ambivalent song. You can play it as a sinister stalking song or as a romantic, I’m-obsessed-with-you thing.” It seems like many of those who hears it come away with their own interpretation – and that’s the mark of a truly good tune.