I don’t know about you but sometimes I feel like a song can totally change the mood of a room, or it can lift the spirits of the entire world’s population at any given point in time. As I’ve said time and time again in blogs previously written, there is power in the song that may not be present in an encouraging ted talk, or a sermon. Songs have a licence in a certain moment to be the catalysts of positive change, to delve down deep into the soul and to ask the questions that maybe no one has ever dared to ask before. To challenge our very being when other conversations and introspective discussions have failed to do so, because whether we agree with this notion or not, this much is true- songs have power over us in a way that no other entertainment medium has. We listen to music at all hours of the day- morning, noon, afternoon and night. Songs travel down deep into our psyche, make us realise things about ourselves that we may not have been privy to, to begin with. Creating a song, to put it blunt, almost gives you licence to speak about almost every topic that can be judged as being ‘taboo’ in a sense, if said out loud and not tied to music- politics, death and religion, the three major things that cannot be spoken about at a dinner table? Discussed in song, I’m sure, at one point in history or another. Faith, doubt, uncertainty, love, loneliness, worry, hope, joy, and everything else in between; are all given the go-ahead when it comes to songs, music, and what is given the go-ahead in terms of what topics can be availed to the masses.
Some artists have the knack for music that travels the line of being true to their own craft, while also not afraid to inch out of safe territory and be bold and discuss issues that may not be the norm- artists like Switchfoot, Tenth Avenue North, Lady Antebellum, Daughtry, Andrew Peterson, Sara Bareilles and Casting Crowns (to name a few) have all taken risks along their music journey to bring to us topics that would otherwise be considered ‘dangerous waters’ if they were uttered in commonplace and not wrapped up in the nice neat bow of music and 3 minutes. Nevertheless, music in and of itself is a gift that we behold, and be reminded that artists have come to bring conversation and discussion to the table, and all indeed are welcome to place their own thoughts on topics relevant and necessary for our unveiling, especially during a time in society where consumerism and dumbing-down of topical issues seem to be the norm. Enter in another artist that is willing to bring his own thoughts to this table of ideas, as some of his songs, though underrated and undiscovered as they may be, have challenged the very fabric and fibre of society within the last 20 years or so- Vladimir John Ondrasik III, or better known for his stage name, Five For Fighting.
By now that you’ve taken this arduous and long-winding journey with me for over a year, I’m sure you’d had a few questions- I know I have if I was ever an outsider looking in on this blog series. Let me just say from the outset that by no means is this list reflect reality- by an objective standpoint, the top 100 influential artists, could look and may be totally different from the one that I am writing about right now. First off- artists primarily writing music for the CCM industry will immediately get discarded from the list- Tenth Avenue North, Michael W. Smith, Amy Grant, Steven Curtis Chapman, Carman, Rebecca St. James, yes, even artists like Skillet, Switchfoot, DC Talk and needtobreathe won’t be sitting on anyone’s top 100 influential list aside from mine. And maybe that’s ok. I’ve taken comfort in the fact that this top 100 list is certainly going to stir up a lot of people as they ask questions- where’re artists like Lady GaGa, Madonna, Eminem, George Michael, Green Day, Slim Dusty, Cindi Lauper, Barbara Streisand, Cher, Korn, Led Zeppelin, Jimmy Barnes and Black Eyed Peas, to name a few? (if you do happen to look at my top 100 list here, you can see that all of these artists aforementioned are not present on any list that I’ve conjured up!) And quite right so- on any other given day, if I didn’t include the CCM artists that have been so relevant, influential and heartfelt in my own life, then yes, maybe some of these artists aforementioned would have had a real chance in being placed here on my list. But they haven’t been. And I don’t know if they ever will.
Frankly, I’m around 50 artists anyway into my blog series (this is blog #49 but who’s counting?), and a lot can change between #49 and #100- you never know, this list can definitely fluctuate between now and then. But herein lies the point that I’ve always said in blogs gone by and I’ll say again- influential and popular do not mean the same thing, nor should they. An artist’s popularity doesn’t mean that their music as a whole is even influential, and vice versa. There can even be artists that people may not have heard of, or maybe have only heard a few songs here and there, and their music, being analysed from an objective standpoint, is impactful, poignant, emotive, confronting and challenging beyond belief. The artist I’m about to delve into and discuss is more from the second category- I don’t think that many people even know them, or their music, except for a few songs. And this may be exactly why I’ve decided that Five For Fighting is indeed one such artist that fits the ‘influential’ mould- since listening to their music over this last week, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the songs I was presented with. Though not a huge discography (6 albums, 2 live albums and slew of singles over the span of 20+ years), John Ondrasik, the one-man-band behind this moniker Five For Fighting; has given songs of hope, love, loss, fragility, humanity and deep introspection- I’m sure people have heard of songs like ‘Superman (It’s Not Easy)’, ‘The Riddle’ and ‘100 Years’, to name a few.
‘…though at their base music and sports are entertainment, they both have the potential to transcend and provide powerful cultural moments. Certainly we can escape from our daily grind by listening to a song or watching a game. But both have a voice that transcends. You don’t need to understand a language to be moved by a piece of music or a drama of competition. Sports and music also have the unique ability to capture our memories in time. How often do you hear a song and flashback to the era in which it was released and relive your memories of that period? I still remember where I was sitting when Kirk Gibson hit his home run, Magic Johnson hit that hook shot, and Gretzky scored after high-sticking Doug Gilmour. There are great differences as well. Sports is a meritocracy where music is subjective. Music has no losers where sports is a zero sum game. And, of course, every athlete wants to be a musician, and every rock star a pro! Finally can you imagine our lives without sports and music? As irrational as we may get sometimes, they are the most important things to many of us…’ It is in this quote that I’ve come to respect the necessity of music, and the need of music to bring people together across all culture of life and impart to the masses wisdom, hope, even some moments of tranquillity and comfort, especially during such a crazy and unforeseen time as this in the world’s complicated history. Nevertheless, Five for Fighting is doing its part in making music that has been crucial to people over the years, even if people know the songs, but don’t necessarily know who’s singing them. Because let’s be honest, you wouldn’t necessarily think off the first bat that Five For Fighting would ever be considered to be in an influential list, let alone a list as big as the one I’ve delved into for a year plus. And you’re right, upon reflection, I don’t think at the time of making said list a year ago, I was ever across or even introduced to as many artists as I do right now, Five for Fighting included. Nevertheless, here we are in the end of April/early May, exploring an artist that is, by all intensive purposes, unknown, and exploring a musical landscape that isn’t your typical musical genre that is across all the radio stations at this current stage.
Piano-pop, piano-rock, or what Five For Fighting is called, ‘heartland rock’; isn’t what you would think is getting the major traction right now, and you’re right. Heartland rock isn’t what is on people’s minds right now, and maybe for good reason. For the definition of heartland rock, according to Wikipedia is this, and I quote: a genre of rock music characterized by a straightforward, often roots musical style, a concern with middle class and/or blue-collar American life, and a conviction that rock music has a social or communal purpose beyond just entertainment. And if I’m being perfectly honest, I don’t think people right now in today’s society want to hear music that has a lot of ‘social or communal’ purpose, especially in a culture where consumerism and the general movement towards radio pop is becoming more and more of a reality with every passing day. Gone are the days of artists like Bruce Springsteen, who has long been considered the founding father of heartland rock, and in has come the championing of packaged-pop (as I cleverly coin this phrase)- pop designed for the radio, for clicks and adds, for hits and charts, rather than for actual soul-searching and life-changing, that a lot of music of the past was primarily written for. Five For Fighting is as close as you can probably get right now to heartland rock, other than the legendary heartland-rockers who are still going (Bruce Springsteen included). I guess for me, I’ve tended to not really notice the intricate ‘styles’ of musical artists- if I connect to an artist and they speak to me about things in my life that I know I need to change on, then that’s a good thing. Five For Fighting just happens to fall within the realms and confines of piano-pop meets heartland rock, and maybe that’s a good thing, that his music isn’t as popular as most other artists. Because I’ve said this notion before, that what comes with popularity is this whole other can-of-worms which is compromise, especially if fame and money are involved. Five for Fighting have relatively stayed under the radar, delivering album after album of emotion and poignancy, and though Vladimir John Ondrasik III isn’t a household name (nor is Five for Fighting for that matter), songs like ‘Superman’, ‘100 Years’ and ‘The Riddle’ are.
Five for Fighting is a perfect reminder that songs pierce deep within our souls, and certainly transcend the artist of which they should. Many people would know the songs by John, but not many people would know even John himself. And that is a great example of what writing not for self but for others, albeit accidentally, is really all about. For to have your songs known, but you not yourself; can be a bitter pill to swallow- because I reckon that even now, Five for Fighting isn’t really that well known in an industry more concentrated on the Justin Biebers or the Katy Perry’s of the world. But I guess if I were to say ‘do you know the song superman (it’s not easy)?’, I’m sure you’d say ‘yes’. For a career to go like this- for the songs to take flight and you to stay relatively anonymous to the general public, can really crumple your ego, but all in all, this artist’s discography and life in the spotlight of music has taught me one thing, if ever there was anything from any one person’s career- it is better to stay humble, and to take whatever success you can get: songs can take flight even if you don’t. And so whatever grand expectations someone may have of becoming famous and earning the money, if success is only derived from these parameters (being famous and earning tons of money), then they’re always going to be disappointed. Five For Fighting I’m sure has learnt about this, and their discography of songs certainly reflects this notion of the transientness of life, and the gratefulness and thankfulness that often comes when faced with the reality that you may not always be the ‘next best thing’ forever.
Five for Fighting started music in 1995, when John began using the ‘Five for Fighting’ moniker; and unveiled his first project in 1997 titled Message for Albert. While this album as a whole wasn’t necessarily John’s most impressive debut (in that it didn’t give him any radio success ever), John nevertheless imparted to the world a collection of 12 songs, dear to his heart, and with time, has resonated with a lot of people around the world who has taken a liking to his songs and music, myself included. Though these songs on this album can seem a little too raw and unfiltered for the average person on the street who’s more akin to hearing the carved-out radio-friendly melodies; Message for Albert nevertheless gave us things to ponder and consider- ‘Happy’ was a nonsensical song that didn’t really make sense, but still reminded us all to be happy even if you’re in the face of things you don’t understand (like the song ‘Happy’!), and to just bask in the happiness feeling without asking any questions; while ‘Bella’s Birthday Cake’ is a song about this illusive person named Bella, and reminded myself of the timeless Beatles track ‘Eleanor Rigby’, and how the song itself tells us all a story about this person, as if they were real and made an impact on the band themselves (in this case, an impact on Five For Fighting). ‘The Last Great American’, recorded in its original format for Message for Albert and then again for America Town, is a sobering account that speaks of what it may have been like to live as ‘the last great american’- implying that the values held by this ‘last great american’ seems not to be held by people of today. The song itself is about the funeral of this ‘last great american’ as Five For Fighting present to us a notion of the erosion of values that made once made America great, and that any understanding that such a country like America is great right now, is only a mere illusion. While for me it took a few listens for such a song as ‘The Last Great American’ to sink in, I’ve since realised that a lot of Five For Fighting’s songs need a few go’s to hear from start to finish, for the message to sink in. ‘The Last Great American’, quite possibly one of the most sobering and eye-openings songs of Five For Fighting’s early music era, is such a song where its message is still penetrating and hard-hitting even now in 2020. I’m sure if the founding fathers of America (and also in turn the founding fathers of Australia) would see the way the country we are in at the moment, they may not like what they see.
‘The Garden’, also another song from Message For Albert, is a track that is indeed a standout, and upon hearing it and trying to analyse the lyrics, I can see why certain people may think the song is ‘religious’, with the song asking us all whether we ‘…believe in the man in the garden…that he was there…do you believe or do you care…’ While the song itself doesn’t make any alludes to Jesus, whether He is the man Five for Fighting is talking about; the song still asks questions, and is a reminder for us all to delve deep within ourselves and indeed ask what we believe, and whether we even care about what we believe or not- if there’s only one thing that can be taken from ‘The Garden’; while ‘Love Song’, another poignant and emotive song from John’s debut, is indeed a sad melody and very ironic one considering the title is called ‘Love Song’- the song itself is the depiction of a divorce of spouses from the child’s POV. Sad and emotive, this raw and unfiltered song about the harshness of how ‘love’ doesn’t work out how people intend it to, is what I reckon started to make Five For Fighting and their music a lot more accessible and relatable as we understand that this musician speaks of real issues that each human can relate towards (I’m sure if you don’t belong to a family that is divorced, that you may know someone who is!).
As I continue to listen to Five for Fighting and the subsequent albums after the debut, I have a sense of earnest and honesty attached to these songs aplenty, as a lot of these melodies I’m sure have impacted a person on a soul level, even if they didn’t impact the radio charts. Quite possibly, Five For Fighting’s music has a lot of double (or triple) meanings, and I’ve come to realise that that is ok for an artist to have. I guess maybe I’ve grown up a lot in an environment where meaning had to be very clear, and any ambiguity was never welcomed- after all, if things were grey and not black and white, what did it mean for the whole system to begin with? But as I’ve grown up older and older still, I’ve noticed a thing or to- things aren’t always as clear cut as they seem. Yes, songs mean something, but they can also mean something else as well, and that in and of itself is still as much welcomed. We understand full well that double or triple meanings don’t devalue a song of any kind, but rather, brings in more people into the fold, of who the song can relate to- as more and more people gravitate to the song for a myriad of different reasons, either the song reminds them of their childhood or the song speaks about something in their own lives they need to address; a song can impact more people and change a life for the better, and that in and of itself means a ‘job well done’ for the song in discussion.
As for Five for Fighting, these songs that have a plethora of meanings can still be applicable today as well as when they were written, and looking through the albums, there are songs aplenty that stand out, quite a lot in the second album America Town, giving us clear reminders of the things that are indeed important to us and how we may often miss them along the way without even noticing. ‘Easy Tonight’ speaks of the very delicate, sensitive and complicated theme of suicide, and a persona’s journey through those thoughts in her mind relating to the very act of taking a life, and understanding that that life taken is not going to happen anymore- ‘Easy Tonight’ alludes to the fact that suicide in fact is the easy option- alleviating pain if only for a moment, but then increasing the pain for people left behind. A sobering song for us to think about, as this topic as it stands is never really discussed in music at all, Five For Fighting continue to bring to us issues and topics dear to John’s soul, and hopefully as we hear them, dear to ours as well. ‘America Town’, the title track from Five For Fighting’s second album, is a melody where the persona is trying to be grateful for the town and city and country they’ve grown up to live in, while also understanding that this ‘America’ they’ve grown up to see in a certain way was never really that way to begin with- when you believe a country to be in an idyllic way, all sunny and rosy and sunshine and rainbows, it is then where we realise that our view of a place has been warped by what we like it to be rather than what it really is- ‘America Town’ seemingly paints a picture-perfect place to be, while simultaneously reminding us that in reality, no such thing is perfect, and often the cracks come showing through, crumbling a perfect society down, sooner or later. ‘Something About You’, with the undertone of electric guitars that create a ‘grunge’ feeling, speaks of an unconditional love between a boy and a girl, and this notion that there’s something about this girl that makes the guy keep thinking of her (and the song can still be seen as hopelessly romantic or eerily creepy, whichever way you choose), but for me, it is the song ‘Michael Jordan’, over the first couple of albums from Five For Fighting, that has spoken a lot to me of late throughout the course of listening to John’s first few albums.
A song that really opens the eyes of people when it comes to hero worship and wanting to emulate a person so bad that they are willing to forgo everything else that they should deem to hold dear, just to have a chance of being in the shoes of said particular person they admire, is nothing short of either just plain crazy, or utter devotion, which is again borderline obsessive and weird. The song itself picks on this notion that you want something in this world so bad, that you’re willing to sacrifice whatever you think is necessary to BE that particular person- though the song is particularly about Michael Jordan and how people look up to him within the confines of the sporting arena; the song can be applicable to anyone who looks up to someone famous, and wants to try to emulate them in any way possible, even to the detriment of personal relationships. As Five for Fighting explain in a recent interview, about the song itself and its meaning behind it, we see the startling reality of hero worship and how its much more commonplace than we even realise- ‘…as a fanatic sports fan I still worry about the deification of athletes. Though many pros are good people, we have seen the effect of bad role models. We have a more selfish and narcissistic generation of kids largely because our media glamorizes both pro athletes and superstar musicians, many who fail us as examples for kids. I’m sorry. You don’t get a choice to be a role model. When you’re a superstar, you are one by default. I chose MJ because at the time (and probably still now) he was the ultimate God and I wanted to be like Mike like everybody else…’ Admiring someone’s handiwork is fine, but if it is to the extent of worshipping that particular person and lifting them up on a pedestal of perfection when in reality that isn’t the case; that is when things may get out of hand, for all concerned.
Five For Fighting’s songs have been a source of hope and solace for people over the years, of being a place where ponderings of deep, metaphysical moments of clarity and direction can be allowed to take place, and as we see the songs travel from pen to paper to radio as the years progress for this moniker band, we also see music that has reached our years and touched our souls, in possible ways that we may not have experienced in quite some time. ‘Chances’, the first single from his fifth album Slice, found Five For Fighting delivering a track where its main message was in the undertaking of assessing the chances in situations and circumstances, and weighing up options about which avenue to take- be it in a relationship or in life; and that even if chances and odds aren’t necessarily stacked in someone’s favour; the very nature of trying in relationships (and in life) ought to be encouraged. The song was released in conjunction with the 2009 movie The Blind Side starring Sandra Bullock, and was the end-credits song for the movie- the song itself fits right into the movie’s theme as well, as I can remember from watching the movie all those years ago, the main character in the movie was a black teenager who had to overcome a lot of obstacles to make in in his high school and in the school football team, situations and circumstances that made it seem like chances and odds were stacked against him.
‘The Devil in the Wishing Well’, the second radio single from the album The Battle For Everything, alludes to this notion that often if there are difficulties in life, or mental health problems or things of that nature, we often try to demonize such things and to just say ‘well, a demon will have to come out, and everything will be ok’. Yes, sometimes demons do need to be exorcized, but more often than not, what was assumed to be a demonic force is more of a medical and mental health condition. ‘The Devil In the Wishing Well’ is about a persona wanting to help their friend out of the depths of an undisclosed illness, and all throughout the song, Five For Fighting reminds us of how quick it can be to misunderstand illness of a mental, and immediately deduce it can be something of a spiritual realm (indeed it can also be the case for that possibility as well!), but in most cases, it is indeed only a physical imbalance of chemicals, and such shouldn’t be assumed to be worse than what it really is. The song itself cuts to the heart of the issue- to not make assumptions about someone’s mental state until we spend time with them and talk to them like normal human beings.
The hard-hitting themes continue as the discography of Five For Fighting continues to click on- ‘If God Made You’ shows to us the persona singing to someone that’s near to him who’s dying, saying that in spite of death, and the impeding nature of mortality, God must still love this persona- He created his friend/lover/significant other, and that though there may be a unhappy outcome (i.e.: death of the friend), he can still spend whatever time that is left with them; while ‘Disneyland’, also from The Battle For Everything, speaks on the issue of utopia, and what it means to Five for Fighting about what the ideal version of utopia should look like (hint: the happiest place on earth!!!). ‘The Story of Your Life’, from Slice, is a joyous melody that is as uplifting as it is motivational- with the song presenting a theme that is very similar to ‘The Story Of Your Life’ from singer-songwriter Matthew West; we see Five for Fighting remind us all that life is meant to be enjoyed, that whatever is around the corner is meant to be worried about at that particular moment- not a moment before. Five For Fighting also impart to us heartfelt themes like being courageous through storms and unconditional love- ‘Love Can’t Change the Weather’ speaks of the ‘fairness’ of the weather in that the sun shines down on everyone and the rain falls on the same people too. No matter how dark or disturbing someone’s circumstances are, love will always be there in the form of people around us, in order for us to feel like we’re not alone in what we’re going through. Love may not be able to alter where the rain falls, but it will show us that there’s something worth fighting for after the rain.
Vladimir John Ondrasik III and his music has been grabbing the attention of a lot of people over a lot of years, and while I myself still have a lot to uncover about his music- there is just so much ‘gold’ to ‘mine’ when it comes to a lot of his songs, the ones which I do know, it is a reminder that we as listeners and lovers of all things music need people like him in an industry full of artists just wanting to make a quick buck by creating a song that is as radio-friendly as possible. Nothing wrong with radio-friendly music, but more often than not, we need songs and albums from artists that really tug at the soul, not just releasing songs that fit a certain radio mould and fit a certain ‘style’ or ‘message’, something that is sadly transient and unfulfilling when it comes to whether the song means something to someone or not. ‘One More for Love’ is John’s ode to this notion of love that someone has for another, one that fights to keep it alive and understands that ‘…as long as you are here I’ll be all right as we roll on tonight…’; while ‘World’, from Five For Fighting’s 2006 album Two Lights, asks us all sobering questions we all need to ponder- what kind of world do we want to live in as a society, and what kind of world are we willing to create with the tools and talents and gifts that we have? We as humans with our choices have the impetus to either change the world for the better or the worse, and thus a song like this reminds us all to ‘…be careful what you wish for, history starts now…’, as we realise that where we are tomorrow hangs on the weight of today and what we choose.
‘Two Lights’ is a hard-hitting song about the military and how when someone goes off to war, it can be a scary thing not knowing whether they will be coming home or not- this notion of two lights on in the front porch of the house is an indication that the relatives of said person coming home are at home and watching and waiting in anticipation for the person to arrive and be welcomed back to normal and daily life; while ‘I Just Love You’ speaks of the loneliness that comes for every singer-songwriter/touring musician that is on the road and missing their family. Five For Fighting also bring to us a sense of nostalgia in ‘Slice’, a track that harkens back to the times when songs like Don McLean’s ‘American Pie’ was released. Such a song like ‘American Pie’ was able to bring together a society that declared such a song together with all their might as music brought with it a sense of unity and camaraderie not necessarily seen that much across the years- ‘Slice’ is Five For Fighting’s attempt to bring about a yearning and a longing for songs to be sung again in unison- whether it is a track where the lyrics transcend the artist and speak about issues prevalent to the heart, or whether it’s a top-40 radio friendly track, remains to be seen.
‘Hope’ is Five For Fighting’s attempt at a quasi-inspirational/spiritual song as this notion and message of having hope in the darkest of times is presented in this melody, as we are met with the lyric line ‘…there’s always a reason to break…’, a timely reminder that things, however bad they seem, always happen for a reason, however twisted or dark it can often look like at the beginning; and ‘This Dance’, complete with electronic keyboards that remind me of music from the 1980s, is Five For Fighting’s way of presenting to us a romantic track, as John Ondrasik invites us all to see the intimate exchange between himself and his wife, all within the backdrop of a slow-dance song, where he declares that ‘…while is just me and you, I thought I might say to you, you put the beautiful in life…’ Asking questions about heaven and what the afterlife could seem like, being in the twilight of your life not knowing if you’ll get into heaven, but still certain of the love you have with someone on earth, as well as acknowledging that every winding road and step sideways and backwards leads you to your significant other (and thus you’re grateful for all the things you’ve experienced); are all prevalent, necessary, and at times confronting themes delivered by Five For Fighting in the songs ‘Road to Heaven’, ‘Heaven Knows’ and ‘Road to You’ respectively; while Five For Fighting also brings in the motivational in ‘Stand Up’, a song of getting up after difficulties and moving forward in life, and also imparts to us this understanding of being just who we are in ‘Your Man’- not more than the best that we can be, but rather, ourselves with all our faults and flaws. It is then and only then that we know that who we open ourselves up to is certain to love and accept us as we are because it is in who we express ourselves to be that we can find our truest of friends.
Five for Fighting’s most recent album was 2013’s Bookmarks, and while from a commercial standpoint, the album wasn’t as successful as other previous releases like America Town, The Battle For Everything or Two Lights; the album did still have some bright spots, and moments where introspection and heartfelt contemplation took centre stage in songs that allowed us to travel deep within ourselves and really see what we’re made of when our backs are to the corner. ‘What If’ asks a heartfelt question that we as listeners of music in general may not ask much, if at all- what if we were to place ourselves in each other’s shoes and empathise and understand what they’re going through, how can the world be better if understanding is at the forefront instead of judgement? It is one of the most emotive and confronting songs I’ve heard from Five for Fighting, and in this excerpt below of an interview that was had with GuardianLV.com; we hear some of the inspiration behind ‘What If’, and what that means for society, the country (America) and the world at this present moment (the interview was undertaken in 2014, but ideas and policies can still be applicable and relevant today!):
The sentiment of What If is putting ourselves in each other’s shoes. That is why Star Trek was so great right? It broke so many boundaries and I’ve always been a Sci Fi guy. I just wanted to do a heart strings video [of What If] that was interesting that people could watch from beginning to end and whether you were a Five for Fighting fan or not, you would be moved. I think we did that – they did an amazing job – I can’t take any credit for it. It is my favourite Five for Fighting video and always will be. The song itself has a larger cultural message. It is one we have heard before of course, look through each other’s eyes, but I think in the country today we are so divided and there is so much animosity and politically I think there is very little good will. I think the message of the song is that it takes two to tango – two to solve problems and I don’t see much of that which is very frustrating. That is the message of What If. We are not always going to agree, we might have different ideology and viewpoints but if we did put ourselves in each other’s shoes, maybe we would understand that the person has a point of view and much the same goal as we do – they just have a different way of finding that goal.
Politically being the minority in the music business, I have kind of been on the other side of people making snap judgments and stereotypes and labelling and that is not healthy whatever side you are on. I think that is where What If came from, it’s like, come on, you know? Maybe if you lived my life and shared my experience maybe you would understand where I am coming from and vice versa. We all have certain stereotypes and I just think this really hurts the country. I think we are seeing this now more than ever and we are polarized and nothing is getting done – we are kind of on the wrong track. I think a lot of that is just because we are unwilling to kind of listen to and respect each other and it worries me.
Five for Fighting has always opened the envelope and allowed for a lot of discussion about topics and themes throughout the years and albums, and what culminated in 2013 with the song ‘What If’ that allowed us all to see if we can empathise with the other by trying to see things from their POV, actually begun in the year 2000 and Five For Fighting’s release of ‘Superman (It’s Not Easy)’ way back in the day. From his 2nd album America Town, ‘Superman’ the song was about this feeling of being heard and wanting people to understand things from the persona’s POV- in the song’s case, the persona is Superman. Superman is powerful in the comics, but what this song depicts is the humanity of the superhero, and how this being who is equally human as he is a person with super-strength; can still have his off-days. Superman can be misunderstood, and though he is invincible, Superman can feel what humans do, and I’m sure Superman the character in the comics was created with human emotions as well. In a practical sense, ‘Superman (It’s Not Easy)’ is for anyone who feels like they are toiling and working the grind and just doing the work, but not seeing the results that they want- the gratitude and thanks aren’t there, what was thought to be an easy work turns out to be more difficult than anticipated. It’s not easy to life this life of uncertainty, and ‘Superman’ is a reminder that we all who may feel like we can conquer the world at times, will indeed have other times where we feel like we aren’t accomplishing the things that we should. The song gives us the hope that we are not alone in what we’re feeling- Superman feels it too, and to a greatest extent, God, through His Son Jesus and His journey to earth as God in human flesh, can also empathise with our humanity. We are never alone in our plight, and such a song gives us assurance that our friends, our family, and our God, are there to call upon if needed in the circumstances and situations where we may need them. ‘100 Years’, another great standout song by Five For Fighting, was unveiled to us in 2004 on the album The Battle For Everything. The song itself is a reminder to take life as it is and to enjoy every moment of it, because what we have been given- this life we’ve living; it’s gonna be finite. We’re all gonna die in the end, and thus we should cherish whatever time we have here on this earth, something I know people don’t necessarily do. Five For Fighting’s John Ondrasik wrote this song about pivotal moments in his life- the first verse about his schooling years at 15 when he couldn’t find a girl, at 22 in the second verse when he did find a girl and got married, and in the third verse at age 33 when he had his first child. ‘100 Years’ speaks that we should always be using our time effectively- our presence here on this earth is very fleeting, and we should treat it as such- ‘100 Years’ can hopefully give us the impetus and the motivation to direct introspection and compulsion into positive change as we see what areas of our life do need fixing in the little time on this earth we could have left.
‘The Riddle’ is another track (and one of the three big super-standouts by Five for Fighting, inclusive of ‘Superman’ and ‘100 Years’) that has been pressing on the hearts and lives of people around the world since it’s inception through the 2006 album Two Lights. The song itself touches on the thing that has been on everybody’s lips since the dawn of time- what is the meaning of life? While I do not know the religion of Five For Fighting, what I do know is that even in this song, God still moves, and the very act of asking about life and meaning in ‘The Riddle’ invites us all who listen to the track to ponder the very question that has been chipping away in our lives in the background, for as long as I’m sure we can remember. Five for Fighting is having an inward battle in ‘The Riddle’- for a lot of people around the world, the definite meaning of life and why we’re living seems to puzzle and stump a lot of people. Nevertheless, people try to find their meaning themselves, either through religion, or through familial relationships or just enjoying the simpler, finer things in life, what we would usually take for granted. Regardless of how people take the meaning of the song; one thing is clear about ‘The Riddle’- we have to ask these questions- why do we live? Why are we here? Why do we connect and form relationships if in the end we die and that is it? It is in these questions that we can hopefully not be afraid to admit that maybe we don’t have it all together as we seem we do. For it is when we are at the end of ourselves and know that we don’t know much; that I firmly believe that the God of the universe, who’s firmly involved- intricately and intimately- in our lives; can show us meaning and purpose as we journey on with this life, with Him in it!
Post-2013’s Bookmark, Five For Fighting unveiled to us a few other musical endeavours, in a live Christmas album in 2017, a live project (with just him on the piano and string instruments) in 2018, alongside a slew of singles at various points throughout the years. ‘All For One’ was penned and released in 2014, and written and recorded specifically for the CBS TV Show Hawaii 5-0’s 100th episode. As shared by Five For Fighting in a recent story-behind-the-song on Songfacts; we’re reminded that ‘…as a fan of the original show – I’m old enough to remember the original show. I was intrigued when [executive producer] Peter [Lenkov] pitched me on writing an original song for the 100th episode. He told me about his idea – they didn’t have the script quite done yet. But I thought it was very unique, and he wanted a song that reflected the, as he would say, “ohana” vibe of his show-the family vibe. And I thought I could do that. I sat down at the piano and wrote a song that talked about the relationship these characters had formed…’ Two versions of ‘All For One’ was birthed out of this journey- the original one with a lot of musical instruments, and a ‘ohana’ version- stripped back and recorded acoustically. The song itself is a timely reminder, especially during this difficult pandemic time, that community and having a mentality of ‘all for one and one for all’, is adopted and fostered, now more than ever. With this message not being that new (I can remember a certain movie called ‘The Three Musketeers’ that embodied this slogan), it nevertheless is welcomed- we can never be reminded enough of how much we need each other during this fragile and difficult time. Five for Fighting also unveiled to us ‘We are the Innocents’ in 2018, a hauntingly refreshing and compelling song written specifically for the movie Gosnell, the true story about the trial of Dr Kermit Gosnell of the Women’s Medical Society abortion centre in Philadelphia, and how Gosnell himself assisted in the murder of plenty of babies that survived their abortions (but where also not wanted by their parents either). The harrowing experiences suffered by these women at the hands of Gosnell has been translated with such grace and sensitivity in the song ‘We are the Innocents’, as the track is from the POV of either murdered babies themselves, or the women involved in the deadly practice. Five For Fighting also capped off the last few years with the single release of ‘Born to Win’ in 2016, a song that has its inspiration in the myriad of sports that John Ondrasik has enjoyed and loved over the years- while the song is not the anthem of just one sport, it is a reminder to always keep pressing forward and showing the team spirit when sport events and competitions are happening around the world. With the song itself being an ode to the underdogs in every sport competition, the song can still also be applicable to life, and how as we traverse the terrains of uncertainty and uncharted waters, our vision and goal to be where we want to be at the end of it all can hopefully spur us on and motivate us to be better and go further than we have ever been before.
It takes fate, luck and hard work to be successful and to be heard. Melody gets you on the radio – lyrics keep you on the radio for 20 years. I have always been a fan of the great lyricists. I think that for me it is always the hardest part and I spend days, weeks, months, trying to get one line for various songs. I think the reason that 100 Years has stuck around for 15-20 years is the words, the story and the sentiment that people can relate to whether they’re 15 years old or 75. As a singer, the most important thing is not to be able to sing perfectly in tune, but to be recognizable. I think I have one of those voices where you kind of know who that is. I have been fortunate that I have had a few songs that culture embraced, that I have a sound that is not so generic that it is easily replaceable – so again I think that a lot of that is luck. My voice is my voice – I took a lot of voice lessons but it is what it is. But the lyrics are just, you know, 15-20 years of just trying to get better and writing songs that can touch people…
I think I can never be totally satisfied. I am certainly very grateful because in the big things I have been incredibly fortunate. I have worked hard for some of that but I have also been incredibly blessed. It may sound a little corny and cliché but to be born in the greatest country that has ever existed that allows me the opportunity to have the freedom of speech, to work – it’s “Ameritocracy” – to have the opportunity to succeed. To have great parents who stood by me when I was pursuing my dream and everybody told me I was crazy. To have a great wife who understands the sacrifices I have to make sometimes – especially early in my career – who supported me. To have wonderful children and all that stuff and people who have helped me along the way – I feel very lucky. Are there things you want to do and continue to do? Sure, you always want to be relevant, you always want a seat at the table. You always want to have people hearing new music and keep growing but at the same time, at this point in my life I am going to be turning 50 this year. I do kind of sit back and can recognize some of the really cool stuff and experiences that I have had and my family has had. You always want more but at the end of the day, you know the big things… having a healthy family and the means to pay your mortgage and kind of do what you want…to have buddies like Andrew Breitbart and interact with some of the people who define the culture and move the sports world and the political world. Yeah, I am pretty satisfied. I am never complacent and I never take it for granted but it’s been a fun ride.
Five For Fighting and the impact its music has had on society is just one of many other things that John Ondrasik has contributed throughout his career thus far. He has been compared over the years to other piano-prominent singer-songwriters like Elton John or Billy Joel, while a lot of his heartland rock material reminds people of ‘The Boss’ Bruce Springsteen. More often than not, Five for Fighting’s choice of instrument has always been the piano, and a lot of his live shows are either just himself, alternating between guitars and keyboards, or very rarely with a backing back- from the 2010s onward, Five For Fighting has been accompanied by string quartets to make the music more orchestral. Overall, the music of Five For Fighting has been declared by prominent website AllMusic as one of the leading groups who has excelled in creating ballads throughout the 2000s, while John Ondrasik, frontman of the one-man-band, also engages in public speaking, and has presented talks and lectures in relation to TEDx, Virgin Unite and the American Cancer Society over the years. All in all, the music of Five for Fighting, alongside John’s passion for speaking and his way of communicating hard-hitting messages in 3 minute songs is certain to strike a chord with anyone who loves introspective music and emotive poignancy, artists in a similar vein to that of either Switchfoot, Train, Lifehouse, Tenth Avenue North or even The Boss himself, Bruce Springsteen. John Ondrasik has delivered music that challenges the heart and encourages the soul, and if only for songs ‘The Riddle’, ‘Superman’, ‘100 Years’ and more recently ‘What If’, and for them alone; this one-man-band and underrated moniker should be listened to by anyone who wants to be changed by the power of music…if only to listen to Five for Fighting once!
Does Five For Fighting and the music make the list for you all when you write your own ‘Best Influential Artists of All Time’ list? Is there any song, like ‘The Riddle’, ‘100 Years’ and ‘Superman’; that has impacted you on your journey through life thus far? Let us know in the comments. Till next time!