41

From Firefly's theme song:

Take my love, take my land
Take me where I cannot stand
I don't care, I'm still free
You can't take the sky from me.

Everything's meaning seems pretty obvious, except for "Take me where I cannot stand."

Have any of the creators or writers commented on its meaning?

Please Note: I'm asking for the official meaning, as given by the creators, not your personal interpretation.

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    take me to bed? – Himarm Oct 28 '15 at 21:08
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    I'm assuming it either means "take my life" (can't stand in a grave) or "injure me so that I can no longer stand." – Kai Oct 28 '15 at 21:14
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    There's a reason why poetry/song lyric interpretation is off-topic on English Language and Usage. :) – Martha Oct 29 '15 at 3:29
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    Personally I like the ambiguity in that line. It makes me think of a broken prisoner, or someone adrift in space, or dying in a desert; I don't need a specific, canonical meaning. – Beta Oct 29 '15 at 5:13
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    @RogueJedi you have made this impossible. No official meaning exists. – Kyeotic Oct 29 '15 at 21:29
45

Joss Whedon wrote the theme song, which is called The Ballad of Serenity. But I have found nothing official that explicitly states a meaning behind the song.

The Battle of Serenity Valley was an important battle the Browncoats lost, in the Unification War. It was literally where they could not hold their position, or 'stand'.

I believe the first verse is 'set' prior to the battle, but during the Unification War:

take my love
take my land
take me where I cannot stand
I don't care
I'm still free
you can't take the sky from me

The first two lines that say 'Take my love, Take my Land' would refer to the unification war gradually taking its toll on the Independents.

My interpretation is that "Where I cannot stand" would refer to the turning point of the battle, where they could no longer stand. This change of meaning is called antanaclasis, and it's classic Whedon.

It is revealed in "Bushwhacked" that the Battle of Serenity Valley is widely considered the loss which sealed the fate of the Independents. ~ Wikipedia

The second verse has a much harsher tone:

take me out
to the black
tell 'em I ain't coming back
burn the land
and boil the sea
you can't take the sky from me

This is after the defeat, and they say to 'burn' and 'boil' not just 'take'.

So where they 'cannot stand' is Serenity Valley.

This is confirmed in the next stanza:

have no place
I can be
since I found Serenity
but you can't take the sky from me

'Since I found Serenity' would refer to the Ship, in a change of meaning.

Lyrics sourced from here

While I don't have anything official to back this up, but having been a long-term fan of Whedon I've noticed patterns and themes in the music he includes in his works, especially in the musical episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (especially walk through the flame ), and in Dr Horrible's Sing a long blog.

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    I also read "cannot stand" as a sign of servitude, where you're forced to kneel. "Take me where I'm a slave" (to the Alliance) "I don't care, I'm still free". – user31178 Oct 29 '15 at 4:47
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    The line "burn the land and boil the sea" may well refer to the fate of Shadow, Mal's home planet. According to other sources (the graphic novels, and The Verse In Numbers), Shadow was bombed so heavily that it was rendered uninhabitable. Very few survived. At some point, had Firefly not been canceled, this would have come up in the show (it was hinted briefly in Our Mrs Reynolds) as an explanation for Mal's particular hatred of the Alliance. – anaximander Oct 29 '15 at 11:25
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    This is a good personal interpretation, but I'm looking for the official meaning. – Rogue Jedi Oct 29 '15 at 13:51
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    The last stanza is actually "There's no place/I can't be..." I feel like "cannot stand" and "to the black" both have double meanings, the second meaning of each being "in space". You can't stand in zero g, and space is clearly black and is described that way in the show and the movie. So one of the meanings to me of the song is, "It's ok for you to kick me off the ground, because you can't take the whole sky (space) and I've found a home in the sky (space)." – Todd Wilcox Oct 29 '15 at 13:54
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    There's a huge amount of speculation here, and to be quite honest your rationale for the interpretation seems a little thin... – Lightness Races in Orbit Oct 29 '15 at 14:14
31

An artist is unlikely to give a “one true interpretation” of their work, and I am aware of no official statements as to the specific meaning of any aspect of the song, this line or any other, and I strongly suspect there isn’t and won’t be any. CR Drost has found a partial quote indicating that there is possibly some discussion of the song, but it is very general and open to many interpretations.

That makes sense because the song is deliberately constructed to allow and even encourage multiple interpretations and different perspectives. Many songs attempt to pack multiple meanings into them, and the Firefly theme is no exception – in fact it’s an excellent example. This allows the song to work on multiple levels and mean different things to do different people, and that means it has power. To explain it, to dictate it as having any one meaning, would destroy that, and is something you rarely see authors do.

“Cannot stand” means many things, and I think the song is invoking most, if not all, of them. To ascribe any single meaning to it is to miss the depth of the line.

As a couple of answers (by Pureferret and Yakk) have stated, it could refer to the inability to “stand” one’s ground: the Battle of Serenity Valley, where the Browncoats failed to stand their ground and (as reported by the Alliance commander in “Bushwhacked”) ultimately lost the war as a result. This has obvious references to the arc-plot of Firefly and especially as to why Mal and Zoë have a Firefly-class ship named Serenity in the first place.

It can also refer to the inability to “stand,” tolerate, a terrible situation, as suggested in another answer by Liesmith. This is an interesting inversion of the preceding “Take” lines; the strong parallelism in repeating “Take” three times is twisted by using the word differently the third time: the first two involved taking something else away; the third involves taking the speaker somewhere else. In effect, the Alliance took away the good things, and gave a bad thing – but even so, the speaker doesn’t care, he’s “still free.” Better to rule in hell (the outer rim, edge of the galaxy, near the Black) than serve in heaven (the Alliance worlds, under Alliance dominion), though of course the Alliance is no heaven itself.

And as suggested in a comment by Kai, one who cannot “stand” has “fallen” – which can mean to die. One cannot stand in a grave. Thus, “where I cannot stand” could be a grave – and the singer was taken to it by the Alliance. And certainly, many did die, and Mal and Zoë, at the least, were alongside many who did. They didn’t die, and neither did the singer of the song, but they have been to the grave: they were just lucky enough to get away, to “the sky.” It’s an acknowledgement of those who died, and an awareness of how close the narrator came to death, and how even now, living free, is still close to death.

Along similar lines, another comment by CreationEdge offers another alternative to standing, for those who cannot: “kneeling.” Kneeling is a strong sign of deference and obedience, and indicates that the one knelt to has complete control over the kneeler’s life. In modern Western society, kneeling happens almost exclusively in places of worship, kneeling to a deity. Thus, the singer could be implying that this was the Alliance’s expectation of its citizens: to kneel, to treat the Alliance as divine and thus as having absolute authority.

Finally, and this is an interpretation I have not seen in other answers, it can be very literal – the inability to stand upright, to stand on firm ground. Throughout the show, space is deep and it is the essence of isolation. That isolation is believed to be the cause of the Reavers (“Reavers ain’t men. Or they forgot how to be. Come to just nothin’. They got out to the edge of the galaxy, to that place of nothin’, and that's what they became.” – Malcolm Reynolds, “Bushwhacked” again), but it’s also the source of the crew’s freedom. And of course, in space there is no firm ground to stand on. Serenity herself is floundering, as we see in Kaylee’s constant warnings to Mal about the state of the ship, and they’re barely hanging on. They are not standing with sure footing.

This kind of “overloading” of words in the song, where one statement means several things simultaneously, is also a trend in the song and really in the show:

  • Serenity is, in-verse, named for the Battle of Serenity Valley, but of course out-of-verse the name is also a word, one with a lot of powerful implications for her crew (and one must expect that this fact was not lost on Mal when he chose the name in-verse, either).

    Further, in the song we get “Since I found Serenity,” and here that one word can be, and I would argue is, both Serenity, the ship, and serenity, a state of calm and lacking troubles.

  • The show is called Firefly because Serenity is a Firefly-class ship, and the ship-class is called that because of its shape and the distinctive glowing bulb at the rear for the engine. But think about what fireflies mean to us out-of-verse: they are tiny, and they glow in the dark. They are tiny spots of light in the night, calling out to each other. Presumably this is not a particularly poetic existence for the fireflies themselves, but from a human perspective that is a powerful metaphor.

  • “The sky” is used to refer to space, which is often thought of as “beyond the sky,” but that’s a fairly superficial and obvious metaphor, not specific to this show. What is more notable is the way that the song, again very obviously, ties the sky to freedom. The entire premise of the show is that space, the outer edge, is freedom. It’s the independence that the Independents fought for, even if they didn’t win, it’s escapism for Book and Inara, it’s opportunity for Jayne and Wash, but especially for Kaylee, and it’s very literally freedom, from imprisonment, for the Tams. Thus, the song, in a very brief period of time, manages to sum up the whole show and its main characters in a very succinct way: it is a show about “the sky” as described in the song.

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    @RogueJedi I agree; I would not have contributed this answer if the question hadn’t already been full of answers flat-out ignoring that requirement. I suspect there isn’t any official statement – to which the response should be to leave an unanswerable question unanswered, but that has not seemed to be the approach this site has taken. That being the case, I felt it worthwhile to add this, since I feel that all of the existing answers are missing important details if they’re going to do pure interpretation. – KRyan Oct 29 '15 at 14:39
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    @RogueJedi I did make an attempt to at least acknowledge the actual question at the outset, but unfortunately I think you will not find the answer you’re looking for. – KRyan Oct 29 '15 at 14:49
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    @RogueJedi: this is the best answer you're going to get. No self-respecting lyricist is ever going to give a "one true interpretation" of their lyrics. – Martha Oct 29 '15 at 17:18
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    @RogueJedi - Looking for the official meaning is like asking if Cobb is still dreaming at the end of Inception. Or trying to figure out why did the people disappear in The Leftovers. I.e. missing the point of the work. – millimoose Oct 30 '15 at 0:05
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    This is most in line with how I always took the song; it is multilayered and not tied to a single meaning. Yes, Mal and Zoe's experiences as Browncoats clearly play a major role in the show, but the other characters play just as vital a role. Pick a character and interpret the theme song from their viewpoint/past/experiences and it still works. That is the magic of a well written song. – YLearn Oct 30 '15 at 0:25
13

I always got the impression that it meant "take me where I can't stand to be". As in, "take me someplace terrible, I don't care, I'm still free".

  • There are many things, places, and situations I cannot stand; This seemed like the natural reading, to me. – user867 Oct 28 '15 at 22:56
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    This is a good personal interpretation, but I'm looking for the official meaning. – Rogue Jedi Oct 29 '15 at 13:51
  • I always understood that as take me to a place I can't stand – njzk2 Oct 29 '15 at 14:53
  • I realize the question was edited fairly late in the game, but this post does not answer the clarified question. – Martha Oct 29 '15 at 17:21
8

The only statement I can see online is an extended quote from Firefly: The Official Companion, vol. 2, though this book might contain more information about the song on neighboring pages. If you're very lucky, someone on SFF is close to one of the following locations, each of which has a library which has it: Kingston, Ontario; Bradenton, Florida; Eugene, Oregon; and Auckland, New Zealand.

The part of the quote that's available online is:

“It’s a song about life in defeat, and that’s kind of what the show is about. It’s about people who have been either economically or politically or emotionally beaten down in one way or another and how they cling to each other and how they fail each other and how they rebuild themselves. I wrote it so that it could be sung as a Civil War lament..., basically a way of saying, ‘We’ve lost,’ [which] is not usually what you come in humming in most shows.”

Given only this, my best interpretation is that the word stand refers to the military sense of maintaining a position, as opposed to fleeing in defeat. In other words, the opening lines are painting a picture of an Alliance which is expanding ruthlessly and driving him out from his home, c.f. Mal talking to Simon in Serenity, "Put this crew together with the promise of work, which the Alliance makes harder every year. Come a day there won’t be room for naughty men like us to slip about at all."

So following that quote, the opening stanza is essentially expressing that the singer has made peace with being defeated and that if you take him to a place that he cannot defend or protect, he is comfortable with running from you and escaping out into the open "sky".

5

"Cannot stand" can mean "cannot resist" or "cannot hold the line", as in "stand up to" or "stand with".

The ballad is about what the Alliance did to the Browncoats.

Take my love
Take my land

"Take my love" refers to the people who where killed. "Take my land" refers to the Alliance conquering the Independents (and maybe specific acts of appropriation).

Take me where I cannot stand

Here, we use "Take me" in its double meaning -- to bring someone somewhere. "Bring me to the place where I cannot hold against your attack" -- Serenity Valley.

As @ToddWilcox has pointed out, you also "cannot stand" in space (barring artifical gravity). This reading generates parallels with the next stanza ("to the black"); the "no place" where you "can be" is outer space.

I don't care
I'm still free
You can't take the sky from me

The anthem of defiance. In a non-space faring culture, "the sky" is something that noone can occupy. In this case, it also refers to the freedom of flying around and not being subject to alliance rules all the time.

Take me out
To the black tell 'em I ain't coming back

I will flee to outer space.

Burn the land
And boil the sea

Refers both to bombardment, and takes the previous verse where they "take" it, and stresses they can even destroy it (goes a step further).

you can't take the sky from me

Somewhat similar meaning. When juxtaposed against the burn/boil lines, it says "you cannot destroy the entire sky, there is nothing for you to bombard".

Have no place I can be since I found Serenity

Serenity refers to a state of grace of acceptance. It also refers to Serenity valley, where the Browncoats where defeated; since then, they have no place they can remain independent of the Alliance. The third meaning is the ship Serenity (in the context of the TV show), where Mal feels like he has to wander because there is no place he feels he can stay. The forth interpretation is "no place" is outer space; the singer can be in outer space ("no place").

but you can't take the sky from me

Previous meanings, but the Firefly Ship Serenity makes the "I can stay in space and fly around and I can be free" attach to "found Serenity" stronger.

In the world fiction, that part (that the ship is part of the Lyric's meanings) probably doesn't apply to the authorial intent (unless one of the crew wrote the song); it still could have that meaning to Mal, who took the other layers of meaning of that ballad and was part of the inspiration to name the ship (reversing the cause).


As an alternative explanation, the first stanza could be what led the Browncoats to war; the Alliance started enforcing their law: killing Independents, claiming land that the Independents claimed or disagreeing with who owned what, until they reach the point where the Independents "could not stand" to suffer the Alliance's oppression.

They are still free. They cannot take the sky -- the Independents rose up, and fought back from planet to planet.

The second stanza would then refer to the war itself and its aftermath, where the Alliance bombarded Independent colonies (burn the land and boil the sea). The Independents had to retreat into deeper space "Take me out to the black tell'em I ain't coming back." and could not hold. They fled their planets (you can't take the sky from me), ever since the battle of Serenity.

The eventual cleanup would then occur, but not be covered by the rebel verse.


Like most pieces of poetry, it admits multiple interpretations.


Here is a footnote in a book to another book (which I don't have a URL to) where Joss states that it was penned "so that it could be sung as a Civil War lament". The source (in "The Philosophy of Joss Whedon) is claimed to be: (Firefly, the Official Companion, vol 2. (London: Titan 2007), 33)

  • This is a good personal interpretation, but I'm looking for the official meaning. – Rogue Jedi Oct 29 '15 at 13:52
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    @RogueJedi Songs almost never have "official meanings". Lyric writers are almost always reluctant to offer the "real" meaning of their lyrics because listener interpretation is an important part of the art. Many lyrics are deliberately written to allow multiple interpretations so that there is meaning for all different kinds of listeners. When I write lyrics I intentially use phrases that mean more than one thing to me, and others often come up with interpretations that I didn't even think of. – Todd Wilcox Oct 29 '15 at 13:57
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    @RogueJedi I have tried to find a quote by Joss explaining the lyrics, and I have failed. There is a bit about it being a "Civil War Lament" in the companion vol 2 (I found a footnote referencing it). I also found this: youtube.com/watch?time_continue=81&v=Ac3a49-sj3A which made the search worthwhile. – Yakk Oct 29 '15 at 13:58
3

Serenity is the key; Here the meaning is actually Death; Death on the field with the dead on their backs or burried looking skyward.

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    Welcome to SFFSE! Could you add any more to this answer? It's a little short currently and you might wish to add some more explanation. Thanks! – Often Right Oct 29 '15 at 5:11
  • That's a fascinating interpretation and I would love to see some evidence for it. – KRyan Oct 29 '15 at 14:15
  • I realize the question was edited fairly late in the game, but this post does not answer the clarified question. – Martha Oct 29 '15 at 17:22
2

It is explained mostly in Joss Whedon's solo commentary to the episode “Objects in Space.” I quote it here for the purposes of supporting my own critical commentary.

Um, and I will tell you something anecdotal that I don't believe I've mentioned before, here, which is that this song — I actually wrote before I wrote the pilot; the day I pitched the show, I went home and wrote this song.
I wanted to write a little blues song about what it was like to lose the war, and either die — be taken up into heaven, — or go out into space and abandon humanity — which is, sort of, what Mal did.
Um, so that's where the song came from: it informed the show I was gonna write, before I'd ever written it — which was a lot of fun, it helped crystallize things for me; it help break into the script.

A brief discussion of Greg Edmundson's score, and then Joss begins talking about his auto-styled “existential epiphany” when he was 16 years old. He later told a friend about it, and that friend gave him a copy of Jean Paul Sartré's Nausea.
He also describes one of the core suppositions of Sartrean Existentialism, which is that “nothing exists only partially.” He relates this to the episode, but there is another layer to all this.

When he describes his “epiphany”, it is in these words:

In my case, I was presented with the totality of things. Um, but with no coherent pattern to put them in. I just suddenly understood that real life was happening.

The fundamental aspect of what is usually described as existentialist is, more or less, a recognition of things absent relational value, or sans any categorical impositions attached to them — e.g. a ball is expected to be used as a part of baseball, as a toy, but it is simply a round thing in and of itself. It will maintain those properties even if it is an object drifting alone in space.

Simple enough. Well, it is existentialism, after all. This bears some relation to the lines

Take my love,
Take my land,
Take me where I cannot stand.
I don't care, I'm still free:
You can't take the sky from me.

Joss said that, during his existential epiphany, he realized that he had no “faith”. That especially seems to be expressed in these later lines:

There's no place I can be
Since I found serenity —

Although it would seem that the experience would be anything but serene, we could understand that certain purported relief at relinquishing attempts to compile and qualify the universe around — but, I have been veering too far in my own examination, and not relying on explicit quotes.


At least I gave you that quote from the DVD commentary. Wow, this is probably my worst answer posted here yet.

1

"Take me where I cannot stand" Standing needs gravity. Space has (near) zero. "Burn the land and boil the sea" is inspired by the introduction to the movie Koyaanisqatsi which describes the Hopi prophecies of the ruination of Earth: "A container of ashes might one day be thrown from the sky, which could burn the land and boil the oceans." Describes the exodus of humans from the defiled planet Earth into space.

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    Welcome to SFF:SE, take a look at the tour page to see the expectation of quality of answers. If you have any evidence to support your answer to make it just that little bit better, don't be afraid to make an edit. – Edlothiad Dec 30 '16 at 4:20

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