What exactly is The Eagles’ Hotel California actually about?

The vagaries of travel adverts are well renowned. They somehow make a five-day cruise in the Mediterranean seem like a trip that would transform you into Lord Byron before you even disembark from the port. However, even the holiday oddity of The Eagles’ classic of ‘Hotel California’ is beyond them. 

The song itself sits in some sort of meta real-world version of its own lyrical content—it is equally as hard to place. It is a mega-hit all over the world, but many dismiss it, and even some Eagles fans wager that it isn’t their best. Is it a victim of endless overplays? Or is proof that commercialism is no marker for great art? 

Ask a thousand people and you may well get a thousand answers, but the hum-hawing on it will be universal—even the documentarian Louis Theroux comically discussed it with a white supremacist Boer in a moment of levity, and the question was asked, “What are they trying to tell you in the words?”

In 2008, Don Felder recalled the moment the obfuscated lyrics were dreamt up. “Don Henley and Glenn wrote most of the words,” he told Howard Stern. “All of us kind of drove into L.A. at night. Nobody was from California, and if you drive into L.A. at night, you can just see this glow on the horizon of lights, and the images that start running through your head of Hollywood and all the dreams that you have, and so it was kind of about that, what we started writing the song about.”

So, the song is about the mirage of lights caused by the horizon of Hollywood? Beyond the notion of a “dark desert highway” that seems to have about as much correlation with the content of the song as Humpty Dumpty being depicted as an egg. Granted, Felder’s explanation fits the feel and mystique of the song’s cruising melody, but what of the weird Kubrickian references to some weird purgatory inn?

Well, as it happens purgatory seems to be a fitting word because Don Henley helps to clear that matter up. The glowing Hollywood is the place where dreams are made and crushed and it can trap you in its lure of vacancies forever. As Henley states in the History of the Eagles: “On just about every album we made, there was some kind of commentary on the music business, and on American culture in general.”

He continues: “The hotel itself could be taken as a metaphor not only for the myth-making of Southern California but for the myth-making that is the ‘American Dream’ because it is a fine line between the American Dream and the American nightmare.” This notion of the false allure of opportunities, the pitfalls you can face on the journey, and the pothole of excess if you ever make it, even sounds almost akin to socialist commentary which is perhaps why it is greeted with caution by some who haven’t fathomed its fiddly lyrics and why it is so globally widespread, particularly in areas of Asia. 

Is it the fault of the song that the lyrics are widely misread or otherwise misunderstood? Well, no, but it does define why it is such an oddity in every sense. Take, for instance, the couplet, “’Please bring me my wine’, He said, ‘We haven’t had that spirit here since 1969’”. As the keen-eyed winos among you will know, wine is not a spirit, thus, the wordplay refers to the zeitgeist of 1969, the spirit of the age, when the drinks at the party flowed with sanguine sumptuousness.

It’s not the deepest allegory of all time, but it is frankly weird to have such repartee in a song that sounds so mainstream. You don’t expect filigreed commentary on cultural constitutions to crop up in songs that are played at any given second on any radio station the world over. And that isn’t a highbrow appraisal of AM radio either, it’s just that everything in the song is like Christmas in July, where the cracker jokes are written by David Lynch, and you flame the turkey and carve the Christmas pudding.

Does this mishmash hidden in plain sight make it a masterpiece? I don’t know, nobody does! And by next year, I will have forgotten what it’s even about once more.  

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