Interpretations:When The Lights Come On

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The Nuclear Option[edit]

I think this song is about a nuclear holocaust. The narrator has been is buried in nuclear fallout and much of the flesh has been burned from his body (I taught myself to draw in the dust with what remains of my left hand). The country had pursued nuclear disarmament, dismantled their missile defense and early warning systems, leaving everyone vulnerable (Unless we chicken out again/Which is exactly how we ended up in here/Our guard was down, we were disarmed/They tampered with the smoke alarm). The attack was sudden and unexpected, striking everyone where they stood as they went about their daily lives (I'll make a reckless prediction/I'll still be in the kitchen). The narrator is talking to his loved one, knowing that they are already dead or going to die, but still trying to offer words of hollow optimism that everything will be okay, dreams of what they'll do once the whole situation has passed (when the lights come on), or at least that the world will carry on in some way similar to what it was. Towards they end they are reaching out for each other with their last bit of strength (Groping around, there's something else/I feel a face, I feel a pulse/I think I'm/Tripping/Something's got me by the hair). --Scarlet Swordfish (talk) 20:05, 16 January 2018 (EST)

strongly disagree. the idea that They would write a song driven by fear of uncertainty against nuclear disarmament is utterly at odds with everything their music stands for -- 17:29, 31 October 2018 (EDT)

They do not always write songs that reflect their personal viewpoints. --Scarlet Swordfish (talk) 23:40, 1 January 2019 (EST)

Melancholy Optimism Regarding Encroaching Death[edit]

Just the aesthetic tone of this song sets the dour mood perfectly. It sounds like somebody had an accident while messed up on prescriptions at home alone, falling down the stairs, hitting his head, potentially a fire starting while he's passed out. He's either singing this to his significant other or someone who had already died, and he's either trying to tell them/himself that he's gonna be okay or later going on to accept that he'll die, but will still be fine afterwards once the "light" comes on. I picked up on the fire aspect from him saying he'll be pulled from the ashes and will have "lost" some weight, which has a morbid sense of imagery to me.


My first reaction was that this tune was about an aging doctor's hope to be reanimated after death via braindump or something. As with all theories presented so far, not all the lyrics seem to point to this interpretation. Could be a mixture of my theory and Swordfish's Nuclear theory. "When the lights come on" doesn't have to mean the same thing all the way through the song. One instance could mean searchlights. One instance could be the regaining of consciousness. Just throwing these ideas out there in case it helps somebody else form a more cohesive interpretation. --Propman (talk) 11:08, 6 February 2018 (EST)

optimism and despair in the face of the rising tide of fascism[edit]

the lights going out is the rise of the alt right and other fascist movements, with each verse sliding further into a vision of a world where such groups emerge victorious, and the lights coming on being their fall from political power. "i'll still be in the kitchen" is a direct hope that They will still be around and producing music when that happens, hoping that the dark period will be short enough that They will outlive it. "it might be too soon to say this / but I think that we may just / see the lights come on" is the same sentiment, but with a wider net; the hope that at least part of the "we" of the audience lives through it. "unless we chicken out again / which is exactly how we ended up in here / our guard was down, we were disarmed / they tampered with the smoke alarm" is an indictment of the failure of the left to take radical action and seize control of opposition parties from the centrists and neoliberals who've subverted them, and the fourth estate (smoke alarms) for falling for the alt-right's bullshit, running pieces praising the stylishness of neo-nazis, and generally failing to present a viewpoint other than "the truth is in the middle" until it was too late. "we'll be encased in gold / desiccated and old / when the lights come on" is the singer slipping further into despair that this might be it, and even if the lights do come on some generations from now, they'll be history, either turned to gold as a "notable historical artist" in a study guide about the fall of the american empire, or desiccated, old, and forgotten. -- 17:29, 31 October 2018 (EDT)

Agreed. It's a song of bewilderment and futile hope in the Trump era. -- Thread Bomb (talk) 00:15, 14 May 2020 (EDT)

The narrator has woken up unable to see and with limited physical sensation. They are simply trying to figure out what happened.[edit]

The blindness comes from the title ("when the lights come on"). Limited physical sensation:

- "I taught myself to draw in the dust / with what remains of my left hand"
- "I think I'm tripping / something's got me be the hair"
- "And from what I can tell / Groping around, there's something else / I feel a face, I feel a pulse"

The lyrics run through several possibilities of what might have happened to leave them in this state:

- An unexpected, devastating attack: "Unless we chicken out again / Which is exactly how we ended up in here / Our guard was down, we were disarmed / They tampered with the smoke alarm"
- A building collapse: "You'll be dragged from the rubble
- Medical trauma: "Unless I pass out once again / And find the bandage where my kidney used to be", and "Prescription pads for opiates"
- Maybe even being mummified alive? "We'll be encased in gold / Desiccated and old"

Otherwise, the narrator seems to be trying to reassure themselves that everything is going to turn out OK:

- "We'll be laughing and shit / it will have been worth it"
- "I'll make a reckless prediction / I'll still be in the kitchen"
- "We won't remember each other / but we'll probably recover"
- "We will be growing mustaches / once we're raised from the ashes"
- "I'll be looking so great / I will have lost some weight"

(The last two are pretty hilarious, basically looking on the bright side of this accident or medical emergency -- i.e. "hey after lying here bleeding for a couple days I bet I'll have slimmed down and grown some facial hair!")

So in a sense, I agree with a lot of previous interpretations -- it's just that the narrator can't tell which of them is true given their limited sensory input at the moment. Generally this isn't an unusual way for TMBG to write a song; the immediate aftermath of trauma is a regular theme: for ex. "My Man" (waking up paralyzed), "The End of the Tour" (sung by a vehicle who was just involved in a horrific wreck), "I'm Having a Heart Attack" (self-explanatory), "Subliminal" (also involves a car crash).

Egyptian Mummy[edit]

To me this sounds like it is written from the point of view of an Egyptian mummy in a dark tomb waiting for the tomb to be opened ("when the lights come on"). These tombs, at least for royalty, were often furnished like little apartments with a bunch of stuff, medicine (and papyrus instructions on how to make them), and food for the afterlife ("if stuff is still where it stood," "prescription pads for opiates," "still be in the kitchen"), and the mummies were often literally "encased in gold." The walls were covered with hieroglyphics to help the deceased navigate to and through the afterlife ("picturing diagrams of master plans"). According to ancient Egyptian beliefs, the mummified bodies would be physically resurrected in the afterlife ("raised from the ashes," "dragged from the rubble"). This is despite the fact that internal organs were removed during the mummification process and put into canopic jars ("bandage where my kidney used to be," "I'll be no more than a shell or an automaton"). Of course, until that time, the inevitable decay will happen to the body ("lost some weight," "what remains of my left hand," "desiccated and old"). In this interpretation, then, the final verse describes what happened to nearly all of these tombs: they were ransacked by later grave robbers, who stole everything valuable and sometimes even threw the mummies out of their sarcophagi to find more valuables ("Knocked over lamp, some broken plates," "concussion on the bottom stair").

Ignoring the little problems[edit]

I think this song is about how people tend to focus on the big problems and not the (seemingly) little problems. The narrator is creating all those "diagrams and master plans" in case of emergency, but in the last verse he ends up falling down the stairs because of the simplest problem of all: the dark.


I believe that the song is about an earthquake.

The "Lights" could refer to downed powerlines, and thus the narrator is speculating what will happen "when the lights come on".

"I'll make a reckless prediction / I'll still be in the kitchen / [...] / I think we'll probably be good / If stuff is still where it's stood"

The narrator is in the kitchen -- and possibly stuck there -- when the earthquake hits. He/She assumes everything will be fine, as long as there's not too much damage ("stuff is still where it's stood".)

"We won't remember each other / But we'll probably recover / Unless everyone's gone"

The narrator assumes rescue services will help (but they won't remember each other afterwards). Not many EMTs or firefighters are likely to remember each and every person they help. However, if they are "gone", then its unlikely the narrator and his/her family can recover without their help.

"See I've been picturing / Diagrams of master plans / I taught myself to draw in the dust / With what remains of my left hand"

"Diagrams of master plans" could reference a home's blueprints -- if the narrator is trapped in rubble, drawing in the dust, they may be focusing on what remains of their damaged home... as well as what remains of their own damaged body.

"And from what I can tell / I'll be no more than a shell / Or an automaton"

Nature reduces us down to mere objects -- we lose all choice, all autonomy and all *humanity* when something as big as a natural disaster hits.

"But we'll be laughing and shit / It will have been worth it"

Just focus on the insurance, just focus on the insurance!

"Unless we chicken out again / Which is exactly how we ended up in here / Our guard was down, we were disarmed / They tampered with the smoke alarm"

A warning! -- Make sure you prepare for disasters, no matter how unlikely they may seem.

"There won't be any more trouble / You'll be dragged from the rubble / [...] / And I'll be looking so great / I will have lost some weight"

The rescue services will save us -- but they may not be able to save our damaged limbs or organs. Hence, we will lose some "weight", but we'll "look so great" as we'll be alive.

"We'll be growing mustaches"

People often do not shave when they are in hospital for an extended time.

"And from what I can tell / Groping around, there's something else / I feel a face, I feel a pulse"

Much as Scarlet Swordfish suggests above, I see this as being trapped under rubble and groping around to feel if a loved one is still there.

"I think I'm / Tripping / Something's got me by the hair / Let's table this discussion / Until my concussion / On the bottom stair"

When the earthquake hits, you may literally trip, fall down the stairs, and wind up concussed at the bottom.

"Unless I pass out once again / And find the bandage where my kidney used to be / [...] / Prescription pads for opiates"

Granted, when I first heard this, I assumed it was dark humour in regards to the urban legend -- going to a foreign country and waking up without a kidney. But then I thought, "Why would a stolen kidney leave you with 'prescription pads for opiates'?"

Thus, I see the narrator has injured his kidney irreparably, and is left with pain medications for a while.

"Knocked over lamp, some broken plates"

Kind of self-explanatory in an earthquake.

Struggling Writer + Emerging From A Bunker[edit]

I have two interpretations. The first one, which is definitely not true, but I like to imagine, is that the narrator is a struggling having difficulty coming up with ideas to write. The biggest example is the name of the song. When The Lights Come On. Getting an idea is usually represented by a lightbulb so in this case the narrator is describing all the things that will happen when his idea (the light) strikes. Another example is the line “what remains of my left hand.” The narrator has wrote so long and scraped everything he’s wrote over and over again. This is a metaphor for how tired his left hand is after writing and writing again and again. That’s my first interpretation. My second one is about staying in a bunker for so long after a meteor shower or nuclear explosion and imaging about finally emerging and predicting what will happen. That’s what the song is probably really about.

Lukehennisch (talk) 22:09, 12 June 2020 (EDT)

Narrator knocked out during a fight[edit]

I initially thought the song was about an earthquake or some other natural disaster where the narrator and the person he is talking to are literally trapped in rubble. But the last verse made me rethink that, because surely broken plates and a knocked over lamp are not that substantial of damages for a big natural disaster, it's not describing rubble.

So I feel like the narrator was in a big fight with the person he's talking to, probably under the influence of drugs or alcohol, got knocked out by the other person or fell down the stairs because of the altered state, became unconscious and in his drunken / drugged / concussed stupor, believes he's trapped in rubble and that his hand is mangled when it's probably just cut, etc. Everything is a distorted vision of what actually happened.

Astral Plane[edit]

to me this song is about the minds of people in comas meeting in the astral plane, a bit weird i’ll admit but it explains the “I think I’m tripping something’s got me by the hair. Let’s table this discussion until my concussion on the bottom stair” something (possibly a pet) is waking the singer up but they promise to be back next time they go into a coma

to me there seam to be at least three narrators. someone whose house was burned down by arsonists for some reason, a patient in a hospital who’s having their kidney out and the aforementioned Egyptian mummy... yes I know the mummy is dead not in a coma but their body still exists and I think the Egyptians believed they could potentially be brought back to life so it could all amount to the same thing in the astral plane (shrugs at the unknowable mysteries of the non physical world)