Analysis of the lyrics of "Voices"

Note: I wrote this some time ago, and I'm not sure that I agree with it at all anymore. =) But for your entertainment, here it is.

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The lyrics of Dream Theater's masterpiece "Voices" are indeed very thought provoking. At a first glance, all this talk of voices and nightmares might give you the impression that "Voices" simply is about a protagonist going crazy. This interpretation is obviously as valid as anyone, but I personally am convinced that there's a deeper message in the song.

For reference, here are the lyrics:

Voices

  • Music: Dream Theater
  • Lyrics: John Petrucci
01  "Love, just don't stare"
02  He used to say to me
03  every Sunday morning
04  The spider in the window
05  The angel in the pool
06  The old man takes the poison
07  Now the widow makes the rules
08  "So speak, I'm right here"
09  She used to say to me
10  not a word, not a word
11  Judas on the ceiling
12  the Devil in my bed
13  I guess Easter's never coming
14  So I'll just wait inside my head
15  Like a scream but sort of silent
16  living off my nightmares
17  Voices repeating me
18     "Feeling threatened?
19      We reflect your hopes and fears."
20  Voices discussing me
21     "Others steal your thoughts
22      they're not confined
23      within your mind."
24  Thought disorder
25  Dream control
26  Now they read my mind on the radio
27  But where was the Garden of Eden?
28  I feel elated
29  I feel depressed
30  Sex is death, Death is sex
31  Says it right here on my Crucifix
32  Like a scream but sort of silent
33  living off my nightmares
34  Voices protecting me
35     "Good behavior
36      brings the Savior
37      to his knees."
38  Voices rejecting me
39     "Others steal your thoughts
40      they're not confined
41      to your own mind."
42  I'm kneeling on the floor
43  staring at the wall
44  like the spider in the window
45  I wish that I could speak
46  Is there fantasy in refuge?
47  God in politicians?
48  Should I turn on my religion?
49  These demons in my head tell me to
50  I'm lying here in bed
51  Swear my skin is inside out
52  Just another Sunday morning
53  Seen my diary on the newsstand
54  Seems we've lost the truth to quicksand
55  It's a shame no one is praying
56  'Cause these voices in my head
57  keep saying...
58  "Love, just don't stare."
59  "Reveal the Word when you're
60  supposed to"
61  Withdrawn and introverted
62  Infectiously perverted
63  "Being laughed at and confused
64  keeps us pleasantly amused
65  enough to stay."
66  Maybe I'm just Cassandra fleeting
67  Twentieth century Icon bleeding
68  Willing to risk Salvation
69  to escape from isolation
70  I'm witness to redemption
71  heard you speak but never listened
72  Can you rid me of my secrets?
73  Deliver us from Darkness?
74  Voices repeating me
75     "Feeling threatened?
76      We reflect your hopes and fears."
77  Voices discussing me
78  Don't expect your own Messiah
79  This neverworld which you desire
80  is only in your mind.

My suggestion is that the text can be seen as three layers: The outer layer, with the words and phrases, and some of the more obvious semantics. The middle layer, consisting of a plot based on Christianity. The inner layer, with deeper messages and perhaps a "hidden" plot.

To understand these concepts, we must separate the layers from each other. Let's have a look at what I mean by the "middle layer", and try to find a basic plot in the song.

We start from the very beginning:

01  "Love, just don't stare"
02  He used to say to me
03  every Sunday morning

Right. So far the text has introduced two persons: the protagonist and some "he" person. The relationship between this man and the protagonist seems to be one of great friendship ("Love"), perhaps a parent-child or guardian-child relationship. The man gives the child some advice every Sunday morning. A plausible theory is that the child and the man are preparing their Sunday visit to the church, and the man warns the child not to unconciously stare (at the priest?).

04  The spider in the window
05  The angel in the pool

Now they're sitting in the church, listening to a sermon, and the child lets his eyes and imagination wander. He watches a spider in a window (which might be a metaphor for some kind of church decoration) and imagines an angel in a pool.

Added 2-Jan-2000:

M. Parker suggests that the angel in the pool is a fountain statue, and I agree; this is probably the case.

These are the protagonist's childhood memories, and they depict a nice side of Christianity. But something dramatic happens:

06  The old man takes the poison
07  Now the widow makes the rules

I assume "the old man" is the same man that appeared on line 02. Why does he have to die from poison? Well, it suggests a sudden change of things. If the old man had died from age, then several years could have passed, and the protagonist could have grown up. As it is now, when the widow makes the rules, the protagonist is still a child.

A third person, the widow, is introduced. We immediately get a bad feeling about her, the way she just makes strict rules for the protagonist to follow.

08  "So speak, I'm right here"
09  She used to say to me
10  not a word, not a word

These lines tell us that the protagonist didn't like to speak much as a child. The widow didn't like that, and demanded that the boy would talk to her. Line 10 can be interpreted in two ways: Either it indicates that the protagonist for some reason couldn't or wouldn't speak, or it continues the sentence from line 09: "She used to say to me not a word, not a word" would indicate that the widow never had anything sensible to say to the protagonist, that she just demanded him to speak without ever really talking to him.

One could suppose that the widow asks the child to speak more particularly in church. Perhaps there wasn't any parent-child connection between the man and the protagonist, perhaps the man was his priest or Christianity teacher. Then the widow would've been a replacement, with a totally different view on religion.

11  Judas on the ceiling
12  the Devil in my bed

Now we're getting somewhere; when the widow represents Christianity, a completely different side of it is revealed. The protagonist starts to notice the ceiling paintings of condemned people like Judas. Line 12 might refer to the sin of masturbation, mercilessly crammed into the child's head.

13  I guess Easter's never coming"}

Easter might represent something nice, a feast, complete with easter bunny and everything. Now that the widow is teaching strict religion, such blasphemy obviously won't be allowed. Easter might also represent the death of Jesus, and, in a more figurative sense, the end of the widow's blustering.

14  So I'll just wait inside my head"}

The protagonist flees into silence, maybe hoping that some time it will all be over (or back the way it used to be). He might also think that, since Easter's never coming, any protest from his side will be futile. He figures that there might be some truth in what the widow says, and so he's afraid of going to hell for being disobedient.

15  Like a scream but sort of silent
16  living off my nightmares

Now we've invisibly left the protagonist's childhood memories, and entered present time. The protagonist wants to scream out loud, because he doesn't get on very well with his lifestyle. However, it is the only lifestyle he can remember (except a tiny fragment of memory from the old man's days), so he doesn't really have a choice; he has to stay silent.

17  Voices repeating me
18     "Feeling threatened?
19      We reflect your hopes and fears."

(The word "repeating" is in a transitive form, where the voices repeat the quoted part unto the protagonist.) Here, the voices introduce themselves as some kind of conscience; they reflect the thoughts of the protagonist. Although it isn't certain, I'm rather sure the voices only exist inside the protagonist's head.

An important point to make here is that the Voices aren't necessarily the same individual(s) throughout the song. They may very well be the voices of different people, saying certain phrases that the protagonist remembers.

20  Voices discussing me
21     "Others steal your thoughts
22      they're not confined
23      within your mind."

This is a very interesting part of the text, and it plays a role in my hidden plot theory. In this basic Christianity plot, however, it might be a threat issued by the widow; God can read your mind, and knows what you're doing, so you'd better behave yourself.

24  Thought disorder
25  Dream control
26  Now they read my mind on the radio

This part doesn't really fit into the Christianity plot. Perhaps these things only happen in the protagonist's mind.

27  But where was the Garden of Eden?

The Garden of Eden is a wonderplace where man used to live, before something nasty happened and he was banished to this earthly life. The Garden of Eden might thus represent the days with the old man, before the widow started "making the rules".

The protagonist wonders where the Garden of Eden was. Perhaps the memory of those days is fading away, and he's not sure they've really happened anymore. So, was the Garden of Eden in the real world or merely in his fantasy?

28  I feel elated
29  I feel depressed

Once again, the text can be interpreted in two ways. One is that the protagonist is experiencing occasional, sudden mood changes, or that he's somehow feeling both elated and depressed at the same time. Another is that he used to feel elated, but nowadays he's feeling depressed. This second interpretation fits rather well with the Christianity plot.

30  Sex is death, Death is sex
31  Says it right here on my Crucifix

Ah, we've reached the most obvious part of the text - at least that was my first impression. This is THE anti-Christ part of the lyrics. However, recall that we're shown two different sides of Christianity in the text, that we're shown the contrast betwixt friendly, being-part-of-a-community Christianity and rude, "the widow":ish Christianity. The song isn't anti-Christ. The song underlines that Christianity can be a jolly decent thing, but that it isn't necessarily so.

Added 18-Dec-2000:

Actually, I don't agree with this anymore. Consider the following (to quote "Illuminatus!"): Without death there would be no sex, and without sex there would be no death.

(From now on I'll skip some of the repeated lines in the lyrics.)

34  Voices protecting me
35     "Good behavior
36      brings the Savior
37      to his knees."

Yet again, the voice of the widow's religion is talking. Behave well, and you go to heaven. An interesting note is that the widow hereby wants the protagonist to be quiet and obedient in ye olde original-sin-style Christianity, but at the same time she wants him to speak up (line 08).

A nice intermezzo part takes over, after which we end up here:

42  I'm kneeling on the floor
43  staring at the wall
44  like the spider in the window
45  I wish that I could speak

Now we're in the present time for sure. Note how the protagonist wishes that he could speak. I don't think this indicates a physical dumbness, it's more like a mental problem originating in line 14 ("I'll just wait inside my head"). He wants to tell the world about "real" Christianity. The world, we must assume, follows the widow's ideas & ideals blindly, at least in the eyes of the protagonist.

46  Is there fantasy in refuge?

Or perhaps this nice, friendly world he dreams about only exists in his imagination. Perhaps the old man never existed.

47  God in politicians?

This line doesn't make much sense in the Christian plot. See how we keep getting clues that this plot isn't all that can be found in the text.

48  Should I turn on my religion?
49  These demons in my head tell me to

Suddenly the voices are referred to as demons (if, indeed, the voices and the demons are the same). At this point, the protagonist is half convinced that the widow's Christianity is the only true Christianity. However, even though he knows that in doing so he'll enrage the widow and perhaps all the world, he doesn't like it and wishes to leave the religion. He believes this wish doesn't come from himself, but from some kind of demonic voice inside his head. Are the voices perhaps his true mind, that can sometimes be glimpsed behind a shadow mind?

50  I'm lying here in bed
51  Swear my skin is inside out

His skin is inside out. That means that he's closer to the outside of his skin than the inside, which means that he is actually outside of his body. What this phrase implies is thus that the protagonist dissociates from his thoughts, that he doesn't believe that they really belong to him.

52  Just another Sunday morning

Just a reference to the earlier life of the-old-man Christianity; Since there were Sundays both now and then, then perhaps those days really have existed?

53  Seen my diary on the newsstand

Not meaningful in the Christianity plot.

54  Seems we've lost the truth to quicksand

"The truth" means the old, friendly Christianity. People are forgetting, or have forgotten, that Christianity can be something good. Instead, they allow themselves to be usurped by widowish Christianity.

55  It's a shame no one is praying
56  'Cause these voices in my head
57  keep saying...
58  "Love, just don't stare."

The voices constantly remind the protagonist of the old man, remind him of the existance of a nice kind of Christianity. "No one is praying", so no one likes their religion. This is a shame, because if they only saw their religion in a different light, they would sympathize with it, they would pray. So line 58 represents a memory of the old times at line 01.

59  "Reveal the Word when you're
60  supposed to"

The voices urge the protagonist to tell the world about the nice kind of Christianity the old man advocated.

61  Withdrawn and introverted
62  Infectiously perverted

The protagonist, who dares not speak, gets labelled (by others) as withdrawn and introverted. Eventually he believes it himself.

63  "Being laughed at and confused
64  keeps us pleasantly amused
65  enough to stay."

But the friendly voices comfort him and tell him not to worry about what others say.

66  Maybe I'm just Cassandra fleeting

Cassandra, in Greek mythology, was predicting a disaster which later indeed occured. The protagonist compares himself to Cassandra (who was punished for daring to say that something bad was about to happen).

67  Twentieth century Icon bleeding

This is probably a similar reference, but I'm not sure exactly what it refers to.

68  Willing to risk Salvation
69  to escape from isolation

Salvation, according to the widow, comes when one behaves well. The protagonist believes that if he speaks, he won't behave well. Therefore, if he were to speak (in particular, talk about how religion could be much nicer) he'd risk his salvation.

70  I'm witness to redemption
71  heard you speak but never listened
72  Can you rid me of my secrets?
73  Deliver us from Darkness?

Here, redemption represents widowish Christianity. The protagonist asks, ironically, if redemption could ever help him get his ideas of "old man Christianity" out to other people, if redemption could help get people delivered (meaning "liberated" here) from the darkness they're in.

77  Voices discussing me
78  Don't expect your own Messiah
79  This neverworld which you desire
80  is only in your mind.

It is interesting how lines 78-80 aren't indented and placed within quotes. Perhaps this means that the protagonist is finally convinced that he's wrong and gives up (when he was sooooo close).


Let's conclude the Christianity plot. Far back in the memories of the protagonist is a happy kind of Christianity. But something has happened, and Christianity is now only fear and submission. The protagonist believes that something is wrong, and that people should find out what Christianity could really be about. However, being brought up by a strict, religious widow, he's afraid to talk about it because he might be punished in some way. Inside his head, he's debating whether to tell people about old man style Christianity or not. Eventually, he's convinced not to.

Now we go deeper into the text.

We're looking for something comparable to the plot above, but that hasn't got to do with religion.

47  God in politicians?

Yes, how about it? What if this text is about politics. Christianity might represent a certain political party that the protagonist is involved in. However, something happens (the old man takes the poison) and the members of the party start abusing their power. After some time, the party has absolute control of the country, and the protagonist is afraid to argue. "Should I turn on my religion?" he asks himself. All his life he's been a member of the political party, and so mustn't this situation be what he's always looked forward to?

21     "Others steal your thoughts
22      they're not confined
23      within your mind."

24  Thought disorder
25  Dream control
26  Now they read my mind on the radio

53  Seen my diary on the newsstand

These clues didn't fit very well into the Christianity plot. Do they fit into the politics theory?

Line 21, where others steal your thoughts, doesn't necessarily mean that others peek inside your mind and snatch your thoughts from you. It might also mean that other people have the same thoughts as you do. When they read your mind on the radio, doesn't that just mean that someone else has been thinking the same way you do? And your diary on the newsstand means that what you suspected some time ago has now turned out to be true.

This also adds another dimension to the last paragraph:

77  Voices discussing me
78  Don't expect your own Messiah
79  This neverworld which you desire
80  is only in your mind.

Imagine an accentuation on "your" in the last line. The protagonist shouldn't expect someone else to be his private Messiah and do the talking for him; what he thinks is in his own mind only.

Or perhaps the protagonist believes that he's not the only one disliking the current policy of the political party, but then the voices convince him.

This is my "hidden plot" theory, which turns the song into a political kind of warning. Maybe this interpretation is very far from what Petrucci intended when he wrote the text. Then again, maybe not.

I hope this analysis has enabled you to see Voices in a new light. Please contact me about anything! I'd be glad to know if people actually get to read this. Also, this is my personal interpretation and it isn't more correct than anybody's.

  • Signed Linus Akesson
  • ... where images and words are running deep.

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I have received several interesting mails regarding this analysis:

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Anonymous
Thu 9-Aug-2007 13:44
Very insightful analysis. I have learned much from what you wrote and it has helped me understand Voices better. Thank you.
Anonymous
Thu 10-Jan-2008 13:05
very, very cool analysis. I just learned a lot more about this song. Thanks
Anonymous
Fri 22-Aug-2008 08:42
creo que no tienes claro varias cosas
primero la cancion tiene un tiempo se lleva acabo en semana santa, especificamente
11 Judas on the ceiling que simboliza el sabado de gloria
13 I guess Easter's never coming domingo de pascua dia de la resureccion,
el dilema de la cancion es que en su infancia tuvo una vida miserable con su madrastra siempre atormentandolo, y que a su vez era muy debota a la religion, entonces en que debe creer?

se esta haciendo un reclamo a dios de por que no ha resucitado y por que no ha llegado a salvarlo
y esto se mira en toda la cancion

you must be clear in the time this hapend in a week the prev week of eastern for the british or the resurrection day of cristians... so all the song its about a cristians that has a moral dilema because his or her tutor hit to teach religion, whats is bad? or what is worse? the religion or the way of theach...
Anonymous
Wed 21-Oct-2009 18:24
I actually think this song has a deep philosophical meaning behind it. It looks like the protagonist is going through some sort of EXISTENTIAL CRISIS, which in turn is making him turn into DEREALIZATION. I first thought about this because the line "the old man takes the poison" reminds me of Socrates. But this was until then just a personal interpretation. But then the protagonist keeps talking about turning to his religion, questions reality, morality (including AMORALISM and IMMORALISM), good vs evil, mortality and the anxiety and depression over freedom (the acceptance or rejection of it). These are signs of EXISTENTIAL CRISIS, but also NIHILISM... If you read the works of "recent" philosophers, particularly NIETZCHE but also SARTRE and even FREUD (the father of psychology draw the root of his work from philosophy), you can see a lot of their critique in the lyrics of this song.

Regards,
Pedro Innecco (www.pedroinnecco.com)
Anonymous
Tue 2-Mar-2010 19:12
I think "God in politicians" makes perfect sense in the Christianity theme. I don't believe in the church and I think this line is connected to my belief. I'm a little hazy on my early Christian history but if I recall correctly, the church was relatively clean until about the crusades and then the church started to be corrupt and has been every since. The crusades were sponsored mostly by the Roman Catholic church (JP is Roman Catholic). The widow's Christianity could represent this new, corrupt religion where the agenda of the church is more political. We see this and the literal translation of politicians using God as a platform everyday. Anyway, these are my two cents and I hope someone can expand on my thinking.
Anonymous
Wed 6-Oct-2010 13:00
Could it be like this?:
The old man is in fact Jesus himself. And He had no "good matter"...he was a rebell (remeber Jesus in the Jerusalem market place). Jesus was driven by the love for mankind and couldn't just sit down and stare when the priest perverted the love of God. Since the christian congregation often is refered as "the bride of Jesus" that "bride" became a widow in the very moment when Jesus drank the wine in Getsemane (the poison?). As I recall, Jesus prayed to God and cried "O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me" as if he drank his on death. And when the protagonist doubt that Easter is coming, he is refering to the resurrection of Christ and that it might never happend, thus leaving the Christianity on its own. And the Jesus kind of Christianity was forever lost.
Anonymous
Wed 21-Sep-2011 04:30
"Love, just don't stare", or you will not be able to see the whole thing.

Every one of all comments or interpretations are valid, even if eventually pointing to a wrong direction, since it can bring us to think about the theme and retrieve the right path.
The human experience is too much diverse and the thru can be found in anywhere. Remember that people trying to see the same object at the same time will, each one of them, see a different vision since they aren't at the same place in the space, and so, each one will hold your personal and unique point of view.

Thank you everyone that was added some impression about this incredible piece. My special thanks to John Petrucci and the Dream Theater that did create those "Voices"; for sure they will remain singing in my mind for a long long time.
Anonymous
Wed 20-Aug-2014 05:20
This is all very good. I remembered reading somewhere that this song, being part of a trio that makes up the suite called "A Mind Beside Itself," involves the guitarist dealing with sexual repression growing up as a Catholic. This is further reinforced by the first tune, "Erotomania" (Eroto, like erotic), and the third song "The Silent Man," which is about the boy now grown up and struggling to speak up and out despite the dissent that comes with it.
Anonymous
Wed 20-Aug-2014 05:29
Two more things. I've tried to think of the phrase "Love, just don't stare," in the "see the whole person" argument, but I continually wonder then why the lyric isn't "Love, don't just stare?" I think that flows just fine, and it's far more clear in that intent.

Also I just wonder if the questions following "I wish that I could speak" are just meant to be questions he wishes he could ask, but can't.
Anonymous
Wed 7-Oct-2015 07:24
I have a totally different interpretation, witch, I'm afraid, is a lot heavier.
The whole song is about a very painful secret, a sexual subject one.
"Love, just don't stare" is the key of the piece. It leads me to two possible interpretations: "don't look to what WE are doing" (yes, the old man and the narrator), or "don't look to some person you desire, so don't be discovered" (probably an prohibited desire, like a priest or somebody of the same sex).
In both cases, the old man is the only one to know the secret. When he died, the widow tried to discover what is the problem with the protagonist: "so speak, I'm right here.. she used to say to me" "not a word, not a word" is the answer.
There are lots of references to his fear of being "discovered": "others steal your thought they are not confined within your mind". It causes mental disorder, and a lot of suffering to him.
Once the "sin" used to happen at Sunday mornings, is the moment where he/she feels a burning desire "I'm lying here in bed. Swear my skin is inside out. Just another Sunday morning"
At certain point I started to wish that the secret is not about sexual abuse. It is said that abused children have fantasies with theirs abusers. But that Sunday morning "fever" brings me to the conclusion that the old man is abusing him/her on Sunday mornings.
The spider in the window and the angel in the pool are images that he/she keeps from the encounters with the abuser (or the forbidden sexual partner).

There are more evidences of this interpretation, but I am not aming to write another full analysis.