The Trump Prophecy: Deciphering Stiltskin’s Inside
How a 20th century rock phenomenon predicted the biggest political phenomenon of the 21st century so far
(Skip to the end of this article if you want a tl;dr summary)
Way back in the mid-90’s, I bought a double CD compilation named The Best Rock Album In The World…Ever! (henceforth referred to as TBRAITW…E!). The title was a bold, hyperbolic claim, one that wouldn’t sound out of place falling from the face of Donald Trump. Indeed, no album which features two separate songs sung by Phil Collins can possibly deliver on that assertion. But, that aside, it’s a respectable compilation.
The first disk — aside from an inexplicable dip around the mid-teens — is wall-to-wall classics. Just take the opening five tracks: Queen, Kiss, Rainbow, Lenny Kravitz, Stiltskin. Take it from me: they’re all absolute belters, even if those of you below a certain age —say, mid-thirties —are unlikely to recognise the names.
For now, since they’re the subject of this post, let’s focus on Stiltskin.
In the 1990s, the Levi’s marketing department was a legitimate hit factory. Their adverts launched the careers of many acts that are now household names: The Clash, The Steve Miller Band, Babylon Zoo, Shaggy. The first CD single I ever bought was Erma Franklin’s Piece Of My Heart, which was (of course) featured on a Levi’s ad. But the most phenomenal success and — to my mind — the greatest advert from that era was 1994's Creek:
The ad’s music was instrumental, giving it a mystique that previous Levi’s soundtracks had lacked. After it first started screening, the general public clamoured to hear more, demanding to know who was behind the track. Their entreaties were answered in the form of the now-legendary single, Inside, by the band Stiltskin:
The song was a smash hit, reaching №1 in the UK, №2 in Austria, and №37 in the US. As well as its runaway popularity with the public, it was well-regarded by critics, with Rolling Stone magazine commenting (if memory serves me correctly) “in Stiltskin we finally have a band that delivers on Nirvana’s promise”. However a minority were less effusive, some focussing on the songs lyrics, variously lambasting them as “baffling”, “nonsensical”, “gobbledegook” and “gibberish”.
Of course, this view has long been discredited by numerous serious literary studies. But, while meditating to TBRAITW…E! recently, I was startled by the realisation that the words for Inside are not just as densely allusive as Dylan or Joyce, but that they actually predicted and warned about the rise of Donald Trump as so-called President of the USA.
The name, the legend
Before I dig into the lyrics, it’s worth setting the song to one side and thinking about the band’s name. Aside from the band itself, the only association most people will have with the name Stiltskin is the character from folklore, Rumpelstiltskin.
In the story, a miller boasts to his king that his daughter can spin straw into gold, and the king then imprisons the daughter until she can make good on this claim. Rumpelstiltskin, a goblin-type character, appears and offers to save the daughter by spinning the gold for her, but only for an increasingly heavy price: first her necklace, then her ring, and lastly her firstborn child. Rumpelstiltskin is eventually undone because he gives the daughter a get-out clause from the first-born deal if she can guess his name, which she succeeds in doing because she hears him boasting it to himself for no good reason.
To break things down further, the story has a few key elements:
- Characters with a love of and desire for gold
- Characters who make boasts that are demonstrably false or which otherwise get them into trouble
- A character who’s obsessed with making deals that work to their advantage
- A character who keeps crucial information about themselves secret because revealing it could lead to their undoing
But beyond any similarities with the story of Rumpelstiltskin, there’s the missing part, the part that’s subtracted to make the band name Stiltskin. Rather than spell it out for you, I’ll let esteemed pop artist Cher do the honours:
So we can see that — before we even pay attention to the song’s lyrics — we’re being cued to think of Donald Trump, both on the surface with the name itself, and on a deeper level with the themes which that name alludes to.
Now I’ll break the lyrics down and explain them to the best of my understanding. I’ve no doubt that there’s still much nuance I’ve missed, but I hope that this first pass lays the foundation for further study by more qualified Stiltskin scholars.
Swing low in a dark glass hour
You turn and cower
See it turn to dust
‘Swing low’ describes the plummet in the US economy following the financial crisis that began in 2007 (remember, this was still 13 years into the future at the time Inside was released). This crisis was arguably caused by the repeal of key provisions in the Glass-Steagall legislation (‘a dark Glass hour’).
The financial crisis caused key elements in the US, most notably the Republican party, to become more inward-looking (‘turn and cower’). Many Americans feared a return to levels of poverty and desperation not seen since the 1930s, when much of the US literally turned to dust.
Move on a stone dark night
We take to fight
Snowfall turns to rust
This refers to the Tea Party movement, who decided to ‘take to fight’ as a response to the landslide election of Barack Obama. The election was seen by many as a ‘dark night’ for the Republican party, and the Tea Party rallied against the traditional conservatives they blamed for the defeat nearly as much as they did against Democrats.
Another possible layer of meaning is that the Spiderman film The Dark Knight was released in July 2008, by which time it was clear that Obama had secured the Democratic nomination, and when it can be reasonably supposed that conservative organisation against him began in earnest.
The third of these lines is, firstly, an allusion to Sarah Palin, who was announced as the Republicans’ vice-presidential nomination mere weeks after the release of The Dark Knight. Following defeat in the election, and having served several years as governor of Alaska (the US state most renowned for its snowfall) she began openly campaigning for Tea Party policies that played well in the US’s Rust Belt, a traditionally Democrat-leaning region.
Turning the Rust Belt proved crucial in Trump’s election: thus this line also neatly sums up recent Republican history, showing how disenchantment with traditional conservatism among Republicans led directly to his nomination and subsequent election.
Seam in a fusing mine
Like a nursing rhyme
Fat man starts to fall
Previous analyses have long established that the ‘fat man’ is Humpty Dumpty, from the nursery rhyme of the same name. The very first line of this rhyme is ‘Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall’, from which, in the subsequent line, he proceeds to fall. With the benefit of hindsight it’s not hard to interpret Humpty Dumpty as a surrogate for Trump, who won over a huge number of voters with a promise to build a wall. Indeed, this comparison has been made by a number of people in the last year, though I believe I’m the first to have made the connection with Inside.
More difficult, however, is understanding the remainder of this stanza. Trump has not yet had a fall, though it has been widely-reported that he’s afraid of stairs: this could be more accurately be characterised as a fear of falling down stairs. However, I believe this to be a red herring.
Let’s return to the first of these lines, ‘Seam in a fusing mine’. What exactly is a fusing mine? The most likely explanation is that it’s a mine for fusable materials, which is to say the radioactive elements required for producing a nuclear bomb. Trump has openly called for a ramping-up of the US’s nuclear arsenal: I believe that Stiltskin are telling us that nuclear weapons will play a crucial part in Trump’s downfall.
Before I move on, it’s also worth noting that Humpty Dumpty makes an appearance in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass. Here’s one of his most famous exchanges with Alice:
“When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master—that's all.”
This anticipates Trump’s unprecedented stress-testing of the English language’s ability to hold any real meaning for the duration of an entire sentence.
Back to Stiltskin:
Here in a hostile place
I hear your face
Start to call
My reading of this is as a reference to Trump’s inauguration speech, with the ‘hostile place’ clearly being Washington DC, the swamp which he repeatedly pledged to drain.
Many have noted the unusual use of the word face here, rather than another word that would be less jarring such as voice. While the popular Because-it-rhymes hypothesis is certainly compelling in its own right, I find it hard to believe that this kind of artistic compromise would be the case with lyrics that are otherwise so thoughtfully crafted.
In my opinion, the you being addressed here is not an individual, not even Trump himself: it’s Trump’s team as a whole, especially individuals like Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller who are in large part creating the policies that he’s putting his name to. Thus these lines predict Trump as the face of a larger group.
And if you think that I've been losing my way
That's because I'm slightly blinded
There are a few possible interpretations here. One possibility floated to avoid conflicts of interest with Trump’s businesses was described as a half-blind trust. There’s also been speculation in the press that Trump has problems with his vision.
However, these lines strike me as being more metaphorical. Note that the word used is ‘blinded’, not ‘blind’: this implies that some incident caused the blindness. The most compelling explanation to my mind is that this is describing voter suppression: the electorate was blinded by disenfranchising large numbers of those likely to vote Democrat, thus leading to it losing its way and voting for Trump.
And if you think that I don't make too much sense
That's because I'm broken minded
Anybody who’s seen Trump’s tweets or speeches should readily understand this without further explanation.
Don't keep it
If you believe it
Don't keep it all inside
These lines act as a form of explanation for the previous ones in the bridge. They represent the voice of Trump’s Id, urging him to just say whatever he believes right now, even if it contradicts something he said in the previous sentence, or earlier in the current one.
This is a little harder to interpret than the first verse, possibly because some of it is predicting events which have yet to occur. What follows should therefore be read as informed speculation rather than absolute truth.
Strong words in a Ganges sky
I have to lie
Shadows move in pairs
The Ganges river is most strongly associated with India. Recently there have been two incidents where people of Indian origin have been shot — tragically, fatally in one case — by attackers who can be reasonably supposed to be Trump supporters: firstly in Kansas, where the attacker used racist language and told the victims to “Get out of my country”; and then near Seattle, where the victim was told to “Go back to your own country”. ‘Strong words’ is something of an understatement for these abhorrent cases.
The focus then shifts to Trump or someone in his administration: it’s hard to guess who, since the offering of ‘alternative facts’ is applicable interchangeably to any of them. This lying is probably driven by the pair of Steves, Bannon & Miller, who lurk in Trump’s shadows.
Ring out from a bruised postcard
In the shooting yard
Looking through the tears
A ‘shooting yard’ here could be a synonym for a shooting range, or it could alternatively be a place where executions by firing squad are conducted. Currently only Oklahoma and Utah allow this brutal method of execution, although legislators in Mississippi recently attempted to introduce it.
I was stuck for possible meanings of the phrase ‘bruised postcard’, so I did a Google image search for it. This was one of the top results:
Paul Bunyan is a character in American folklore, commonly associated with Northern states such as Michigan where lumberjacks sleep all night and work all day. None of these states currently permit execution by firing squad, although last year Cher did call for this method of punishment for Michigan’s governor:
Inside spent its time at №1 in the UK charts in the week commencing 14th May 1994. Cher was born on 20th May 1946, which means that she would have celebrated her birthday while Inside was at №1.
I don’t think so.
I haven’t yet uncovered what exactly links Cher to Stiltskin’s Trump prophecy, but this certainly seems like fertile ground for further research into the full meaning of this stanza and the work as a whole.
Out of the black slate time
We move in line
But never reach an end
These lines certainly evoke a powerful image, but not one I’m able to tie to recent events. My gut feeling is that this refers to something which has yet to pass, but I welcome interpretations from anyone who is able to decode its meaning.
Fall in a long stray town
As the ice comes round
River starts to bend
The river in the last line here is most likely a callback to the Ganges in the first line of the verse. This implies that a severe diplomatic strain will develop with India — a nuclear power, lest we forget — possibly taking it close to breaking point. I’ve identified two possible readings from the remainder of this stanza of what the cause of this could be:
- The ‘ice comes round’ may be referring to the Immigration & Customs Enforcement, part of the Department of Homeland Security. Since Trump’s inauguration, ICE have been responsible for an aggressive (and widely-condemned) increase in the detention and deportation of undocumented immigrants; this is likely to continue, and possibly worsen, into the Autumn/‘Fall’.
- The “long stray town” is Long Island (an island being ‘stray’ of the mainland), famous for its eponymous Iced Tea. In this reading, drinking too many Long Island Iced Teas could lead to a literal fall, but also a metaphorical one spurred by someone’s words or actions while under the influence.
The bridge and chorus of the song then repeat, much as Trump and his supporters would no doubt like to win a repeat term.
Summary / tl;dr
Far more prescient than they’ve ever previously been credited with being, Stiltskin correctly predicted the following:
- The economic crash
- The election of Barack Obama
- Sarah Palin and the Tea Party
- The renewed popularity of the Spiderman film franchise
- Trump’s rise to the presidency, helped by a campaign promise to build a wall and widespread voter suppression
- Increased ICE deportations
- Shootings of Indian nationals
This means we should be vigilant looking out for the following parts of the prophecy which haven’t yet come to pass:
- Trump’s plans for America’s nuclear arsenal
- Diplomatic tensions with India
- Anyone in the US administration who has a fondness for cocktails
We should also be keeping a close eye on Cher and trying to figure out how she ties into all of this.
Of course, these are all just my interpretations of Stiltskin’s prophecy. I would very much like to hear from anyone who has alternative theories, or is able to build on the groundwork which I’ve laid here.
To close out the post, here’s Stiltskin’s follow-up single, Footsteps. I’m currently working on my own follow-up, explaining how this song’s lyrics warned us about Brexit, if only we’d had the sense to listen instead of letting it languish at №34 in the charts.