The song is about Goulding's fear of the dark, which forces her to sleep with the lights on. The singer told 97.1 AMP/Los Angeles: "Sometimes if I've had a couple of drinks and I come back and just like lie on my bed and fall asleep I wake up and realize that there isn't a light on and I have to turn a light on."
Originally a bonus track on the iTunes edition of singer-songwriter Ellie Goulding's debut album, this song was then re-edited for inclusion on the re-released version, Bright Lights. It was released as the lead single from the album in the United States.
Goulding wrote the song with Spice Girls collaborator Richard "Biff" Stannard and Ash Howes, whose resumes include numbers recorded by Westlife and Kylie Minogue.
The song finds Goulding singing in a vulnerable tremulousness that remains controlled. She told The Daily Telegraph: "At first, it was really shaky and people used to, kind of, take the mick out of it. I used to do open mics and I think people couldn't decide whether it was brilliant or terrible."
Goulding performed the tune on Saturday Night Live
on May 7, 2011, along with "Your Song
In addition to the obvious connection between "Lights" and the British group Electric Light Orchestra, there are a couple of other links between them. The song contains the lyric "you show the lights that stop me turn to stone." "Turn to Stone" was also the title of a 1978 single by Electric Light Orchestra. Also Goulding shares a December 30th birthday with ELO lead singer Jeff Lynne.
The song was Goulding's first stateside hit. However, the singer admitted to Billboard magazine that she had no idea why it had been so successful in the US. "Nobody expected it and that's the truth," she said. "I'll say to my manager, 'So, how did "Lights" get so big?' Because it's not a song that I wrote thinking, 'This is a smash hit.' I wrote the song because I wanted to write it and I wanted it on the record and when it was finished I was like, 'Yeah, this is a cool song, it's an Ellie Goulding song and my heart is with it.' So we had it as a bonus track on the first record and it's just kind of gone mental! I don't know why, because I never saw it as an obvious Top Five American song. I never imagined that at all."
Goulding may have her nocturnal difficulties, but the song itself proved to be a sleeper hit. First recorded by the singer in 2010, a series of 2011 US appearances initially provoked little interest. However, "Lights"' YouTube views kept climbing, and it slowly began crawling up the Hot 100, finally peaking at #2 in August 2012 after thirty-three weeks on the chart. The track eventually ranked #5 on the Hot 100 year-end tally.
A team of students from London's Middlesex University built a lighting rig for the Sophie Muller-directed video. The setup enabled 50 different cameras to simultaneously take images that were spliced together to create a bullet time effect ala The Matrix.