The Message About Success that Drives Cake’s “The Distance”

When John McCrea begins Cake’s signature hit “The Distance” by speaking the opening line, Reluctantly crouched at the starting line, one can’t help but pay attention to the story that follows. The tale McCrea tells is a bizarre one if taken at face value, but it doesn’t take much probing to see the song is not really about a race car driver who keeps driving on the track long after the race is over.

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McCrea himself has spoken about “The Distance”’s broader meaning. In an interview with Adam Reader for his Professor of Rock YouTube channel, Cake’s lead vocalist explained “The Distance” is about success and failure. More specifically, McCrea said it’s about “the failure of success,” adding, “It’s a sad song, because there is no success.” He went on to illustrate his point by using a person in a Mickey Mouse costume as a metaphor. People may give you attention and ask for your autograph, but in reality, you’re just a person suffering inside a dark, hot costume.

It’s a thought-provoking analogy, but it doesn’t answer the question of why there is no such thing as success, or at least not a version of success that doesn’t entail suffering. However, “The Distance,” which was written by Cake’s former guitarist Greg Brown, provides a clearer answer.

The Race Is Not the Point

To understand the deeper message of “The Distance,” one doesn’t need to go the distance of listening to the entire song, but it does require getting past the first verse. It’s easy to think, at least initially, “The Distance” is simply a story about an auto racing event. Brown loads the first verse with details about the race from Engines pumping and thumping in time to They deftly maneuver and muscle for rank to Reckless and wild, they pour through the turns.

It’s only when we get to the final lines of the first verse that we begin to understand this is not an ordinary race. Or that the point of the story is not about the race at all.

As they speed through the finish, the flags go down
The fans get up and they get out of town
The arena is empty, except for one man
Still driving and striving as fast as he can

The Pitfalls of Going the Distance

This is a pretty odd situation for sure. What has possessed this driver to continue racing long after the race is over? The pre-chorus fills us in on some of the strange details.

The sun has gone down and the moon has come up
And long ago somebody left with the cup
But he’s driving and striving and hugging the turns
And thinking of someone for whom he still burns

So we learn that our lonely driver did not win the race. And he is thinking about a broken relationship that he has not gotten over. Or maybe he is thinking about a relationship that never materialized. It’s still not apparent why he is still driving. He might be trying to avoid the pain he feels about his unrequited love, or he might be trying to prove something to the someone for whom he still burns. Either way, we learn from the chorus that he could be in a relationship with her—if only he would stop driving.

He’s going the distance, he’s going for speed
She’s all alone, all alone in her time of need

Obsessed with Success

The second verse completes the connection between Brown’s story about the hyper-focused race car driver and the moral about success espoused by McCrea.

No trophy, no flowers, no flashbulbs, no wine
He’s haunted by something he cannot define
Bowel-shaking earthquakes of doubt and remorse
Assail him, impale him with monster-truck force

Without even realizing it, our protagonist is driven to compete by self-doubt, even after the race is over. The image of him racing around the track after everyone else has left is absurd. Yet we can probably imagine plenty of plausible situations where people push themselves more than they need to, only because they are trying to prove their self-worth. As the next two lines indicate, this self-doubt comes at a cost.

In his mind, he’s still driving, still making the grade
She’s hoping in time that her memories will fade

No matter how much the race car driver still “burns” for the woman in this song, she is wanting to move on. His delusional desire for success at all costs means he can never truly be there for her.

The Impact of “The Distance”

“The Distance” is Cake’s best-selling single, having received Double Platinum certification in 2022, 26 years after its release. It is also the band’s most-streamed song on Spotify, having been played more than 211 million times on the platform. It never reached the Billboard Hot 100, but it peaked at No. 4 on the Alternative Airplay chart and No. 35 on the Radio Songs chart. Along with the follow-up single, a cover of Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive,” “The Distance” helped to make Fashion Nugget Cake’s only Double Platinum album.

Perhaps because “The Distance” is so strongly associated with McCrea’s unique vocal delivery, it has been covered by only a handful of artists, most notably Relient K on their 2011 covers album Is For Karaoke. Neil Cicierega sampled the opening line from “The Distance,” along with other memorable lines from ‘90s songs, for “The Starting Line” from his 2017 mashup album Mouth Moods. “The Distance” was also used in episodes of The Simpsons and Daria.

Because Brown’s lyrics are so evocative, it’s hard to listen to “The Distance” without picturing the driver circling the track in the pitch dark with no one in the stands. McCrea’s vocals and the band’s performance add to the telling of the story. As compelling as that story is, it is merely a metaphor for a misplaced competitive drive. Whether or not we believe there is such a thing as success, “The Distance” shows us that there are consequences for holding on to our pursuit of success too tightly.

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Photo by Mickey Bernal/Getty Images for Pilgrimage Music & Cultural Festival

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