(January 23, 2022). People often criticized—and mostly in jest—the late Meat Loaf’s only No. 1 smash, 1993’s “I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That).”
They targeted the song not so much for its famous campiness or Loaf’s memorably melodramatic delivery, but for the song’s lyrical vagueness.
They lampooned The Loaf while questioning what “that” was…specifically, what exactly was it that the song’s protagonist wouldn’t do for love as he didn’t quite spell “that” out for us in big bold letters.
Indeed, the iconic song’s clever phrasing forced listeners to read between the lines to get it, but Meat Loaf—or, more accurately, songwriter Jim Steinman—was, in fact, very specific about “that” which the protagonist wouldn’t do. In fact, there were at least a half-dozen “thats” explicitly mentioned in the song’s lyrics, which the Loaf considered taboo in his relationship.
Using the song’s nearly 12-minute full-length version as the source, they were, in order of appearance: 1) “I’ll never forget the way you feel right now; 2) “I’ll never forgive myself if we don’t go all the way”; 3) “I’ll never do it better than I do it with you so long, so long”; 4) “I’ll never stop dreaming of you every night of my life, no way”; 5) “After a while you’ll forget everything as a brief interlude and a midsummer night’s fling; Then you’ll see that it’s time to move on”; and 6) “It’ll all turn to dust and we’ll all fall down…sooner or later, you’ll be screwing around.”
Those last two things, of course, were sung from the female’s perspective by guest vocalist Lorraine Crosby, and answered by Meat with a very clear, “I won’t do that.”
It was that final interplay between The Loaf and Crosby which helped make “I’d Do Anything For Love” so iconic, and it was that exchange, in some folks’ opinions, that should’ve been enough to give listeners an understanding of exactly what the protagonist wouldn’t do for love.
But with all the jokes and speculation over what Steinman’s lyrics meant, there’s another vaguely titled No. 1 pop hit from the late 20th century that preceded “I’d Do Anything” by nearly a dozen years—one that didn’t receive half as much scrutiny over its similar lack of clarity.
Specifically, the lyrics to Daryl Hall & John Oates’ 1981 classic “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do)” contain a similar buildup to the titular refrain by listing things that the song’s protagonist can go for, like “being twice as nice,” or “repeating the same old lines.”
Lead singer Daryl Hall continues singing, “use the body now you want my soul, ooh forget about it, now say ‘no go,’” before launching into the pre-chorus and chorus: “I’ll do anything that you want me to, yeah I’ll do almost anything that you want me to. But I can’t go for that…no can do.”
By comparison to Meat Loaf’s 1993 hit, Hall & Oates’ song is even more vague as it never spells out who or what the song’s antagonist is and whether a love relationship is even the underlying issue.
The only clue we get is that the selling or taking of his “soul” (as is mentioned in both of the song’s verses) is where the protagonist draws the line, but even that reference is somewhat distanced from the payoff in the chorus, such that there could be any number of other things that Hall & Oates can’t go for but just haven’t mentioned specifically.
In fact, as it turns out, “I Can’t Go For That” isn’t at all about a love interest or romantic relationship or even a person, per se. Instead, the lyrics refer to the music industry and, more specifically, the duo’s record label at the time, RCA Records.
John Oates confirmed this in an interview with Philly.com in March 2014 when he told writer Leah Kauffman, “That song is about the music business. (It’s) really about not being pushed around by big labels, managers, and agents and being told what to do, and being true to yourself creatively.”
When Kauffman responded with surprise that she always thought it was about a relationship between lovers, Oates noted, “well, that’s the whole point!” He then added that he and Daryl Hall had a skill for making their songs more relatable by equating them to girls or relationships that people could understand (e.g., “Maneater” was famously about the dangers of New York City, not a woman; but who would’ve known that from listening to it?).
So here you have a case of mistaken identity and misplaced punchlines: a song by Hall & Oates that was intentionally vague and highly metaphorical but given a pass for more than 40 years, versus a tune by Meat Loaf whose popularity is partially owed to the mystique created by those of us who gave it flack simply because we didn’t read between its lines.
I’m sure the artists involved—Hall & Oates and Meat Loaf and Steinman—laughed all the way to the proverbial bank with their respective hits, both of which topped the Billboard Hot 100 and sold over a million copies. Steinman and The Loaf are now likely having a good laugh together somewhere in that rock and roll heaven.
And now that we’ve cleared up two of the most misunderstood and, in at least one case, intentionally misleading “That” songs in rock and roll history, don’t expect the blog to interpret another vaguely written tune: Bobby Caldwell’s 1978 smash “What You Won’t Do For Love.”
Like the others, it’s not intuitively obvious what the singer or his love interest won’t do for love, and it’s probably a whole other story altogether!
R.I.P. Meat Loaf and Jim Steinman
DJRob (he/him) is a freelance music blogger from somewhere on the East Coast who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff! You can follow him on Twitter at @djrobblog.
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