The release of the new Muppets movie has a lot of people revisiting Kermit’s classic song, “The Rainbow Connection.”
And rightfully so. It’s a fantastic song. It’s happy and heartwarming, and even a little poignant at times.
But it starts with an odd assumption: that there are already a lot of songs about rainbows, and that we should be familiar with them, in order to ponder the question:
“Why are there so many songs about rainbows/and what’s on the other side?”
Wait. Hold on. Just how many songs are there about rainbows?
Well, there’s “Over the Rainbow,” the classic song from The Wizard of Oz and a staple of the American songbook.
And then there’s… there’s… well, I don’t know about you, but I can’t name any songs about rainbows off the top of my head other than “The Rainbow Connection” and “Over the Rainbow.”
I started to get suspicious. I wanted hard, quantitative data on songs about rainbows. Fortunately, I came across a huge dataset of songs on the Billboard charts from 1890-2011.* With over 38,000 entries, this isn’t the entirety of pop music output during that time, but it’s certainly a highly representative one. Using frequency of words in song titles as a proxy for songs being “about” something, I crunched the numbers…
…and found that there are only 42 (Billboard-charting) songs about rainbows.**
It gets even more disappointing when you compare that to the frequency of other topics of Billboard-charting songs: there are over 3,300 songs about “love,” for example. There are even more songs about “sex” and its variants, e.g. “sexy” (50) than “rainbow(s).”
That prompted me to worry that there may be more songs about “fuck” and its variants than rainbows, too, but that turned out not to be the case. Yet.
So it turns out that there aren’t many songs about rainbows after all, much less those that also explore “what’s on the other side.” This may cause us to entirely rethink the meaning of “The Rainbow Connection.” When Kermit claims to hear voices, perhaps it’s not “the sweet sound that called the young sailors.” Perhaps it’s the same delusional thoughts that led him to believe that there are a lot of songs about rainbows, when in fact, there are only 42.
Or perhaps Kermit is tapping into musical traditions outside of the pop music that appears on the Billboard Charts. The lyrics of French medieval ballads could be full of references to rainbows.
Actually, there’s a far more mundane explanation for this. It’s not that there are so many unique, individual songs about rainbows out there. It’s that “Over the Rainbow” is so insanely popular and is performed or played so frequently that we get the impression that there are in fact “so many songs about rainbows.”
This is the most likely explanation, albeit less interesting than the mental illness interpretation. Sound off in the comments if you have any alternative theories!
*The linked article reports on the genesis of the “Whitburn Project,” which was back in 2008. Others have since updated the dataset with more recent songs; hence, the 1890-2011 timeframe. You can download that updated dataset here if you’re curious.
**There are actually less than 42 distinct songs about Rainbows in the dataset. There are only 27 unique song titles; the 42 count includes multiple versions of the same song title (7 for “Over the Rainbow” and “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows” each). I stuck with 42 since the every other data point is for song instances instead of unique song titles.
Update: Here’s the full list of 42 songs about rainbows. Any of these sound familiar?
|1969||Dells, The||I Can Sing A Rainbow/Love Is Blue|
|1946||Perry Como||I’m Always Chasing Rainbows|
|1946||Helen Forrest & Dick Haymes||I’m Always Chasing Rainbows|
|1946||Harry James & His Orchestra||I’m Always Chasing Rainbows|
|1918||Charles Harrison||I’m Always Chasing Rainbows|
|1918||Harry Fox||I’m Always Chasing Rainbows|
|1918||Prince’s Orchestra||I’m Always Chasing Rainbows|
|1918||Sam Ash||I’m Always Chasing Rainbows|
|1967||Box Tops, The||Neon Rainbow|
|2010||Glee Cast||Over The Rainbow|
|1978||Gary Tanner||Over The Rainbow|
|1960||Demensions, The||Over The Rainbow|
|1939||Glenn Miller & His Orchestra||Over The Rainbow|
|1939||Bob Crosby & His Orchestra||Over the Rainbow|
|1939||Judy Garland||Over the Rainbow|
|1939||Larry Clinton & His Orchestra||Over the Rainbow|
|1961||Deane Hawley||Pocketful Of Rainbows|
|1908||Frank Stanley & Henry Burr||Rainbow|
|1908||Billy Murray & Haydn Quartet||Rainbow|
|1966||Gene Chandler||Rainbow ’65 (Part 1)|
|1963||Gene Chandler||Rainbow (Studio)|
|1962||Jimmie Rodgers||Rainbow At Midnight|
|1979||Kermit (Jim Henson)||Rainbow Connection|
|1976||Leon and Mary Russell||Rainbow In Your Eyes|
|1937||Guy Lombardo & His Royal Canadians||Rainbow on the River|
|1944||Glenn Miller & His Orchestra||Rainbow Rhapsody|
|1969||Andy Kim||Rainbow Ride|
|1939||Dick Jurgens & His Orchestra||Rainbow Valley|
|1983||Sergio Mendes||Rainbow’s End|
|1965||Danny Hutton||Roses And Rainbows|
|1968||Rolling Stones, The||She’s A Rainbow|
|2006||Katharine McPhee||Somewhere Over The Rainbow|
|1965||Lesley Gore||Sunshine, Lollipops And Rainbows|
|1960||Frankie Avalon||Swingin’ On A Rainbow|
|1918||John McCormack||The Rainbow of Love|
|1943||Perry Como||There’ll Soon be a Rainbow|
|1928||Al Jolson||There’s a Rainbow Round My Shoulder|
|1927||George Olsen & His Orchestra||Where’s That Rainbow?|
|1967||Gunter Kallmann Chorus||Wish Me A Rainbow|
|1961||Phill Wilson||Wishin’ On A Rainbow|
Rainbows represent out dreams, or the dreams we chase that seem out of reach.
Looks like you’ve found the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything.
For one thing, I’d expand the search to “rainbow” anywhere in the lyrics, not just in the title, as well as band names that include rainbow. It might come up with similar results compared to those other search terms. However, in defense of the song, in Paul Williams’ narrow circle in the Seventies, the kind of songs he wrote and the genre they belonged to, there might have been more mentions of rainbows, even if those songs never charted. It would be like Dave Mustane writing a song in 1987 asking “Why are there so many songs about dragon-axing warriors in loincloths, and the demonic sorcerers they must defeat?”
Okay, an objective count of those images might not come up with a lot either. Maybe it’s because one or two good songs on a topic and a handful of cliched songs on the same topic can seem like “a lot” or too much. I picture Paul Williams at the top of his game in the late 70s, if not working with a lot of other songwriters and suffering through their dreck, then probably getting waiters and stalkers and strangers plying him with their demo tapes or sheet music, hoping to be discovered by or given advice by Williams. He thinks why are there so many songs about rainbows in my slushpile? Can’t they get past that cliche?
“There are actually less than 42 distinct songs…”
Fewer, not less.
There are actually fewer than 42 distinct songs…
I can’t believe the disparity between songs about women and songs about men.
I can’t believe that the order goes “Man”, “Girl”, “Baby”, “Woman”. Well, I can, but I’m not happy about it.
judging by the “sex” example in the article the reason for this disparity could be just that search results for *woman* are a subset of all the search results of titles including words *man*.
Yup, you nailed it. I may go back into the data set later to try to refine this. But it is telling that “girl” is used about 3 times as often as “woman” in song titles.
“Rainbows are visions, but only illusions.”
A rainbow in this context is not refracted light. It is the daydreams and wishes that inspire people do do things, as described in the rest of the song.
As such, there are likely many more songs about “rainbows” out there which could come under the title of dreams, wishes, inspiration, and the like. To extend this, wishful and inspirational songs could also said to be about rainbows. It would seem that the vast majority of songs would fall under these banners, and the question of “Why are there so many songs about rainbows?” is a question of the human condition and the ways we use to express it.
Why do we make wishes and seek to be inspired? If those wishes are granted and our inspirations are gained, what do we achieve? In asking “what’s on the other side” of a rainbow, perhaps Kermit continues to question the human condition by posing the question of whether or not we can ever truly be satisfied.
Kermit may also be alluding to even darker aspects of the human condition. Whilst rainbows are beautiful in their intangibility, it is only from specific angles and conditions that they are visible. A rainbow then is a rare occurrence and is ultimately an illusion. If dreams and inspirations are the same, what does it say about one of the finer things about humanity? Why do we chase such things if they can never be caught?
Clearly Kermit thinks too much. It’s not easy being green.
I’ve always been fascinated by the chorus.
“Someday we’ll find it, the rainbow connection, the lovers, the dreamers, and me.”
Note that Kermit is excluding himself from both groups. Obviously he isn’t a lover yet, as he hasn’t met Miss Piggy. And he is also not yet a dreamer. In about two minutes Dom Deluise is going to show up and inspire him to go to Hollywood. So what rainbow is he singing about for himself?
The third verse makes it clear. Dreamers are people who desperately want something, be it greatness or fame or to cure people. At the opening of the movie, Kermit doesn’t want to do anything but sit on his log and play his banjo and catch flies. But Fate has a plan for him. The Universe needs him, because the Universe needs The Muppets and whether he wants to look for a rainbow or not, the rainbow is looking for him.
Which is why finding fame brings him happiness, instead of the misery it seems to inflict upon so many of those who actively seek fame and success. Kermit never needed it in the first place. He cares more about making sure his friends succeed with him than himself. He would never leave to pursue a solo career.
1. There are probably other songs about rainbows that do not include the word ‘rainbow’ in the title. There are probably even more songs that heavily feature or even just mention rainbows but don’t use them as the focal point of the song… although whether these songs would then be considered “about” rainbows is up in the air. I say probably because I can’t think of any.
2. Question: Is the song “Rainbow Connection” included in the 42 songs? It somehow doesn’t seem accurate to include it, if it is. It doesn’t seem to me that Kermit would be including his own song in his “so many songs about rainbows” estimation.
1. Correct, there are many songs that could be about rainbows that don’t have the word “rainbow” in the title. The method of using the title as a proxy for what the song is about is imperfect, but the best that could be done without a huge database of song lyrics. And likewise, I can’t think of any songs that are about rainbows that don’t have the word in the title.
2. Yes, the song “Rainbow Connection” is included in the 42 songs. But that count of 42 songs is through 2011, so at the time Kermit first sang the song back in 1979, it would be much lower.
I always felt “Rainbow Connection” was directly addressing “Over The Rainbow” in those opening lines. In “Over The Rainbow” the rainbow is used to represent an impossible fantasy of escape – it’s forever out of reach (“Birds fly over the rainbow, why then oh why can’t I?”). Whereas in “Rainbow Connection” it’s something much more attainable. Still abstract, still fantastical, but the connection it represents exists and will be found (not even, “hopefully we find it” – “someday we’ll find it”). As you say, when asked to think of songs about rainbows, people tend to just jump to “Rainbow Connection” and “Over The Rainbow.” It’s like Kermit’s really asking, “Why have we heard that one song about rainbows so many times?” But he’s too polite for that, and he goes roundabout.
Artist: Dio; Track: Rainbow in the Dark
The second single from Dio’s 1983 album, “Holy Diver.” RIP RJD.
Ah, but seventeen of those titles (sixteen of which are unique) charted during the sixties and seventies, not so long before Rainbow Connection. That’s a surprisingly large proportion of the 42. (And even moreso if you look only at unique titles: 16 of 27.)
From the local perspective of when the song was written, there were surprisingly many songs about rainbows.
They forgot to mention the greatest Rainbow song of all, “Rainbow in the Dark” by Dio!
Whoops, looks like Jon. H beat me to the punch there. I guess great minds think alike.
Clearly, you don’t speak frog. They sing about rainbows aaaaaaall the fucking time! In fact, if you must know, that’s the literal frog-to-English translation of “ribbit.”
Here are some more songs about rainbows that someone compiled:
A honorable mention goes to Terry Riley’s “A Rainbow Curved in Air” as the best minimalist electronic piece with the word “rainbow” in the title, but this is probably the most earwormishly memorable song about rainbows. And also Stalin.
i’ve been bugging my wife about this for years. she merely rolls her eyes at me (not entirely uncommon).
for a great version of this song, check out the one recorded by me first and the gimme gimmes.
See also the Weezer + Hayley Williams version. Love it.
I literally just had this thought in my brain, and I was pleasantly surprised to see this article which scratched all the itches my brain had on the topic. Thank you!