(estimated read time: 6 minutes)
What does “On Hold” by The xx mean?
My first introduction to The xx came years ago before I cared so much about the meanings behind song lyrics, back when I was still exploring what kinds of music were out there. I fellow who was a few years ahead of me educationally and certainly more well-listened gave me an eclectic playlist of indie bands like Fleet Foxes and Vampire Weeknd to listen to on GrooveShark (RIP).
One of the songs was by The xx, and, for the life of me, I can’t remember which one it was, but I was impressed. My horizon had been expanded, and I continued searching for new music. Unfortunately for me, I lost track of The xx and started focusing on other excellent bands.
But then “On Hold” came out, and I had the opportunity to rediscover the band. And I am very happy that I have. “On Hold” is a fantastic song about maturity and growth. The music is rich and textured, and I really couldn’t be happier with something The xx writes. Let me explain what I mean and show you the meaning behind this indie pop song’s lyrics.
The Song’s Lyrical Meaning
“On Hold” is about a man who gave up a relationship that he thought will still be an option for him later on. The woman, however, moved on without him. He sings, “I thought I had you on hold,” even as he realizes that he doesn’t and that she’s made other plans. The song is a mature look at our tendencies to think that we can do whatever we want and depend on others doing only what suits us best.
Verse 1: Separation
Lyrically, the first verse of “On Hold” is sad and regretful. Romy Madley Croft sings, “I don’t blame you / We got carried away / I can’t hold on / To an empty space.” The “hold on” seems to be a nod to the song’s title, and the entire verse communicates the idea that two people have drifted apart. The narrator is struggling with moving on even though part of her would rather “hold on / To an empty space” where her lover used to be.
Pre-Chorus: On Hold
The pre-chorus is where the story of “On Hold” really comes into focus, and we hear from the lover who is that “empty space.” Oliver Sim sings, “Now you’ve found a new star to orbit.” The other person has found a new significant other (or at least is getting close to being “official”). Sim acknowledges, “It could be love,” and that his hopes of rekindling a relationship with his old friend could be lost.
Personally, he thinks “you’re too soon to call us old / When and where did we go cold?” But this seems to be self-aware and not sincere. His next line acknowledges his own guilt of taking her for granted: “I thought I had you on hold.” He knows he messed up, and he reveals the “you’re too soon to call us old” line to be whining or complaining. This isn’t me insulting him; this seems to be The xx telling us that they’re growing up and maturing; the only way to communicate that is to reveal your own weakness.
Oliver Sim repeats some lines, but the chorus tells us that he used to think she would never fully give up on him, even if he “let [her] leave.” He sings, “I always saw you coming back to me.” The fact that she wasn’t willing to wait for him is shocking and painful to him, but finishing the chorus with the repeated line “I thought I had you on hold” suggests The xx is definitely aware that their narrator was in the wrong.
Post Chorus 1 & 2: Hall & Oates
In the post chorus of “On Hold,” The xx samples lyrics from Hall & Oates’s song “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do).” They sing lines like “Where does it stop, where does it stop? / Where do you dare me to?” and “You’ve got the body, you’ve got the body / Dare me to, dare me to.”
The rest of the post-chorus repeats these lines and conveys a general sense of respect for Hall & Oates and a wistful sense of confusion about life and love. The xx is confused and hurt and doesn’t know what to do.
Verse 2: Destiny
The lyrics in the second verse of The xx’s “On Hold” tell us more of the story from the girl’s perspective. Croft sings about she thought they would stay in love. She sings that her “young heart chose to believe / We were destined” and that their “[y]oung heart / All need love.” They felt drawn to each other, and she thought that they were going to be together, which made it all the more surprising for her and the other narrator that it isn’t working out. After all, she thought it was a sure thing as did he–they just both thought that it was going to come to fruition at different times.
She calls this “a lesson,” and she has learned that the “stars and the charts / And the cards make sense” only “when we want them to.” Essentially, she has decided that destiny is less trustworthy than she thought and that she will have to be responsible for herself. She sings that when she lies “awake staring into space / [she sees] a different view.” This is her realizing the power of her and others’ free will.
“On Hold” Deeper Song Lyrics Meaning
I appreciate “On Hold” because it’s about maturing and becoming a better person–realizing that we have to take responsibility for our own actions and being willing to put others first and not just assume that they’ll cater to everything we want.
The two characters in this song had assumptions about the world that can be condensed into one idea: things will work out for me because that’s how things work. Sim’s character learns that if he sends someone away, she may not come back to him and that he has to be proactive. Croft’s character learns to trust less in her feelings and thoughts about her destiny; she learns that she has to make her own decisions.
This maturity and willingness to explore what are possibly personal failures are what make “On Hold” a specific, powerful, and beautiful song.
Thanks for reading! I’m a college English instructor, university writing center director, and online entrepreneur (college for under $15k, anyone?) who cares deeply about TRUTH and MEANING. I’m married to the gloriously beautiful Wife April and love to swing dance and juggle. Check out my YouTube channel where I explain even more songs!