Spotify recently released their list of most-streamed songs of the year, and “Something Just Like This,” by The Chainsmokers and Coldplay, has made it into fourth place, behind Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You” and two different versions of “Despacito.” As a result of its popularity, the song’s mythological allusions to the heroes Achilles and Hercules are some of 2017’s most prominent references to Classical mythology. I would like to take a few moments to investigate how the song makes use of these mythical references.
Before we move on, I encourage you to listen to the song, or read over its lyrics. Here is the official lyric video:
“Something Just Like This” opens up with the following lines:
I’ve been reading books of old
The legends and the myths
Achilles and his gold
Hercules and his gifts
And Batman with his fists
And clearly I don’t see myself upon that list
Here, the narrator names various heroes, from the mythological figures of ancient Greece and Rome to the superheroes of modern comic books and film, and states that he is not worthy of being included among them. What is the vision of heroism he is thinking of when referencing these characters, and why does he believe he is unfit to be one of them?
Let’s begin with “Achilles and his gold.” Achilles is the son of the warrior Peleus and the sea goddess Thetis, and is known for his exploits during the Trojan War. He is famed for his speed and strength in combat, and one explanation for his near-invincibility was that his mother dipped him into the river Styx when he was a child. All parts of him became invulnerable, except his heel, where Thetis was holding him, and this vulnerable spot, where he would be shot with an arrow and killed by Paris, is the source of the term “Achilles’ heel.”
The reference to gold is a bit odd, since Achilles was not known for his wealth. The only valuable treasure associated with Achilles is the beautiful set of weapons and armor made for him in the Iliad by Hephaestus, god of the forge, at the request of Thetis, so that he can return to battle after a long absence and avenge his fallen companion, Patroclus (18.368-616).
In one of the most fascinating passages of the Iliad, Hephaestus creates an intricate shield displaying all the moments of human life that Achilles will miss out on, for now that he has decided to return to battle, he is fated to die gloriously at a young age (view an artistic interpretation of Achilles’ shield here). With this set of arms, Achilles wrecks the Trojan army and savagely slays the Trojan hero Hector.
Achilles’ “gold,” then, is emblematic of several things: first, his divine parentage and connection with the gods, for it is his special link with his mother, and his mother’s relationship with other gods like Hephaestus, that gives him access to this set of weapons and armor; second, his amazing prowess in battle, for he uses these arms to devastating effect against the Trojans; and third, the fact that he will never again be able to experience ordinary human life, for he has instead chosen fame and glory in death.
As for Hercules (or Heracles, if you prefer the Greek form), he is the son of the god Zeus and the mortal woman Alcmene, and is renowned for the courage and incredible physical strength he utilizes to perform his famous 12 labors, which include the slaying of various monsters, like the Nemean Lion and the Hydra.
After his death, he becomes a god himself, further distancing himself from human experience. His “gifts” likely refer to his divine connection, his strength and power, and his immortality, not only as a god, but also in the form of the fame he has earned through his glorious deeds.
So, the type of hero being referenced in this song is a powerful figure, who possesses superhuman or supernatural talents, which enable him or her to perform incredible feats beyond the ability of ordinary humans and thereby earn lasting fame and glory.
Taking into account the superhero references, it’s true Batman is only human, but the unique circumstances of his training, ingenuity, wealth, and access to technology as head of Wayne Enterprises grant him the ability to perform heroic deeds beyond that of a regular person.
Spiderman, meanwhile, is a superhuman figure whose power allows him to be a hero in a way that an ordinary person cannot. Perhaps it even demands it, as he attempts to adhere to the famous saying of Uncle Ben that “with great power comes great responsibility.” This moral imperative is probably the “control” of Spiderman mentioned in the lyrics.
In a later verse, there is a reference to Superman (“And Superman unrolls / A suit before he lifts / But I’m not the kind of person that it fits”), which takes us even further in this direction, as he is actually not human at all. Rather, he is an alien from Krypton, with a vast set of powerful abilities which come to him from the sun, a cosmic source.
The reason for the narrator’s sense of inadequacy is understandable, given that he is trying to measure up against these heroes: he is an ordinary human, lacking the power of these figures and incapable of the great deeds they have accomplished, and as a result, he feels unworthy. However, in the next verse, his lover or significant other responds:
But she said, “Where’d you wanna go?
How much you wanna risk?
I’m not looking for somebody
With some superhuman gifts
Some fairytale bliss
Just something I can turn to
Somebody I can kiss
I want something just like this”
She is saying that the narrator does not need to go on a quest for power, glory, and fame to be worthy of love and affection. There is no need for us to risk it all to be perfect heroes and perform great deeds; simply being human, with all the flaws and weakness that entails, is enough to be loved. We just have to be exactly who we are, and accept our imperfect human qualities. This is what is referred to in the phrase “something just like this.”
In this song, Coldplay and The Chainsmokers reject a traditional notion of heroism that has existed since the ancient days–that of powerful figures who push themselves past the limits of human ability and human existence to attain greatness—and instead suggest that we should be comfortable with our own humanity.
This is what these great heroes represent, if we think of them only as monolithic cultural symbols: Achilles, the invulnerable warrior, or Spiderman, the moral webslinger, or Superman, the alien who delivers justice. But we have to remember that it is often the humanity of these characters which ultimately allows them to become greater heroes.
In the Iliad, after avenging Patroclus by slaying his killer, Hector, Achilles remains so infuriated that he refuses to return Hector’s body for burial and continually drags the corpse around. But he puts aside his anger and gives the body back to Hector’s father, King Priam, when he recognizes the similarities between the Trojan king and his own father, Peleus, and learns to acknowledge the common sufferings of humanity (24.471-676). Achilles and Priam share a meal and for a moment overcome the divisions of war and violence. It is arguably at this very human moment that Achilles is at his most heroic.
Hercules, when he is driven mad by Hera, Zeus’ wife, winds up killing his family, and it is the guilt over this horrible act and the desire for atonement that motivates him to accomplish his 12 Labors. It is a real, human emotion that leads him to accomplish his heroic deeds.
The grief that Bruce Wayne goes through when he lost his parents to a criminal act of violence motivates him to become Batman and fight criminals, so that no one else would have to go through such a loss. The death of Uncle Ben, and the guilt of knowing he could have stopped his killer, drive Peter Parker to become Spiderman and live up to his responsibility as a hero.
Superman is not even human, and yet, it is his ordinary upbringing in Kansas by his adoptive parents, Jonathan and Martha Kent, that imparts him with the values and sense of justice needed to become an American hero.
In the end, we should not reject the idea of heroism altogether, but instead recognize that our humanity enables us all to be heroes in our way. The album artwork, seen in the video above, says it best: the imagination, spirit, and optimism of the young boy allows him to be the hero he wishes to be.