Metaphor has long been one of the most powerful devices in the songwriter’s toolkit.
An extended metaphor is not simply a poetic line; it is a theme that runs throughout a song, expressing an idea or desire both concealed and enhanced by rich, expansive language.
It is not a “niche” device – the biggest pop singers write songs with extended metaphors just as often as those renowned as musical poets.
Here are some of the best.
Top Songs with Extended Metaphors
10. “Roar” – Katy Perry
2013 saw Katy Perry release Roar, one of her most celebrated and popular tracks to date. It takes the theme of emerging stronger after a failed relationship and explores it through a connection to a deeper, more animal nature – exemplified in the triumphant lyric, “I’ve got the eye of the tiger.”
The comparisons in Roar pass through animal metaphors but also extend to other natural phenomena(for example, thunder). This emphasis is always on the idea that the writer was formerly constrained but is now free.
The song is also rich in allusions to other songs. Eve of the Tiger is a famously upbeat and adrenaline-infused song by Survivor, while the line “floatin’ like a butterfly” recalls a famous Muhammad Ali quote – and also the excellent reggae song Tease Me by Chaka Demus & Pliers.
9. “Happy” – Pharrell Williams
2014’s “Happy” by Pharrell Williams was widely acclaimed for its uncynical, unashamedly optimistic lyrics and feeling.
The song’s extended metaphor runs across the theme of “nothing can bring me down,” with the singer encouraging the audience to clap along if they feel “like a room without a roof.” It explores the idea of happiness without bounds or caveats.
The song has been considered a direct response to overwhelming negativity. Feelings are metaphors in themselves, and Happy is, in this sense, a metaphor for resilience and optimism in troubled times.
8. “Heartbreak Hotel” – Elvis Presley
Songs with extended metaphors often choose a specific location as the center of the metaphor. Nowhere is this more apparent than when staying in Elvis Presley’s Heartbreak Hotel (1956).
“Down at the end of Lonely Street,” we find Elvis exploring heartbreak through the metaphor of the everyday workings of a hotel. The staff are just as drawn into the loneliness as the patrons, e.g., a sobbing bellhop.
The song is one of Elvis’s most popular because it explores the universal theme of heartbreak and failed relationships. The extended metaphor of the hotel adds a sharp, dry, humorous edge to a song fundamentally concerned with sadness.
7. “Caged Bird” – Alicia Keys
Alicia Keys’ melancholy Caged Bird (2001) reaches for one of the heavy hitters of metaphor in 20th Century literary history – Maya Angelou. It directly borrows from the celebrated author’s 1969 autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, with the line quoted in full during the song.
As an extended metaphor, the cage describes race and gender, as in Angelou’s work. Keys mourns the blindness of those who keep her caged and oppressed, musing that they don’t know what they are doing to her – the bird’s captors only see her smile and not her tears.
6. “Stairway to Heaven” – Led Zeppelin
Led Zeppelin’s celebrated Stairway to Heaven (1971) is considered one of the all-time great musical laments of a materialistic society.
The metaphor begins with the title; the “stairway to heaven” is portrayed as something that is real, but also often through the illusion that it can be “bought.” Through the metaphor of the stairway, and the piper who may lead the individual to self-discovery by following the music in all of our hearts, the song separates dreamers from consumers.
5. “Hotel California” – The Eagles
What is it about songwriters and hotels? A living space that is also a trap where “you can check out, but you can never leave,” the Hotel California (1976) finds the singer stuck in a hotel where the worst excesses of American decadence and moral apathy are around every corner.
California, home to Hollywood and celebrity culture in the 70s, is chosen as a representative of this godless burnout – and the nation’s fascination with it. The hotel metaphor levels its guests; we see arrogance, despair, success, and failure all living side-by-side.
The message seems to be that once the illusory American Dream has you in its grasp, you will never escape. But, as the song sarcastically muses, it is such a lovely place.
4. “Getaway Car” – Taylor Swift
Taylor Swift’s Getaway Car (2017) follows in a long tradition of using cars as a metaphor for the desire to escape. It tracks across meeting a lover in a similar situation (meeting in a getaway car), to the point at which the singer wishes to escape again – and drives the car away from her lover alone.
Its lyrics evoke Bonny & Clyde, synonymous in US culture with being “on the run.” In this version of the story, running away with her lover is only part of the pop legend’s desire to escape, and the metaphor reaches its conclusion as, with tears in her eyes, she says goodbye “in a getaway car.”
3. “Sign of the Times” – Harry Styles
Pop legend Harry Styles’ 2017 release Sign of the Times is a brooding, epic-feeling song that takes a classic metaphor – that in life, we are simply at a show.
However, it subverts the metaphor with its incisive line, “can’t bribe the door on your way to the sky,” lamenting that a commercialized, transactional relationship with life will ultimately end in disappointment.
It contrasts “looking good” with “being good” and deplores the transient but absorbing nature of fame and the glamorized showbiz life, finally insisting that crying about the situation is no good and that “we’ve gotta get away from here.”
2. “Bohemian Rhapsody” – Queen
One of the 20th Century’s most celebrated musical masterpieces, Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen (1975), is a playful, pyrotechnic interrogation of feeling unlovable, unforgivable, and doomed.
Like so many great extended metaphors, the symbolism of Bohemian Rhapsody’s lyrics can’t fully be explained, but it is considered a highly personal song for Freddie Mercury. The band admitted that the song followed a Faustian pact with a young man whose soul belongs to the devil, but exactly why – and what this means – is the subject of much speculation.
1. “Desolation Row” – Bob Dylan
There are not many songs with extended metaphors as hell-bent on their mission as Desolation Row by Bob Dylan (1965).
The lyrics are rich, poetic, and carry individual metaphors through an 11-minute extended metaphor that describes Dylan’s frustration with phony individuals, the forces of law and order, and just about everyone else who is not in a state of total despair at the world.
Possibly-real individuals are given aliases and described in terms of their relationship to “Desolation Row,” a mythical street occupied by the downtrodden and the disenfranchised, and mysteriously protected against dubious outside forces.
It is considered one of Dylan’s great lyrical masterpieces, an anthem of sincerity, and a paragon of the art of the extended metaphor.
The extended metaphor is one of the most powerful devices across all art forms – films, novels, and songs all recognize its versatility and depth. This selection of songs shows just how adaptable it is and how it elevates a great song into a timeless expression of a feeling.
Give our selection a listen. Discover more great songs with extended metaphors. Perhaps even write your own – become inspired.