Air travel plays an important role in musicians’ lives. It is not surprising that it is a common theme in modern music lyricism. We can all get behind the idea of flying away as an ultimate escape from our problems, or lives in general, but the use of air travel specifically can have many other meanings. Think for instance of flights as ascension (and ultimately descending again), literally having your head in the clouds for at least a while before, again literally, coming back to earth. Whereas the trope of air travel as a symbol of escapism is obvious and easy to detect, the more subtle ways in which flight represents the human experience are less often explored. So let’s have a look at several songs that creatively make use of air travel past the “getaway” trope.
Kali Uchis – “Flight 22”: Air Travel as Suspended Reality
The title refers to Piedmont Airlines Flight 22, which crashed after a mid-air collision killing all passengers and crew in July of 1967. Kali Uchis starts the song with a flight attendant welcoming people on board of Flight 22, signalling the impending doom for those who understand the reference.
Ultimately the song is a love song. The sentiment at its core is “home is where I’m with you”, but it goes even further than that. In the chorus, Kali Uchis sings “Don’t wanna be anywhere if it ain’t with you,” implying that she would rather die than be apart from her lover. However, Kali Uchis goes on to state that the two met at the airport. This is where the relationship between the two starts to looks a bit less like a perfect romance and a bit more like thoughtless passion between people who hardly know each other.
So how does the ultimate crash come into play in this story? It is not until the final lines that we can start making sense of what this might signify. Kali Uchis closes the song with the lines “And baby we’re not gonna make it / At least I’m going down with you / Our baggage might just be too full on Flight 22,” and here is where we find the double meaning. The fact that the two lovers literally won’t make it as the plane is due to physically crash is only surface level stuff. The reference to baggage being too full and this being the ultimate cause for the crash can also refer to emotional or personal baggage, and this being the factor that kills their relationship. When we relate this line to the line explaining where the lovers met, we can come to the conclusion that after the initial passion passes, the emotional baggage that either or both people carry is too much for this to develop in a lasting relationship. As RuPaul says: “If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell are you going to love somebody else?”.
Ultimately the flight is an idyl where relationships are perfect. It’s the image of having your head in the clouds. You know how when you go to the airport time kind of stops existing until you leave at the other end? It is this sense of suspended reality that perfectly captures the first phase of a new romantic relationship. In this particular case, observant onlookers are well aware that this will end in tears, but love clouds judgment. Even if it doesn’t, sometimes you have to go with it because it feels right in the moment.
The Black Keys – “Aeroplane Blues”: Air Travel as a Psychedelic Trip
This short song from Rubber Factory (2004) is ambiguous in many ways, and it would be easy to say that the following reading is not what the song is really about. But let me remind you that like any good piece of art, meaning is in the eye/mind of the beholder, so there really is no right or wrong interpretation. At first read, the song seems to be about someone either afraid of flying, or someone not excited about the destination. This is clear enough from the first lines.
I’m on an airplane,
‘Cross the sea,
I wanna be.
This latter explanation seems reasonable when we see air travel from the musicians’ perspective. Spending a significant amount of time travelling by plane might well make a person feel less grounded (pun intended) or even have them dissociating from themselves. Like I said earlier time seems to stop when we are in the air. This sensation is only intensified when crossing timezones, an experience that seems to deconstruct the concept of time entirely. However there is one segment in this song that opens a door to a very different reading and it is simply the lines “Eyes are heavy / Mind is shook / Can’t feel / Drugs I took”. Yes, sure, this might be a reference to Ambien or another drug associated with fear of flying, but looking at the song from this new angle we can read it in a way that supports a new argument. I have to point out that by all means we are about to explore what can only be called a bad trip (pun unintended).
As someone who has no interest whatsoever in psychedelic drugs, I have nonetheless heard many an account of other people who ended up spending hours in a nightmarish dreamscape all the while being perfectly knowledgable of what was happening yet being unable to do anything about it. Now maybe my reading is lacking depth due to my inexperience with hallucinogenics, but based on the intense nightmares I can produce in my sleep while completely sober, I think I’ll pass. But I digress. Let’s move on to the idea of this trip as a “distant land”. Semantically there is an obvious connection, so really it merely takes a change of perspective to see this song in a completely different light. The lines “Take your seat / Don’t be shy” imply that you are trapped. Much like on a plane once the doors are closed and you approach the runway, once you’ve popped a pill there is no way back. There is this tension building towards takeoff, after which all you can do is remember “[that] you were born to die”. This can be read as the moment you realise that this will be a bad trip, but alas, it is too late.
Unfortunately we do not get to stick around until the end of the trip, leaving us in an anxious state of confusion. Whereas before we got to move forward from the line “[don’t] know who I am,” at the end of the song it is all we are left with, and it is repeated to hint at the possibility of this being a life-altering experience. The protagonist might never be the same again.
Erykah Badu – “Window Seat”: Air Travel as Meditation, Reflection
Perhaps this is my all-time favourite Erykah Badu song, and I love listening to it while in transit. Who doesn’t recognise the desire to just jump on a plane to wherever to spend some time to reflect on our lives? In essence this is about escapism, and I promised not to make this piece so simplistic. I believe there is more to this song than a standard desire to break free, that is explores peaceful meditation as a method of acquiring self-knowledge and respect. To know oneself is often a step toward acceptance, and it gives us a reason to grow as individuals.
In this song, the protagonist is under pressure. Someone, potentially a partner or manager, is demanding things of them and they are getting sick and tired of it. “Make me wanna ask a lady for a ticket out of town” Erykah sings. The image is immediately crystal clear in our minds. The tone has been set. This sounds like it is simply about the desire to escape everyday life.
The hook is the dream. A window seat, solitude, landing softly in a location where you can wander and come to terms with yourself. However it is the part that follows, what we can call the “post-hook” that changes the tone.
But I, I need you to want me,
I, need you to miss me,
I, need yo’ attention,
I need you next me,
Oh I, I need someone to clap for me
I need your direction
It appears that this sweet getaway that Erykah sings of is only really worth it when she is aware that she is being missed and wanted. She then goes even further to acknowledge that, actually, she needs immediate attention, a presence of someone–or even a group, implied by “I need someone to clap for me”–to make her feel whole. In reality, the whole idea of getting away is motivated by a desire for people to realise how much they need her. Perhaps this realisation will enable them to see past their demands, to see that really her presence is more than enough.
I believe this speaks volumes about Erykah Badu. She is often portrayed at this unique individual who says what she thinks and doesn’t give a damn about people’s opinions. Underneath it all, though, is a profound need to feel loved and revered even. This could be her personality (she is an Aquarius after all), or the product of being seen as a neo soul legend, or perhaps (and most likely) a bit of both. Ultimately it is her self-knowledge that allows her to come to the conclusion that perhaps she doesn’t need to escape, as while meditating on the option she already realised what it was she was actually looking for. Envisioning herself getting away physically allowed her to ascend mentally and this was essentially what she needed.