This song is about a depressed young person who feels out of place in this world. He sees life as being empty, and looks for ways to escape the pain. The line, "The dreams in which I'm dying are the best I've ever had" suggests thoughts of suicide, but according to Roland Orzabal, who wrote the lyrics, it relates to the psychologist Arthur Janov's idea that our most dramatic dreams release the most tension. So, the guy in the song isn't necessarily looking to die - he wakes up from morbid, lucid dreams feeling better.
Roland Orzabal came up with this song when he was living in an apartment in Bath, England, with his girlfriend, Caroline, who later became his wife. She was working three jobs so he could work on his music (a keeper, for sure!). Orzabal spent a lot of time strumming his acoustic guitar while staring out the window, watching people go about their business. "It's a bizarre viewpoint to watch people go about their daily routine, having to work for a living when you're sitting in a flat, unemployed," he told Top 2000 a gogo
. "That's where it came from."
This was written by Roland Orzabal but sung by the group's other vocalist, Curt Smith, who connected with the tune right way. He explained it "was easy for me to sing because I could relate to Roland's lyrics. We were both the middle of three sons and had been brought up by single mothers with absent fathers. My father always worked away, and died when I was 17, but I hated him by that point. It hit me later in life, but back then I was teenage and angry. The song was the perfect platform. It worked better with my voice because it's more melancholic, darker."
Orzabal, then 19 years old, wrote the song on an acoustic guitar after hearing Duran Duran's "Girls On Film
." He explained: "I just thought: 'I'm going to have a crack at something like that.' I did and ended up with 'Mad World.' It sounded pretty awful on guitar, though, with just me singing. However, we were fortunate enough to be given an opportunity by a guy called Ian Stanley to go to his very big house and muck about on his synthesizer. Ian became our keyboard player and he had a drum machine, too. All we needed was someone who knew how to work it. Eventually, we made the first demo of 'Mad World' still with me singing. But I didn't like it. So I said to Curt: 'Look, you sing it.' And suddenly it sounded fabulous."
This was Tears For Fears' first hit in their native UK, where they soon became a top act of the '80s. In America, "Mad World" went nowhere, but two songs from their next album, "Shout
" and "Everybody Wants To Rule The World
," went to #1. "Mad World" gradually came to the attention of American listeners, but very few of them knew about it when it was first released.
There is a striking dissonance between the upbeat, forward-leaning music and the darkly serious lyric, which was typical of the Tears For Fears approach: they would juxtapose very intense lyrics with a pop sound.
That dissonance was eliminated by Gary Jules, an American singer who recorded a slow, melodic version in 2001 that went to #1 in the UK. Many feel his rendition is more in keeping with the lyrics. Others believe the original to be ironic, and that is lost in the Gary Jules version.
In a 2013 interview with The Guardian, Orzabal said of the timeless nature of the song: "'Mad World' hasn't dated because it's expressive of a period I call the teenage menopause, where your hormones are going crazy as you're leaving childhood. Your fingers are on the cliff and you're about to drop off, but somehow you cling on."
When Tears for Fears' first two singles failed to chart, there was talk of their record label, Phonogram, dropping them. Fortunately, Dave Bates, a shrewd A&R man at the company, listened to their new song "Mad World," slated to be a B-side, and convinced the duo it was hit material. The duo's Curt Smith told The Quietus in 2013: "Us and Dave actually believed that it was the coolest sounding thing on the album because it was very, very different. But it's pretty dark. The reason we released it was that we felt it would give us credibility. I always thought it would just take time. I honestly felt the quality was there. It was just a question of finding the right breakthrough."
The song was also influenced by the English synthpop group Dalek I Love You, whose songs tapped into Orzabal's lifelong struggles with depression: "One of their lyrics went something like, 'I believe the world's gone mad,' which summed up my feelings of alienation from the rat race. I had suffered from depression in my childhood. My dad had been in the second world war, had electric shock treatment, suffered from anxiety and was abusive to my mum. I kept a lid on my feelings at school but, when I was 18, dropped out of everything and couldn't even be bothered to get out of bed. I poured all this into the song."
Before forming Tears For Fears, Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith were in a traditional 5-piece band called Graduate. When they heard acts like Gary Numan and Depeche Mode create powerful soundscapes with drum machines and synthesizers, they realized they could scale down to a duo record that way, which they did on their first album, The Hurting. "Mad World," which is part of that album, is driven by a synth bass with drum machines forming the rhythm.
This was produced by Chris Hughes, a former drummer with Adam and the Ants.
Most of the music video features Curt staring mournfully out of a window while Roland dances outside, but a short birthday party scene includes the duo's real friends and family, including Curt's mother and his then-wife Lynne.
Gary Jules covered this for the 2001 movie Donnie Darko
. The director Richard Kelly hoped to end the film with the U2 track "MLK
," but he couldn't afford the rights. So composer Michael Andrews and childhood friend Gary Jules made a rough recording of this Tears for Fears song to see if Kelly thought it would be suitable. Kelly was so impressed that he used that same recording on the film.
The Paul Simon song "Still Crazy After All These Years
" was an inspiration for the lyric. In that song, Simon sings:I'll sit by the window and watch the cars
I'm sure I'll do some damage one fine day
Jules' version was the surprise UK Christmas #1 of 2003, holding off The Darkness and Ozzy & Kelly Osbourne.
George - Bristol, England
The video for Gary Jules' version was directed by Michel Gondry (The Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind). Speaking to AOL Music in 2011, Jules explained the clip was conceived wholly by the French director. "Working with him was humbling," he said. "So easy. What I loved about his vision was that he didn't try to tell you anything about how mad the world is. No news clippings, no snide quips or saccharine melodrama. No tanks, no soundbites, no politics. Just universal images, art, life. More powerful than any issue-oriented sentiment."
Wondering what Tears for Fears think of Jules' version? Not only does Orzabal love it, he cites the cover's leap to #1 as the proudest moment of his career, saying, "I was in my 40s and had forgotten how I felt when I wrote all those Tears for Fears songs. I thought, 'Thank God for the 19-year-old Roland Orzabal. Thank God he got depressed.'"
Smith is also a fan, but points out a lyrical discrepancy in Jules' rendition. "Gary Jules sang 'enlarging your world' at one bit, but the correct lyric is actually 'Halargian world,'" he explains. "Producer Chris Hughes had a running joke in the studio about this made-up planet and a catchphrase: 'Oh, that's so Halargian.' I put it in the song, and it sounded right."
Susan Boyle released this song on her third album, Someone to Watch Over Me. She explained what the song means to her: "That's about social comment. It's as though your eye is a camera and you're looking outward and observing. It's a very surreal song."
Adam Lambert performed a memorable rendition of the Gary Jules version on Season 8 of American Idol, earning a standing ovation from the notoriously hostile Simon Cowell.