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The Meaning of The Police’s “Roxanne”

The 1978 classic “Roxanne” by English rock band The Police was the first single the band released from their debut album, Outlandos d’Amour. Despite being a masterpiece, the song failed to chart upon its initial release, and was re-released in 1979, when it peaked at number 12 on the UK singles chart, and 32 in the US Billboard charts.

Since then, “Roxanne” has remained a standout in the long line of hits that would be produced by Sting and the Police throughout their career. The racy, sensual content and energy of the song caught the ears of many, as Sting’s lyrics reference prostitution rather directly.

“Roxanne” is a groovy rock song about falling in love with a prostitute, and it came to define the sound of The Police as they achieved superstar status in the early 1980s.

This lyrical theme was a bold move as the lead single for their album, but clearly paid off as “Roxanne” is a timeless classic that continues to be enjoyed by listeners several generations removed from its release.

“Roxanne” Origins

According to Sting’s 2003 memoir, Broken Music, the lyrics to “Roxanne” were inspired by an experience he had while the band were staying together in Paris during one of their early tours, in October 1977. He recalls seeing prostitutes on the street near the hotel, and it gave him the idea for what was initially a bossa nova-style song.

Later, Sting says that drummer Stewart Copeland suggested the final arrangement, which is more akin to the style of tango.

“We tried it in all different styles, but we couldn’t get it right,” Sting recalls. “It was only when Stewart [Copeland] suggested we try it as a tango that it clicked.”

The title was found on a poster that was hanging on the wall there, advertising a play called Cyrano de Bergerac. Interestingly, the play’s plot revolves around many men trying to win the affection of a beautiful woman named Roxane.

Sting spoke of this in a 1981 interview with L’Historia Bandido:

It was the first time I’d seen prostitution on the streets and those birds were actually beautiful. I had a tune going around in my head and I imagined being in love with one of those girls. I mean, they do have fellas. How would I feel It’s a beautiful name and there’s a rich mythology behind it. ‘Roxanne’ was Alexander the Great’s wife and Cyrano De Bergerac’s girlfriend. It has an emotive quality about it.

Sting on the inspiration behind “Roxanne”, 1981.

In the intro to “Roxanne” there is a distinct vocal overdub of laughter that seems to introduce the seedy feel of the song. This laughter was due to Sting accidentally sitting down on the piano while the mic was live. They liked the spontaneous catch so much that they decided to include it in the song, and it became part of an iconic intro.

As I mentioned, the song was not a hit upon its initial release, and thus the band devised a silly PR stunt in which they started a rumor that the song was banned by the BBC due to its subject matter. This is a myth that still circulates to this day, although it has been confirmed to have been started by the band themselves.

“Roxanne” Lyrics Meaning

The lyrics to “Roxanne” are simple, yet evocative, and tell the story of a man with a deep affection for a prostitute. He sings of wanting to get her off the streets, to stop selling her body, and to be with him instead.

In doing this, he also uses imagery that is commonly associated with the lifestyle of prostitution, especially the notable “red light” that is repeated throughout.

Let’s take a closer look at Sting’s lyrics, starting with the first verse:

You don’t have to put on the red light
Those days are over
You don’t have to sell your body to the night
You don’t have to wear that dress tonight
Walk the streets for money
You don’t care if it’s wrong or if it’s right

First verse to “Roxanne” by The Police.

The “red light” is commonly used in areas of city where brothels can be found, as a sign that a working woman is available. The sex workers also go out walking the streets to find clients, and most of the time when they do this they would be wearing a dress.

Sting also mentions that she’s doing it for money, and that she doesn’t care about the moral implications of it because she needs the money. This implies that he would happily take care of her financial needs.

The pre-chorus reiterates that she doesn’t need to work the streets anymore:

You don’t have to put on the red light
You don’t have to put on the red light

Pre-chorus to “Roxanne” by The Police.

However, the chorus then flips things around, as Sting repeatedly sings that she should put that red light on:

(Roxanne) Put on the red light
(Roxanne) Put on the red light
(Roxanne) Put on the red light
(Roxanne) Put on the red light
(Roxanne) Put on the red light, oh

Chorus to “Roxanne” by The Police.

It’s easy to read between the lines here, as the most likely way that Sting would have become associated with this woman enough to fall in love with her is by partaking in her services. So, since they are not yet in a relationship, Sting wants to see that light so he has a chance to see his love interest again.

The second and final verse provides more clarity here:

I loved you since I knew you
I wouldn’t talk down to ya
I have to tell you just how I feel
I won’t share you with another boy
I know my mind is made up
So put away your makeup
Told you once
I won’t tell you again
It’s a bad way

Second verse to “Roxanne” by The Police.

In this verse, Sting expresses his feelings for this woman, and declares that he doesn’t want to share her with anybody else. He wants her to get off the streets and be with him instead, as he doesn’t believe in the lifestyle and wants better for her.

Whether or not he was successful, we will never know, as the song ends with more of the “red light” repetition, suggesting that the relationship at least continues in its current form ad infinitum.

Watch the video for “Roxanne” by the Police below.

Puff Daddy Version

In 1997, the Police collaborated with rapper Puff Daddy to release a remixed version of the song that includes some verses from the rapper, while the chorus to the original song is used as the hook. This makes for a fun take on the song that probably seemed modern at the time, but from our viewpoint in 2023 speaks more to the golden age of hip-hop than the music scene today.

“Roxanne” Covers

“Roxanne” has also been covered by several artists, many of whom put unique and interesting twists on the song, or simply did an excellent job (ahem, Juliet Simms). See a few of them below, and let us know any that we missed in the comments!

Michael Franti & Spearhead – “Roxanne” (1997)

George Michael – “Roxanne” (1999)

Fall Out Boy – “Roxanne” (2005)

Juliet Simms – “Roxanne” (2012)

AnnenMayKenterit & Milky Chance – “Roxanne” (2015)

Royal Blood – “Roxanne” (2015)