I wish it had been an epiphany, the first time I heard “Message in a Bottle” by The Police. Maybe I was riding in the backseat of our Chevy station wagon, my mom fiddling with the radio dial, when suddenly Sting’s hypnotic voice comes through the static and I shout, “Keep it here, I like this song!” And mom says, “You don’t even know this song,” but relents anyway. And maybe she lets me listen all the way to the end of the song, which is so repetitive I half-wonder if I’m being hypnotized by the devil’s music. The moment the last “Sending out an S.O.S.” fades out, she changes it to the country gospel station, but it’s too late: I’ve already hidden Sting’s words in my heart.
None of that happened. The song is one of those gems that was popular before my birth, then fades into the aural background of dentist appointments and the Pizza Hut jukebox and the saxophone-heavy elevator music version they play in the grocery store.
Then one day, and this part actually happened, I found myself singing, “I’ll send an S.O.S. to the world, I’ll send an S.O.S. to the world” over and over like someone who doesn’t know the song well enough to make it to the verses. Like a tetherball, my mind kept orbiting around the lyrics in the haphazard way of earworm infestation, until I had to look up the song online—if only to find relief from the one line playing on continuous loop.
If there’s an epiphany in this story, this is it. The lyrics, I never knew before, tell a simple, hopeful story. A castaway on a desert island is nearly overcome by loneliness until he one day writes a message in a bottle. In the second verse, a year has passed without any response, and the castaway is more philosophical than before. He’s held together by hope yet understands love to be ambivalent: “Love can mend your life but love can break your heart.” This line sort of sticks out, a declarative, free-floating nugget of wisdom from the castaway; it resonated deeply with me, for I’d witnessed love both mending and breaking.
Then, unexpectedly, the castaway walks out to find his message in a bottle is an overnight success: “A hundred billion bottles washed up on the shore.” This verse surprised me—its sentimentality buried in metaphor but there nonetheless. The castaway learns he’s “not alone in being alone”: the huge response from other castaways buoys his spirits.
The song is catchy and the story is simple, and I was gratified that it exists. I’d found the song unexpectedly sentimental the first time I really heard it, but I’m not sure the castaway of the song is altogether healed by the massive response to his message. The happiness in finding others who have been cast away is fairly muted, since after all their one commonality is being stranded alone. Now if the hundred billion castaways could figure out a way to get rescued and gather together, there might be one last verse about the castaway becoming a hero for banishing loneliness simply by sending out an S.O.S. I find it fitting that the song ends with the castaway repeating the line, “Sending out an S.O.S.” about twenty-five times. And I suppose that’s what I’m doing here, sending out an S.O.S.
I hope that someone gets my message in a bottle.