“Promises mean everything when you’re little
and the world’s so big”
It had been about 20 years since my parents divorce, but hearing this song put me right back in my teenage bedroom, reeling from the news that my life and the life of my family was about to change forever. Although “Wonderful” by Everclear did not necessarily resonate with me at first, after several months of being a hit on FM radio, I finally realized the song was about me, and every kid who has been through a divorce.
The repetitive title of the song is misleading. Over and over again, we hear how “everything is wonderful now.” This is yet one more song in the long tradition of great rock and roll songs that are easily misunderstood, while having a crystal clear message. “Born in the USA” by Bruce Springsteen is not a patriotic song. “This Land is Your Land” by Woody Guthrie is, in fact, a savage protest song, and sorry, but “Puff the Magic Dragon” is not about a mythical, giant reptile (or maybe it is). And “Wonderful” by Everclear is not a happy or optimistic story.
“Wonderful” begins with the word wonderful repeated over and over again by different people of different ages. Voices sweet, gruff and skeptical. Young and old. Male and female. “Ain’t life wonderful?” we are finally asked. It is as if they are trying to convince themselves that everything is going to be alright.
“I want the things that I had before
Like a Star Wars poster on my bedroom door
I wish I could count to ten
Make everything be wonderful again”
“Wonderful” tells the all too common story of a kid trying to navigate his way through the difficult and complicated life changes brought on by divorce, even though the life affected may be simple and innocent.
First, the kid notices that something is wrong.
“I hope my mom and I hope my dad
Will figure out why they get so mad
Hear them scream, I hear them fight
Say bad words that make me want to cry”
All he wants to know is that his parents will stay together. All he prays for is that his life will stay the same. The angels talk to him.
“Close my eyes when I go to bed
And I dream of angels that make me smile
I feel better when I hear them say
Everything will be wonderful someday”
Probably, his parents didn’t do anything wrong. Probably, they just tell him things they want him to believe and hear. Maybe his parents are even a little hopeful themselves for an outcome other than the inevitable.
“Promises mean everything when you’re little
And the world’s so big
I just don’t understand how
You can smile with all those tears in your eyes
Tell me everything is wonderful now”
When I heard this song, I could not help but to reflect on what it felt like to watch my own parents separate and divorce. I was a teenager at the time, and we all wanted desperately to believe that everything would still be alright, that life would still be wonderful even after the divorce. Although there were to be difficult times ahead for my two brothers and me, for my parents and their future spouses, life has indeed been wonderful. Together as a family, albeit a different family than we once were, we have enjoyed celebrations and we have endured sorrows. There has been laughter and there have been arguments. There have been times that were uncomfortable, and there have been times that have reminded us all that the bonds of our once nuclear family can never really be broken.
But that moment in time, that moment of realization, pain and disbelief will forever be impossibly difficult for every child who is ever told their parents about to divorce. There is anger and frustration. Blame and embarrassment.
As the song reaches its emotional peak, we hear the boy say that which has been on the tip of every tongue of every child who has ever been sat down by a parent as the very bedrock of their home, family and life is about to change.
“I don’t want to hear you say
That I will understand someday
I don’t want to hear you say
We both have grown in a different way
I don’t want to meet your friend
And I don’t want to start over again
I just want to my life to be the same
Just like it used to be
Some days I hate everything
I hate everything
Everyone and everything
Please don’t tell me everything is wonderful now”
A story achingly and honestly told. A recording carefully and lovingly produced. A song that hits us right in the gut. “Wonderful” is one perfect song.
Everything may not be wonderful now, but it will be.
Written by Art Alexakis, Greg Eklund, Craig Montoya
Performed by Everclear
Released May 22, 2000