“If I Had a Million Dollars” is probably the most famous song from Barenaked Ladies, a concert favorite and a song made to sing along to.
Written by members Steven Page and Ed Robertson to sing to counselors at summer camp, the song at first may seem like a mere silly list of things you can buy with loads of money. But under the surface is a powerful message of love and the simple life over pursuing gobs of wealth.
The speaker begins the “if I had a million dollars” statement, assuming that this money comes from an inherited fortune or a lottery win, with the first is the most obvious: “I would buy you a house.” Naturally, that’s the first thought that pops into someone’s head. But when you buy a big house, you have to fill it, and so the speaker, sequentially, moves on to random furniture: a Chesterfield, an ottoman. Why? To fill the house. This begins the subtle critique of the idea that happiness can be bought. A new house would be nice, but then you’d have to fill it with stuff. You’re already a slave to your money.
The next verse moves onto vehicles, another common first pick. But the speaker goes with a “K-Car,” a Plymouth Reliant not known for being fancy or outstanding in any way, but instead is “a nice reliant automobile.” This turn has a threefold effect. First, it continues the natural progression from expensive to cheap, because once a house and furniture are bought, what kind of car would you expect? Secondly, the speaker, though having all this money, places value on a car that is simple and reliable, is a man of few wants. Thirdly, it indicates the possibility that the speaker may actually have no idea what kind of car you’re “supposed” to buy with a million dollars. He’s clueless. Either way, it’s a joke.
And then we have the chorus line: “If I had a million dollars…I’d buy your love.”
While that’s sweet, we all know you can’t buy love. The Beatles taught us that. Sure, you might buy the loyalty of a gold digger, or really impress someone who may later come to love you. But money cannot purchase the sincerity of heart that only true love gives. So what’s going on here? Is this a song about appeasing a spoiled princess?
We quickly turn from luxurious or semi-luxurious purchases to absurdly fun and, in some cases, quite inexpensive purchases.
“A tree fort in our yard.” “You could help; it wouldn’t be that hard.” Suddenly our speaker and his sweetheart are reimagined as small children, or goofy adults living in their own little world. A tree fort could be built with supplies under a thousand dollars. We get a glimpse at a couple who may just want the means to splurge on one cool thing.
Now we’re brought into a contrast in desires. Whereas previously there was a vague mention of a house with some furniture, the tree fort idea grows through playful and creative banter including a tiny fridge full of pre-wrapped sausages.
The list begins to spiral into the random, nonsensical, and yet, the oddly familiar, considering how much it echoes the wild purchases of crazy celebrities:
A fur coat (but not a real one, that’s cruel)
a llama or an emu or a monkey
John Merrick’s remains
a limousine (to drive to the store, simply because we can)
a green dress
some art (a Picasso or a Garfunkel…get it?)
The speaker(s) pause to say that even though they could afford to eat more expensive food than Kraft Dinner, they would still eat Kraft Dinner, just more of it (with fancy ketchup). Again, mocking excess.
By this point listeners may have picked up on the playful abandon with which the speaker tosses out these millionaire dreams. The classic materialist longing for a hunk of cash to blow exotic and fancy goods becomes just another tool for imagining what silly shenanigans a sweet couple could get themselves into. These dreams are random because they’re not the focus of the lovers’ lives. Their focus is on enjoying life together.
The repeated “I’d buy your love” becomes not a serious promise, but a tongue-in-cheek oath that no matter what, the sweethearts will always love each other, money or no money. All the money in the world would mean nothing if the speaker cannot have the love of his audience. This could be taken either way: The speaker would gladly put aside all purchases he could dream of for the sweetheart, or rather, knowing his loved one so well, would pursue the love that is already there by spending the money on something that has meaning to the two of them, rather than mere status symbols like a big house, a car, or some fancy art.
The story of two happy-go-lucky people who don’t seem to know how to spend a fortune speaks to the heart and mocks the wallet. The conclusion at the end of the song wraps the message beautifully.
“If I had a million dollars…
I’d be rich.”
Duh. But that’s the point. That’s all a million dollars makes you, is merely rich. To a couple so in love, having a million dollars would not change anything for them, except for the mere fact that they’d be rich. As if to say, “yeah, if we had some money we’d have some money. So what?”
All this anti-materialistic tomfoolery is expressed in a very simple, funny, sweet song. Even if you don’t dip into the critique of our obsession with striking gold, you can laugh at the hypothetical purchases of two dreamers whose love is priceless.
Since the entire song hints that the speaker already has the love of his audience, and the one thing he most consistently would purchase if he could is her love, we arrive at a subtle yet powerful conclusion: Because he has her, he is rich.