A Serious Appreciation of Jimmy Buffett’s “Margaritaville”

No.  Seriously.  “Margaritaville”. The anthem of Parrotheads and wannabe island-escapists. That “Margaritaville”.

“Margaritaville” is a remarkably elegantly constructed little piece of literature which could serve well as a study piece in the poetry unit of high school English classes.


I am not a Parrothead. I don’t like beaches or the hot tropical sun. I could live my whole life without ever tasting another margarita and be quite happy.  And the smell of shrimp beginning to boil would make me gag.  Virtually everything about the lifestyle depicted in Jimmy Buffet’s most famous song is absolutely unappealing to me.

Now, let’s read the thing:

Google for “Margaritaville lyrics” and follow along with me.

The first verse in which Jimmy nibbles sponge cake, strums his guitar and watches the (damn) tourists as the seabugs start to boil is a very particularly set example of a very common trope in life and perhaps literature, the Unenergetic Curse of the Bloody Tourist.  I remember it in the mid ’70s in Banff when the “Gorbies” descended each summer.  And I’ve heard it directed at me when in Paris.  And, feeling improbably posessive of a wee side-walk restaurant in Penzance, I muttered the same curse under my breath at a group of Germans loudly pantomiming their desire for whipped cream — from one of those spray cans — on their ice cream.

Here’s Jimmy finding his quiet island life disruppted by the oily tourists, but consolation may lie in sponge cake, shrimp and his six string.

And, the chorus celebrating denial of responsibility that everyone sings, but no one hears:

Wasting away again in Margaritaville
Searching for my lost shaker of salt
Some people claim that there’s a woman to blame
But I know, it’s nobody’s fault.

In the first line of the chorus is the open acknowledgement of the self-discovery to come over the course of the song: his life as it is is a purposeless waste, a wasting away.  A lost shaker of salt? Is that really the problem?  Of course not, no more than the tourists are a problem in his life.  Who are the “some people” who make the claim that a woman’s to blame? Fox News? Wikipedia pretends that Jimmy’s friends have told him this, but there is no evidence that Jimmy has friends apart from his six string and his margaritas. No, the “some people” are actually singular and they are Jimmy’s own lack of responsibility.

Second verse, a little different from the first.

A wonderful little back and forth between a budding realization of the uselessness of his life — his reason — and the sucking desire to continue and try to justify that life.  He doesn’t know the reason he’s living this way with no change, no development except this stupid tattoo.  But — justification — it’s a real beauty, isn’t it? Doesn’t that make the season and the life worthwhile? But, he doesn’t even have a memory of the experience.  The last line shows that there can be no reason to this life, that there is no meaning without memory, and that a mysterious tattoo, no matter how beautiful the Mexican cutie depicted, is not an experience unless it has a story.

Jimmy’s waking up in the second chorus.  All is the same except the last line:

Now I think, Hell, it could be my fault.

Not quite a confession.  Not quite an admission.  Not quite taking responsibility. But the door is open.

The third verse begins with a list of disasters in the island life: a broken sandal, a cut foot.  Such are the great risks taken in this life.  But, no worries: there’s booze in the blender and margaritas are the only thing that allow Jimmy to hang on in this Hell.  But now, after being stymied so easily in a simple activity, walking on the beach, Jimmy is ready to take responsibility at the end of the third chorus:

It’s my own damn fault.

Although there’s not any great indication that Jimmy is going to change his lifestyle, he has over the course of the song made the profound change from blaming the world for his situation to taking responsibility and ownership of who he is.  There is no woman to blame and no longer is Jimmy one of the “some people” who say there is.  Jimmy will only blame himself.

“Margaritaville” strikes almost everyone as a celebration of irresponsible, lazy, drunken wasting away, but, just lightly scratching the surface reveals that it is, in fact, a dense study of alcoholic disillusionment and transformative responsibility.  Even if Jimmy never makes it off the island, in these three verses and choruses, he has made a mini-epic emotional voyage of transformation.

In a pop song.

Do we want High School students to develop an appreciation of poetry?  What better way could there be than to show them how a notoriously annoying ear-worm works as a well-crafted piece of poetry?

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