Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Listening to its lyrics shows why “Over The Rainbow” deserves to be an icon

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In Hear ThisA.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well—some inspired by a weekly theme and some not, but always songs worth hearing. This week, in anticipation of the Oscars, we’re going through some of our favorite Best Song winners.


Nobody needs an article telling them to listen to “Over The Rainbow,” which won the Oscar for Best Original Song after appearing in The Wizard Of Oz. It’s one of the most famous songs ever written, and Judy Garland’s performance of it in the film is justifiably iconic. It’s a cabaret standard, though still associated closely enough with its original performer that genuflecting in Garland’s general direction before performing it is still considered the usual, even if Garland has been dead for decades.

But it was when listening to Kristin Chenoweth perform it last month that I realized I’ve never really heard “Over The Rainbow.” I could sing you the whole song by heart—most of us probably could—but it’s also one of those songs that’s such a part of the cultural fabric that it can be easy to miss what the song’s lyrics are actually talking about. Yes, the song is about anyone who’s ever hoped to live a life that moves beyond their constrained surroundings. But it’s also about teaching yourself to move past your limitations, to look for things beyond that which you would even consider.

Think about this lyric: “And the dreams that you dare to dream / really do come true.” Dreams coming true is not exactly an unheard-of notion in art or song, but it’s that dependent clause that makes this whole phrase. It’s not just dreams coming true; it’s the dreams that you dare to dream that come true. There are dreams we have, the ones we tell people about, and then there are the ones beneath those, the ones we keep buried, because if we mentioned them, it might tear apart our lives or hurt someone we know. Dorothy Gale can’t quite admit to herself just how much she wants to leave Kansas, because doing so might really hurt her aunt and uncle. Instead, in the grand tradition of musical theater, she sings about all of those feelings and dreams she’s repressing.

“Over The Rainbow” is filled with bright, sunshiny imagery—bluebirds flying and blue skies and the like—but it’s also a song that, in the movie, precedes the storm. Sometimes, making those dreams you can’t quite articulate into things you desperately want is necessary, even if they scoop you up and deposit you in Oz. Better to live honestly and openly. Better to live not hiding from what you know to be true about yourself. Viewed in that light, it’s no wonder this song and its singer have always been so popular with the gay community. Being true to yourself can obliterate everything you’ve known, but what comes next is in vivid Technicolor.