If you listened to the radio in the early 1990s — and I spent a fair part of my evenings winding down to the pop stations — you no doubt heard Meat Loaf’s ballad “I’d Do Anything for Love (but I Won’t Do That)” in 1993. This hit single from the Bat Out of Hell II: Back Into Hell album was quite popular, and even won a Grammy Award.
The song was written by Jim Steinman, and recorded by Meat Loaf. And almost everyone who heard it asked the same question: what exactly is it that Meat Loaf won’t do? They understood he would do allegedly anything for love, but that anything was diminished by one thing he simply wouldn’t do. And try as you might in listening to the song, many people couldn’t discern that one thing.
The confusion became so intense that even an episode of VH1′s Pop Up Video had a blurb declaring “Exactly what Meat Loaf won’t do for love remains a mystery to this day.” Also, a reviewer for the All Music Guide wrote: “The lyrics build suspense by portraying a romance-consumed lover who pledges to do anything in the name of love except ‘that,’ a mysterious thing that he will not specify.” Well, does it really remain a mystery?
To determine the answer, we should explore the lyrics of the song more thoroughly.
Things Meat Loaf Will Do
In order to understand what Meat Loaf won’t do, it’s probably important to first find what he will do. He says he’ll do “anything”, but he might only be speaking figuratively. The following are the things he claims he would do for love:
- Run Right Into Hell (and Back)
- Be There Until The Final Act
- Take a Vow and Seal a Pact
- Anything You’ve Been Dreaming Of
- Raise You Up
- Help You Down
- Get You Right Out of This God-Forsaken Town
- Make It All a Little Less Cold
- Hold You Sacred
- Hold You Tight
- Make You Some Magic With His Own Two Hands
- Build an Emerald City Out of Grains of Sand
- Give You Something That You Can Take Home
- Cater to Every Fantasy You Have
- Hose You Down With Holy Water (If You Get Too Hot)
- Take You Places You’ve Never Known
Now, that is a pretty long and impressive list of things Meat Loaf will do for love. He claims he can do things that are probably not even physically possible (building an Emerald City) and doesn’t restrain himself from going into the realm of sacrilege (“hosing” someone with holy water, presumably during sexual activity, is probably a sin).
So, Meat Loaf, we can give you the benefit of the doubt that you’re willing to do pretty much anything, just as you claim — within reason. Certainly if your lover asked you to commit genocide on a small African nation you would decline, or if she asked you to indulge in some strange German act you may run away. But presuming she’s a reasonable woman, you’re probably capable of fulfilling her needs.
The Defense of the Songwriters
The songwriters (Jim Steinman and Meat Loaf) contend the things he won’t do are made evident in the lyrics. Steinman says:
It’s sort of is a little puzzle and I guess it goes by — but they’re all great things. ‘I won’t stop doing beautiful things and I won’t do bad things.’ It’s very noble. I’m very proud of that song because it’s very much like out of the world of Excalibur. To me, it’s like Sir Lancelot or something — very noble and chivalrous. That’s my favorite song on the record — it’s very ambitious.
The “that” referenced in the title are a list of things in the song that Meat Loaf says, either explicitly or implicitly, that he simply won’t do. As Steinman suggests, the things he will do are good and the things he won’t do are bad. In fact, you could just invert the bad things to make a list of more good things. Let’s see the list of things in the song Meat Loaf won’t do.
Things Meat Loaf Says He Won’t Do
- Forget The Way You Feel Right Now
- Lie To You (And That’s a Fact)
- Do It Better Than He’ll Do It With You
- Stop Dreaming Of You Every Night Of His Life
- Forget Everything
- See That It’s Time to Move On
- Screw Around
The Problem With This Explanation
The problem with Steinman’s explanation is that his words go directly contrary to the title. The song title reads “I Will Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That)”. If you break that into two separate sentences but eliminating the conjunction, you are left with two different declarations:
- I’ll Do Anything For Love
- I Won’t Do That For Love
This is logically impossible. You cannot simultaneously do “anything” and also exclude one thing. (To use logic terms, “anything” would be a set of all possible things, a set wherein nothing could be outside of said set, leaving no instance of a thing not being for love.) So, either he is lying on the first declaration or the second, because both could not be absolutely true.
Taken more loosely, we could translate this to mean “I’ll Do Anything For Love With One Exception”, which is what most people take the title to mean, I presume. Certainly that is the way I interpret it. But if this is correct, then the thing he won’t do is not revealed, because the list of things he won’t do are not “for love”. He is not suggesting he wouldn’t screw around “for love” or “forget everything” for love. To even think these things are somehow a way to achieve love is just baffling and clearly not what was meant. So the list is just a distraction and should be inverted to go back into the first list (such as “screw around” being inverted to “stay faithful”).
Obviously, I’m being too literal and I should just let Steinman and Meat Loaf slide with their explanation. But they are the ones who set themselves up for criticism. By using “but” rather than “and”, they constructed a sentence that causes the listener to ascertain a reason to think one thing for love is to be excluded. By using “and”, this confusion could have been avoided. “I will do anything for love” and (rather than but) “I won’t do that” are non-contradictory, and allows the list to make sense.
So, in short: as stated, there is actually NOTHING Meat Loaf won’t do for love, making the song title either greatly misleading, a lie, or something to be left open for speculation. If we recognize that Steinman and Meat Loaf suffer from poor grammar, then we realize there is nothing he won’t do for love, just things he won’t do in general.
Conclusion: Meat Loaf will do anything for love. Anything. (Within reason.) Period.