Roxanne, the 1978 hit song written by Gordon Matthew Thomas Sumner, a.k.a. Sting, should not be oversimplified. However, not all musicians are mistaken when interpreting the lyrics based on what they hear on the surface. An example is at the end of this post.
Roxanne is told from the point of view of a person who is either trying to reform a prostitute or trying to get some sort of vague help from her. There’s definitely an emotional neediness on the part of the narrator. No matter how you look at it, it’s partly about him.
I’ll provide a licensed link to printed lyrics, which include the line I loved you since I knew ya.
Please give some thought to that line. I believe it refers to carnal knowledge, and there isn’t a denial that the narrator was Roxanne’s client at one time in the past. In fact, it appears likely that’s how the two of them met.
Terrible things happen to people who work in the sex trade. We hear about beatings, sexual assault and even murder, and many of those crimes are committed by customers. We hear less about another type of individual who can pose a threat: the person who decides he or she is going to “save” a stranger without having any concept of the stranger’s situation. Some people who set out to save others are well-intentioned but inexperienced in life, and some are delusional predators who believe their bad impulses qualify them for sainthood. Additionally, there are other so-called rescuers who fall on less clear points of the spectrum.
Back to the song…
In this case, is the narrator a predator himself, or someone who genuinely cares about Roxanne? Are his intentions in a grey area and more difficult to define? He hasn’t taken away her seductive dress or her makeup, so he hasn’t made every conceivable effort to overpower her (Maybe. Think it through carefully before reaching a conclusion on how much power he’s exerting). However, he’s firm that his mind is made up, and he is ordering her not to sell herself.
Is the narrator the real victim? Can Roxanne carry on her life the way she did before she met that guy, and still take advantage of his hospitality (free rent, food, a comforting hug)? There’s no mention of a pimp, so we can’t even guess the implications where third parties are concerned.
Sting’s early band, The Police, recorded Roxanne as a high-adrenaline, desperate sounding conflict song, and a link to the authorized Vevo upload to YouTube is available on this page.
George Michael — who did not give the impression of being naive — performed an entirely different arrangement of the song in August 2008 at Earl’s Court. It was a show of compassion for people working in the sex trade. The instrumental music and vocals were low-key, and with permission video clips of workers — not models or actors — were shown on a screen.
George Michael’s performance (also available through a YouTube link on this page) of Roxanne is heartbreaking, and like most art it offers questions, not answers. That isn’t necessarily bad. Almost without exception, we must ask questions before attempting answers.
“Roxanne Lyrics.” Lyrics.com. STANDS4 LLC, 2017. Web. 11 Mar. 2017. <http://www.lyrics.com/lyric/1185890>.