On my flight back to the United States, there was an unfamiliar song to me that I found in the music collection of the Air Korea flight. I became familiar with Lenka, the singer of “Roll With The Punches,” thanks to the enthusiastic partisanship of my younger brother. When her first album had come out, he would not stop talking about how good the song “The Show” was, and truth be told, the song is a bright, realistically optimistic song about the ups and downs of life. When I heard “Roll With The Punches,” I was struck by the similarity of the approach of Lenka with that of Christine McVie, one of my favorite songwriters, who takes a serious and potentially unpleasant subject and imbues it with enough optimism to put it on the optimistic side of bittersweet, without sacrificing depth.
And that is high praise for Lenka, whose music is peppy but whose popularity is not quite entirely mainstream at the moment, through no fault of her own. “Roll With The Punches” is like many of her songs in that it takes a potentially melancholy subject (conflict and life’s trials) and turns it into a brave and optimistic and spirited ode to resilience. And the song resonates with my own approach to life, a refusal to be defined by either past failures or the mistaken views of others, and a determination to make the best of life, whatever happens. And that is a spirit we should all celebrate for ourselves, knowing that life is full and ups and downs and that we have to keep on bravely fighting anyway.
After opening with the following lyric that introduces the title and theme of the song: “Roll, roll with the punches. / Roll, roll with the punches,” the song’s first verse goes as follows: “That really hurt me like a fist to the face. / I wasn’t ready to be knocked out of place. / Suddenly everything I was sure of / Is sinking below the depths of the surface. / It’s unexpected, it usually is / When you’re rejected or you take a hit. / Suddenly everything’s thrown in a spin; / No time to grow a thicker skin. / What kind of situation am I in now? ” Here in this peppy verse, Lenka opens with the pain of verbal abuse she has suffered from others. It is striking that even though this song takes an optimistic tone, it does so realistically, not minimizing the pain that results from the slanders and harsh words of others. Equating rejection with “taking the hit,” or having to deal with conflict and nastiness, Lenka captures the unexpected nature of life, as well as the feeling that we are often in situations of crisis, unable to prepare because we are in the middle of the situation without any kind of awareness of the risk. Naturally, when our foundations become unsettled, we have to draw on the depths of our character, because the situation provides no help. This is true whether in our personal lives or in the grander theater of events where our leaders so often appear unable to handle the unceasing crises of our times because they lack the depth of resilience and character that they expect from common folk. But fortunately, Lenka provides a picture of that resilience.
The second verse continues the same theme: “Little weapons over the phone, / They like to threaten the life that I know. / They say, “Get over here and get into the ring, / But I’m not really much of a fighter.” / My mechanisms of defense are down, / And my resistance is out on the town. / I was alarmed by your attack, this isn’t a boxing match, / But I’ll be damned if I ever let you win.” In stark contrast to people like me, Lenka does not seem like someone who is comfortable with verbal (much less physical) combat. She is surprised by the fierceness of her partner, seeming more equipped for loving than fighting, but her plucky spirit gives her the courage to engage in the verbal boxing match successfully even if it is not her desire or will to quarrel at all. Being unprepared to fight, she finds that that her spirited personality allows her to resist tyranny and abuse even when her resistance is weakened. And that is something we can all find, strength from within even in adverse circumstances.
The bridge of the song continues the theme of combating against life’s troubles: “Oh, oh, when all I want is a little stability, / Some time without any bruises, / You go and tell me the things that I don’t wanna hear / Putting your fists into my ears, /Filling me up with the dread and the fear, / Leaving me all in pieces suddenly everything’s thrown in a spin, / No time to grow a thicker skin. / What kind of situation am I in now?” With the bridge ending in the same sort of way the first verse did, the song suggests that even though the situation has not changed, the determination and resilience to overcome it has remained. Like most people, the singer longs for stability but finds hostility and conflict and abuse in her relationships, not something very uncommon for many of us. She equates the threat to her stability in part to hearing things she does not want to hear. It is a common mistake among many people who believe in tough love (which includes at different times just about all of us, myself included) that we show love mainly through telling others the bitter truth about themselves. Often that bitter truth is not, in fact true, but biased by wrong impressions.
The core of the song is in the chorus, which expresses the worldview and approach of Lenka, and one that I happen to share: “When life tries to knock all the wind out of you, / You’ve got to roll, roll, roll with the punches. / If all life offers is black and blue, / You’ve got to roll, roll, roll with the punches.” Notable is the triple repetition of “roll” in the chorus as well as its honest approach to life’s difficulties. Keeping one’s spirits up allows one to deal with life’s sudden and abrupt attacks, as well overcome the wounds and damage one gets in life. After all, everyone ends up damaged and wounded as a result of living in a corrupt world with flawed and imperfect people. We just have to be strong enough, even if that strength does not come only from from within ourselves, to overcome it. If God is for us, who can be against us, and if God is on our side, what do we have to fear about what life throws at us?