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Meaning Behind “Iris” By The Goo Goo Dolls

The Goo Goo Dolls released their hit track Iris in 1998. The song, composed for the film soundtrack of City Of Angels, was also later included on their album Dizzy Up The Girl. It was primarily responsible for the success of the band. But what is it about and where did the title come from? 

The Background

The Goo Goo Dolls formed in 1985 but struggled to find success for nearly a decade. It wasn’t until the release of the 1995 hit Name that they became widely known.

Despite the success, frontman John Rzeznik found himself struggling in the aftermath of the hit. He couldn’t help but feel as though their success was nothing but a coincidence, especially since none of their previous five albums had made an impression on the music industry. 

On top of this, he was also enduring turmoil in his personal life. In 1997, his marriage fell apart, he was in love with another woman, and he moved away from his hometown to stay in a hotel. It felt as though his entire life was in flux, both professionally and personally. 

In the chaos of this time, the Goo Goo Dolls were offered the chance to compose a track for the upcoming film City Of Angels. Rzeznik was struggling with severe writer’s block and even considered whether he should quit the band altogether. He agreed to try to write a song because he had heard that other major artists like Peter Gabriel and U2 were set to be involved. 

City Of Angels

After being offered the chance to write a song, Rzeznik was invited to an early screening of the film. He returned to his hotel and wrote Iris in a short time—a huge accomplishment for the frontman, who found composing tracks to be a major challenge. With Iris, however, he said it felt as though the song simply fell into place without effort. 

He was strongly inspired by the premise of the movie, which follows an angel who falls in love with a human and chooses to leave heaven to enjoy life with her. It asks the question: how do we define paradise, if not being with those we love?

He was deeply impressed by the film, particularly Nicolas Cage’s character. He found it inspiring that a character would be willing to give up immortality to feel deep human emotions and stay with the person that they love. Iris is, very simply, a song about the sacrifice and love portrayed in the movie. 

“This guy is completely willing to give up his own immortality, just to be able to feel something very human,” Rzeznik later said. “And I think, ‘Wow! What an amazing thing it must be like to love someone so much that you give up everything to be with them.’ That’s a pretty heavy thought.”

The track’s unique instrumentalization came from a simpler source. As he experimented with the melody, his guitar had two broken strings. He chose to adjust the winding of the guitar to make up for it, resulting in the unique sound that would make Iris a hit. 

Who Is Iris?

With the music composed, Rzeznik was looking for a title. He happened to see an article in the newspaper about country singer Iris DeMent, who was playing in town. He felt that the name suited the feeling of the song and chose it for that reason. However, the word Iris does not appear in the lyrics

DeMent is an accomplished musician in her own right, but beyond the title, the track has nothing to do with her. She has never publicly commented on the use of her name by the Goo Goo Dolls. 

Release And Performance

Goo Goo Dolls – Iris [Official Music Video] [4K Remaster]

Iris became the second of a number of hits from the City Of Angels soundtrack upon release. Alanis Morissette’s Uninvited became the first, with Sarah McLachlan’s Angel following after Iris.

This track debuted at number 66 on the US Billboard Hot 100 Airplay chart. It stayed at number one on the Hot 100 Airplay for a whopping 18 weeks, setting a record at the time. The song wasn’t allowed to chart on the Billboard Hot 100 because the band never released a commercial single. 

Because the Billboard Hot 100 chart required a track to be sold as a single for eligibility, it didn’t matter that Iris was dominating the airwaves. Billboard eliminated this requirement soon after the song’s release, finally allowing it to chart. Most critics believe that it would have reached number one had it been eligible since its debut. 

The track’s airplay had just peaked at the end of 1998 when the rules changed to allow airplay-only songs to chart. Iris debuted and peaked at number nine, remaining on the chart for 14 weeks. It peaked at number eight on the Mainstream Rock Tracks chart and was the band’s second number one on the Modern Rock Tracks chart—after 1995’s Name

Iris was instrumental in popularizing the Goo Goo Dolls. It remains the band’s signature song to this day and is a staple of their live shows. It reached number one in Canada, Italy, and Australia, and placed in the Top 10 in the UK and the US. Most stunning of all was its 17-week stint at number one on the Billboard Adult Top 40 chart, a record at the time. 

The Goo Goo Dolls rereleased Iris on their 1998 album Dizzy Up The Girl. They also performed the song live at Madison Square Garden on October 20, 2001. This was part of a concert to help New York City raise money for the victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. 

Reception And Legacy

Iris is usually known as the Goo Goo Dolls’ most significant song on multiple levels. Not only was it a major success on the charts, but it also received widespread critical acclaim. The track received nominations for Record of the Year and Pop Performance by a Duo or Group at the 41st Grammy Awards. It also gained Rzeznik a nomination for Song of the Year. 

The single version was certified 7x platinum by the RIAA in 2022 and was ranked 39th on Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Pop Songs. It also hit number one on Billboard’s Top 100 Pop Songs 1992-2012 in October of the latter year. It has gone on to become popular as a wedding track ever since Avril Lavigne used it for her first dance in 2006.

Cover Versions

Iris has been covered countless times by other artists in all genres. Notably, it returned to the UK Singles Chart at number three in 2011 after it was performed live on The X Factor. In 2013, a cover by Britain’s Got Talent contestant Robbie Kennedy popularized the track once again, sending it to the top of the charts in the UK, Italy, Australia, and Canada. 

During the 2020 US presidential election, singer Phoebe Bridgers announced that she would cover the song if Joe Biden won the election. She released the cover as a duet with Maggie Rogers. Other notable cover versions have been performed by Ronan Keating and Leona Lewis. 

In many ways, Iris has had a more enduring legacy than the film for which it was written. Though not everyone has seen City Of Angels, almost everyone knows the track—and may not even know that it was first written for a movie. Interestingly, the same can be said for the movie’s other hits, McLachlan’s Angel and Morrisette’s Uninvited. But it was the Goo Goo Dolls’ contribution that spelled not just the success of the film, but the future of the band.

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