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The History and Meaning of the Song "Take On Me" by A-Ha

Kyson is a long time music-lover, play-list maker, and foot-tapper.

Lead Singer Morten Hacket in 2009.

Lead Singer Morten Hacket in 2009.

A Mesmerizing Classic

It's a song that many know, but few have made sense of its origins or meaning. Recognized for its iconic soaring vocals and its ground-breaking music video, the song "Take On Me" is a legendary new wave anthem that has enraptured millions of music-lovers.

"Take On Me," by the Norwegian band A-Ha, is a song shrouded in mystery. It is not a common choice at karaoke (because of its demanding melodic range), and few major artists have produced their own versions of it. Morten Harket's awe-inspiring vocal range is difficult, maybe impossible, to match. As a result, the song is sort of untouchable.

Then there's the lyrics. Both profoundly alluring and obscure, the song is filled with rich phraseology that defies any obvious interpretation: You're all the things I've got to remember. As a result, countless interpretations exist: A battle cry? A love song? Both?

The mysteriousness and unrepeatability of the song is certainly part of its appeal. Nonetheless, it's time to try and get to the bottom of the fascinating history and meaning behind this famous song.

Saved by a Music Video

Written in 1984, "Take On Me" (almost given the laborious title, "All’s Well That Ends Well and Moves With the Sun") was the song that almost didn't make it. It was almost instantly.... a failure. The band recorded it twice and was dissatisfied with both attempts, and nearly gave up on it altogether. Record executives at Warner Brothers thought the song was worth giving a shot, and decided to produce a music video to help market the song.

The result was legendary. An indisputable piece of art, the "Take On Me" music video is a mesmerizing mixed-media video about a young woman invited into a black and white comic book story. It was the first music video ever to attempt this sort of combined medium. It was an instant hit, winning numerous awards, and launched the band and song to legendary status. It took 16 weeks to produce, as it involved the complex technique of rotoscoping to combine illustrated frames with live action. In 2017, Trixi Studios released an augmented reality iPhone 'Take On Me' app that can illustrate your surroundings in real time just how it looks in the music video. As of now, however, the app is still not available to the public.

In many ways, the video has become one of the keys to understanding the meaning of the song. In what is a compelling short story, it weaves together longing, adventure, and poignant reflection on the risk of love. It's no wonder that the song has been a powerful asset in storytelling, popular as it is in movies and TV shows.

I remember first seeing the video in college in 2008, when a friend showed it to me on his computer. I was blown away. Even 20 years after its release it didn't fail to impress and enrapture.

In 2020 the original music video became the second 1980s music video to surpass 1 billion views on Youtube, along with Sweet Child O'Mine by Guns & Roses.

Stop right now and watch if you haven't:

A Norwegian Idiom?

There is a lot of confusion about the meaning of the song. The band rarely says much about the backstory. In fact, even though they continue to play the song in live shows to this day, they don't seem to care all that much about it. Guitarist/songwriter for the band Paul Waaktaar-Savoy, was unaware of its 30-year anniversary in 2016.

The meaning of the titular phrase, "take on me" has been a particular source of confusion and controversy. Some see it as a statement of taunting defiance, "why don't you come over here and fight me, then. Take me on!" however that interpretation doesn't seem to fit the tone of interrupted and longing love that dominates the rest of the song, and the music video.

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Some have pointed out that the phrase "take on me" is the literal English translation of a Norwegian idiom that simple means "hold on to me" or "touch me." This interpretation makes a bit more sense, especially in the context of the music video: Of two lovers holding on to each other as they run from danger, and at the end as Morten Harket struggles to follow her out of the illustrated comic-book world, into the "real world." The meaning suggested by this interpretation also fits the lyrics that suggest the idea of a lover who remains elusive and ephemeral: today's another day to find you and I'll be coming for your love, okay?

But since the song was intentionally written in English and primarily for British and American audiences, it seems unlikely that the song was a confusingly literal translation of a Norwegian idiom.

What do the Fans Say?

Since the band has been relatively silent on the thought process behind the song lyrics, piecing together the meaning of the song has been left to the fans. A popular comment on the website has captured many people's imaginations. DeepBlueYonder says "the entire song is a metaphor about your lifespan here on this planet, and trusting in fate to help guide you in finding your one true love, and living out your life." In other words, it's a song written from the perspective of a man looking for his one true love, who he has not yet met. The opening lines which sounds like a conversation between a couple is actually the singer talking to himself.

A more common interpretation is that it's a song intended to convey the author singing to a particular person, simply compelling them to take a chance on them. And yet, certain lines seem too haunting to be simply a plea for reciprocation, You're all the things I've got to remember. Like the original music video, this line evokes a sense of adventure and even tragedy. There seems to be more going on here.

Of course, meaning can evolve over time. While there have only been a handful of covers of the song (who can hit those high notes!?), it is used often in popular culture and its uses help add more texture to the interpretations that fans draw from the song.

It has been sung on an episode of Glee, and has been recently featured in the movies Bumblebee and Deadpool 2. One of the uses of the song that, to me, has best captured the haunting adventurousness of the original music video is its use in the series finale of NBC's popular show, Chuck. I won't spoil if you haven't seen it, but it is used to underlay a high-stakes adventure as the hero is torn between saving a crowd of people or one true love from something that could destroy their hard-won relationship.

The song has been covered by a few popular artists, including Weezer and Kygo. In 2018, a powerful symphonic remix of the song was released on the album "80s Symphonic. In some respects, this symphonic remix more fully the epic nature of the song, similar to what is evoked by the music video: The idea of a high-stakes, romantic, adventure.

What Makes it Such a Great Song?

Despite having a variety of different interpretations and mysterious origins, the song remains a timeless, beloved, classic for many reasons. It somehow speaks to longing, love, adventure, and tragedy even if no one can precisely make sense of what story it's telling. It is somehow a fun dance number and also hauntingly beautiful at the same time. It demands our attention, and suggests hidden wisdom waiting to be cracked into. Someone could spend hours chewing on the meaning of various small pieces of the lyrics, such as the line it's no better to be safe than sorry, convinced it means something significant that requires attention and contemplation. It's a song that pulls you in, again and again, and always has more depths and meaning for the listener to uncover. That's what makes it great.

So needless to say
I'm odds and ends
But I'll be stumbling away
Slowly learning that life is okay


Kyson Parks (author) from San Diego, CA on May 11, 2020:

Thank you, James!

James A Watkins from Chicago on May 11, 2020:

I enjoyed your very interesting article. You are surely right that this song is not a karaoke classic due to the singer's incredible range. Well done.

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