Two Vastly Different Meanings Ascribed to Cracker’s Lone Hot 100 Hit “Low”

The alternative rock band Cracker did not envision the opener to their 1993 album Kerosene Hat having hit potential. Defying their expectations, “Low” became the group’s first and only song to reach the Billboard Hot 100. Its popularity likely has to do with the song’s catchy yet fierce riff and its hummable melody. While the patient pacing of David Lowery’s vocal delivery makes it easy to sing along, the lyrics themselves leave some room for interpretation.

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Sometimes a song’s lyricist will clarify the intended meaning for us, but that’s not the case with Lowery and “Low.” In an interview for a 2013 piece in Spin, Lowery conceded he is not even sure how the song came together. He explained, “The writer Nassim Nicholas Taleb has written about ‘the narrative fallacy,’ where you look back on things and rearrange them in a logical order that makes sense, which becomes your memory of something even though it’s really a lie. And I seem to have done that with ‘Low,’ invented this whole narrative about it. Because when I went back to my notes and emails from around then, there was not a word about ‘Low.’ I mean, nothing. Hilarious.”

Others, however, had some clear ideas about the meaning of “Low.” Two of these ideas in particular may have played an indirect role in the song’s popularity. Let’s explore these potential meanings behind Cracker’s biggest hit.

It’s About Doing Drugs

Given the number of drug references Lowery drops in “Low,” it’s hard not to at least contemplate this as the song’s main theme. The second verse lends credence to this interpretation, as it starts off with A million poppies gonna make me sleep and finishes with the following lines:

Hey, don’t you wanna go down
Like some junkie cosmonaut
A million miles below their feet
A million miles, a million miles

The third verse evokes a psychedelic experience, with Lowery singing, A blue, blue is the sun / A brown, brown is the sky / A green, green of her eyes. The chorus offers the most direct reference to drugs, with its refrain I’ll be with you, girl, like being low / Hey, hey, hey, like being stoned. A Virgin Records executive, Michael Plen, was sufficiently worried about the song’s drug references affecting its airplay that he had Lowery write and distribute a letter to radio stations explaining that the refrain was actually Hey, hey, hey, like being stone. Lowery said Plen effectively told him, “I don’t believe you and neither will anyone else, but there needs to be deniability, and this is what we’re gonna say.”

It’s About Lowery’s Masculine and Feminine Sides

While the most obvious interpretation one can have of “Low” is that it’s about the song’s protagonist trying to talk a woman into having a drug experience with him, it’s not the meaning the director of the song’s music video took away. Carlos Grasso—who was also a co-founder of I.R.S. Records (R.E.M., The Go-Go’s, Fine Young Cannibals)—perceived “Low” to be about the conflict between Lowery’s masculine and feminine sides. Apparently, when Grasso heard lines like Hey, don’t you wanna go down? he conjured one of Lowery’s sides knocking the other off its feet. With this interpretation, when Lowery sings I’ll be with you, girl, like being low, the “you” he is addressing is a side of himself.

Grasso depicted this internal battle being played out physically in a boxing ring, with Lowery representing his masculine side and actress/comedian Sandra Bernhard playing his feminine side. Why Sandra Bernhard? Lowery told Spin Grasso asked him who he thought would be a good representation of his feminine side, and he replied, “I dunno, Sandra Bernhard?” as he tried to think of someone who was “sarcastic, snarky, gangly.” Bernhard liked the song and agreed to play Lowery’s feminine side in the video.

“Low” Was a Commercial High Point

How much Lowery’s “clarification” on the lyrics or Grasso’s video helped “Low” to become more popular can be debated, but they likely didn’t hurt. “Low” made minor inroads on pop radio, reaching No. 64 on the Billboard Hot 100. It was Cracker’s biggest hit on the Mainstream Rock chart, lasting 28 weeks and attaining a peak position of No. 5. The song also went to No. 3 on the Alternative Airplay chart, not quite matching the chart-topping success of “Teen Angst (What the World Needs Now).”

The legacy of “Low” has extended far beyond its months of frequent airplay in 1993. It was used in the 2012 film The Perks of Being a Wallflower and covered by Lydia Lunch and Cypress Grove on their 2017 Under the Covers album. It has been streamed more than 65 million times on Spotify, making it Cracker’s most popular track on the platform by a huge margin.

One of the best-known songs that Lowery wrote for his previous band, Camper Van Beethoven, was “Take the Skinheads Bowling”—a tune that was intentionally written to be meaningless. Maybe, then, we shouldn’t look too deeply for the big message behind “Low.” Whatever meaning Lowery intended to give the song, it’s probably a lot closer to the surface than a million miles below our feet.

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Photo by Erik S. Lesser/Getty Images

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