July 20, 2022 – Theme Week Day 3

We’re halfway through our theme week on Urban Legends in Music! Today we’re talking about the Phil Collins classic “In the Air Tonight”. The song was his debut solo single from his debut solo album Face Value in 1981.

There’s an urban legend surrounding the meaning of the song. Over the years the story has been more and more embellished, but it goes something like this: Collins wrote the song after witnessing a drowning accident, where someone close enough to save the victim did not help them while Collins, who was too far away, looked helplessly on. The stories often ended with Collings singling out the guilty person while singing the song at a concert.

Collins has flatly denied all these stories. In interviews, he has said that he wrote the song while going through a divorce with his first wife. The lyrics were written spontaneously, and he’s not sure what exactly the song is about, except that there is a lot of anger, despair, and frustration.

The song hit number 2 on the UK Singles Chart, and peaked at number 19 here in the U.S. on the Billboard Hot 100. The music video received heavy airplay on MTV when it first launched in August of 1981. Furthering its popularity, “In the Air Tonight” was on the soundtrack to Risky Business and was also in the first episode of Miami Vice. It received renewed attention and popularity in 2020, after becoming a TikTok challenge and being featured in a viral reaction video on YouTube. In August 2020, it was number 3 Billboard’s Digital Song Sales chart.

“In the Air Tonight” is one of Collins’ best known hits, and is often cited as his signature song. VH1 ranked in number 35 on their “100 Greatest Songs of the 80s” list in 2006. Learn more here.