The Hidden Meaning Of The Eagles' Hotel California

You can check out any time you like / But you can never leave

"Hotel California" by the Eagles has inspired more than its fair share of theories and discussion since its release in 1976. Its lyrically vivid descriptions of pink champagne, shimmering lights, dark desert highways, and voices in the night conjure images of a journey that is superficially glamorous, but hides something lurking and insidious. The dreamy, acoustic opening segues into a sliding, dark bass that invites the listener to dream of contrasting worlds: what is seen, and what is real. As the song progresses, and the singer encounters stranger characters and situations, the song's sense of entrapment grows and grows.

"Hotel California" won 1977's Grammy for Record of the Year. As described in Song Facts, it was written based on a series of chord progressions that guitarist Don Felder wrote on the beach. The "full sensory experience" of song description, as Felder said, is intentional, as is the choice to have the song take place in California: a place nearly mythologized for its idyllic beauty and cabal of Hollywood celebrity. The initial success and enduring appeal of "Hotel California" illustrate exactly how it captures the imagination, especially for a song that defies commercial viability by being over 6 minutes long with a 1-minute opening, and a 2-minute, air guitar-inducing final solo.

The ingredients that inspired the classic

The "warm smell of colitas" line has led many to think the song is about drug-addiction; the "beast" killed with "steely knives" would be the addiction itself. Others think it's about mental health, where the hotel plays the role of a sanatorium. The truth, though, is even deeper than that, far beyond any literal interpretation about staying at a hotel off the highway.

At the time the Eagles released "Hotel California," as they stated in an interview with Rolling Stone, the band was getting an "extensive education in life, in love, in business." Since 1975's One of These Nights, with 3 top-10 singles, they had become overnight stars and thrust under the microscope of public scrutiny. The success of that album meant that pressure was high for their follow-up, and the band was quickly shedding its innocence as it learned about the imprisoning effects of fame. At the time they still romanticized California, and Beverly Hills in particular.

The dark underbelly of the American dream

In fact, in the 2013 documentary History of the Eagles, singer Don Henley said, "It's a song about a journey from innocence to experience." Earlier than that, during a 2007 interview with 60 Minutes, he stated, in a very direct way, that the song was about "the dark underbelly of the American Dream, and about excess in America which was something we knew about." As the band was coming into its own during the mid-70's, there was also tension and drama within the group, as members vied for credits on songs and generally wrestled with internal power struggles. In short, the Eagles were placed face-to-face with the artist's eternal struggle of balancing commercial versus artistic concerns.

In the end, all of these ingredients came together, lightning-in-a-bottle-style, to form the twangy, reggae-like cocktail of "Hotel California." The song's longstanding success, and lasting impression in memory, can serve as a warning sign for what other up-and-coming artists doubtlessly know, but can preview in rich, allegorical form through the song's story.