Music is filled with a plethora of testaments to the enduring power of love, whether in the form of a specifically dedicated love song, a composition professing the fire of love in spite of hard circumstances, and many pieces that argue with the undervaluing of a certain love.
“Who’s To Say” by Vanessa Carlton, a song that I still hold was wrongly passed up for lead single from her sophomore album Harmonium, comes along in the latter category. Many songs of that ilk may come off as youthful ignorance, but I don’t see much value in such a diminutive label, not to mention that Carlton brings such an impressive degree of nuance to the subject that it’s impossible to read “Who’s To Say” as anything but a confident, mature rejection of attempted manipulation and interference into one’s life.
From lighthearted arpeggios to energetic chords behind belted vocals, it’s hard not to feel empowered by the mere atmosphere of the pop-piano composition. What really brings the song together, though, is its lyrical content. In the second verse and the bridge, she presents a divide with family; rather than presenting it like the stereotypical petulance accompanying youthful love, it paints a picture that truly questions if their heart is in the right place as Carlton declares, “Mother don’t tell me friends are the ones / That I lose, ‘cause they’d bleed before you.”
The choruses truly drive the message home with their rhetorical questions, asking “Who’s to say that this is not our love?” while maintaining perspective enough to acknowledge that things may not work out. It is in the second chorus, as Carlton really explores the negative possibilities, that it becomes clear that this is not a declaration of certainty that there will be a happily ever after, but rather exactly what the title states: Who’s to say? Maybe the relationship will work and maybe it won’t, but that is for the people in the relationship to decide, not for outside parties to declare out of arrogance and presumption. If it doesn’t work out, that’s their business to handle.
The song gains an even greater depth when you examine it in a wider context. In earlier live renditions of the song, Carlton (who has identified herself as “a proud bisexual woman”) would open it by dedicating it to “all those in relationships that aren’t approved of by either your mother or the government,” and on her most recent tour she’s begun playing it again, explicitly dedicating it to the LGBTQ community while speaking of how the entire world suffers when people aren’t allowed to love. This explicit declaration is far from necessary in establishing the power within the song, but it certainly highlights that “Who’s To Say” isn’t one-note or an immature defense of a now-failed love. The anthemic piece speaks to the importance of love as a whole, and the importance of every individual’s ability to define their own feelings as they see fit. It’s a powerful message that I praise Carlton for expressing so poetically and poignantly.