What is Sting's Every Breath You Take really about? Decoding the mysterious hit

The Police frontman has endorsed different interpretations of the ever-enduring song over the years

Sting wrote Every Breath You Take during a difficult period in his personal and professional life. AP
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It has been 40 years since the release of Every Breath You Take and it remains one of pop music's most puzzling anthems.

Released in 1983 as the lead single of The Police's final album Synchronicity, the track was an immediate success, topping international charts and becoming the year's highest-selling single in the US.

In addition to winning the prestigious Grammy Award for Song of the Year in 1984, the track served as an ideal launching pad for singer and songwriter Sting to launch his own successful solo career.

Yet, despite its status as a favourite soundtrack for weddings and funerals, the song's enduring quality could be the darkness imbued within its lyrics.

As Sting prepares to ring in the new year with a Dubai concert at Atlantis, The Palm, let’s look at how the song came to be and what it means.

1. It was written during a dark period for Sting and The Police

The song's blending of ethereal melodies with probing lyricism stems back to the tumultuous period in which it was written.

The success of The Police made Sting a paparazzi magnet and heightened existing creative tensions within the band.

On the home front, his first marriage was in the process of falling apart amid personal scandal.

In the studio, his relationship with drummer Stewart Copeland was collapsing, with the latter expressing frustration at Sting’s control over the songwriting process.

To process all of this, Sting retreated to the Caribbean for a holiday, where he composed the first sketches of what would become Every Breath You Take.

“I woke up in the middle of the night with that line in my head, sat down at the piano and had written it in half an hour,” he told The Independent.

Copeland wasn’t exactly enamoured by the track when Sting presented it to The Police.

The resentment resulted in the both of them barely recording the song together, with both adding most of their respective parts in separate studio sessions.

While the end result was a career-defining hit, Copeland had mixed feelings about the song.

"In my humble opinion, this is Sting's best song with the worst arrangement. I think Sting could have had any other group do this song and it would have been better than our version – except for Andy's [Andy Summers] brilliant guitar part," he told Revolver magazine.

"Basically, there's an utter lack of groove. It's a totally wasted opportunity for our band. Even though we made gazillions off of it, and it's the biggest hit we ever had."

2. The lyrics are ambiguous

A tender love song or stalker’s manifesto?

The meaning behind Every Breath You Take has been debated for decades. More than the ambiguous nature of the lyrics, Sting has often expressed various interpretations of the song over the years.

“The tune itself is generic, an aggregate of hundreds of others, but the words are interesting,” he told The Independent.

“It sounds like a comforting love song. I didn't realise at the time how sinister it is.”

In his 2007 book Lyrics, Sting doubled down on his interpretation and described the piece as a product of its time.

"The song has the standard structure of a pop ballad, but there is no harmonic development after the middle eight, no release of emotions or change in the point of view of the protagonist,” he said.

“He is trapped in his circular obsessions. Of course, I wasn't aware of any of this. I thought I was just writing a hit song, and indeed it became one of the songs that defined the '80s, and by accident the perfect soundtrack for Reagan's Star Wars fantasy of control and seduction.”

Sting's views have mellowed more recently, as he has come to appreciate just how popular the track became.

"It is my most successful song and probably better known than any others," he said in the 2020 BBC music series Secrets of the Pop Song.

"All the time I get people writing letters saying, 'oh it's our favourite song and it was played at our wedding'.

“I never contradict people about what the meaning of the song is. I think it's whatever it means to you."

3. The music video is a classic

Sound and vision were in sync for Every Breath You Take.

Directed by English filmmakers Godley and Creme, the music video is hailed as a classic of the format.

Shot in black and white and with band members rendered in an almost creamy tint, the brooding piece has The Police and accompanying string section performing the track in a sparse ballroom.

As well as earning Daniel Pearl the inaugural MTV Video Music Award for Best Cinematography in 1984, the music video was streamed more than one billion times on YouTube last year.

4. It has been covered many times

For such a popular track, Every Breath You Take was ripe for various interpretations by fellow artists, the most successful of which was undoubtedly 1997’s I’ll Be Missing You by Puff Daddy, now better known as Diddy.

Released in tribute to slain rapper The Notorious BIG, the hip-hop version became a global hit having topped the US and UK charts.

That version got rid of all of the potential menace, instead turning it into a straight-forward lament for a fallen friend.

Dolly Parton recently covered the song alongside Sting on her new album Rockstar, while New York collective Postmodern Jukebox released a gospel version in 2017 with guest singer Vonzell Solomon.

5. It made Sting a rich man

While estimations regarding the song's royalty income is unclear, it's fair to say it has proven quite lucrative.

In a 2003 interview with Rolling Stone, Sting alluded to the song's financial success by stating it put "a couple of my kids through college with the proceeds".

In 2022, Sting sold his songwriting catalogue, including Every Breath You Take, to Universal Music Group in a deal reportedly estimated to be worth about $300 million.

Updated: December 27, 2023, 10:21 AM