“Switchback” Is About Text Processing

If you were into PC gaming in the early 2000s, there’s a good chance you’ve seen at least one video of Counter Strike gameplay with this song as the soundtrack:

1

And if you were like me, you probably liked it.

Anyway, the true question is obviously not about the feasibility of long skirts in electronic rock music performances, but rather the inspiration behind the lyrics.
Before I start talking about the lyrics, I’d like to remind you that this song was originally released in 20042, which makes me feel oddly… old.
I will be using AZlyrics as a source because I obviously can’t be bothered to transcribe it myself, so there you go:

(Switch back)
(Switch back)
(Switch back)
(Switch back)

Right at the beginning, our fictitious protagonist (from here on out referred to in the singular they 3) is obviously in a deep state of regret, presumably about a recent life choice which they would prefer to reverse. Only four lines in, we also glimpse a slight preference for repitition. While we are not yet certain if this is going to be a recurring theme, we will keep this in mind in case it pops up again.

I’ve made a choice that I regret
Now, what I see is what I get

Ah, now we’re getting somewhere. Our previous suspicion about the protagonist’s desire to revert a previous choice is confirmed, and with the second line we can also infer the context of said choice. Apparently they are not happy about a current state in which they get what they see, quite possibly referring to WYSIWYG, the common approach to text processing found in popular text processing software4.
We can infer that the protagonist is not happy about this newfangled WYSIWYG paradigm and preferred his old way of processing text, which in this context might very well have been LaTeX – a text processing system widely used in Wikipedia articles about basic mathematic concepts to utterly confuse high school students who really could have used an explanation of matrix multiplication without first having to derive group theory from first principles.

(It’s too late to look back)
(I’ve got no way to switch back)
It’s too late to look back, ain’t
Okay, I got no way to (switch back)

(Switch back)
(Switch back)

Once again our protagonist mourns his inability to revert his decision, allowing us to make the assumption that his choice might have been made for him, presumably against his own desires. This could refer to a higher power of sorts, maybe their direct superior or their thesis supervisor expecting his submission in a specific format. Since we already established a high probability of this situation referring to the protagonist’s choice in text processing software, we can infer that their supervisor only accepts submissions in Micrsoft Word format, while the protagonist would have preferred writing their thesis in LaTeX so they can submit a properly formatted and portable PDF document.

Wait, how can it be too
Late? ‘Cause I don’t want to
Play with such a price to
Pay

The next paragraph gives us a little more information about the protagonist’s motivation regarding this unappreciated change. Apparently there is a significant financial component, adding up to his established personal preference. It seems highly likely the protagonist does not have the required financial means at their disposal to acquire a legitimate copy of the MS Office software package. This might also lead our protagonist to having to resort to piracy to acquire the software they need, which naturally leads to a downard spiral of criminal deeds to gruesome to even think about in this more light-hearted analysis.
Another interesting observation we can make in this paragraph is the choice of words regarding the interaction with WYSIWYG software, which the protagonist referes to as “playing” – a word we usually associate with games. It seems likely that the protagonist is consciously belittleing the concept of WYSIWYG, comparing it to a child’s plaything, while grown up and professional users of text processing obviously prefer the vastly superior LaTeX.

It’s too late to look back (too)
(Late to) Ain’t
Okay, I got no way to (switch back)

A painful picture that I can’t forget
Now, what I see is what I get

Now we get the first glimpse of the protagonist coming to terms with his new situation. They accept their fate, acknowledging their inability to change it and begrudgingly move on with their writing process, which they presumably procrastinated long enough by lamenting about text processing software choices and the ethics of open source software development versus the economical leviathan that is Microsoft Office.

(It’s too late to look back)
(I’ve got no way to switch back)
It’s too late to look back, ain’t
Okay, I got no way to (switch back)

(Switch back)
(Switch back)

Wait, how can it be too
Late? ‘Cause I don’t want to
Play with such a price to
Pay

Remember when we were wondering whether or not repitition would be a recurring theme? Well, it looks like we’re there. I wonder if this is a conscious choice of the author the let us in on the internal feeling of the protagonist, quite possibly foreshadowing a downward spiral of despair in the face of such tragedy in their life.

Chained to what I can’t
Reclaim, I’ll never be the
Same

(And there’s no)
(Way to)

While still in the process of repition, we now realize the protagonist is deeply affected by this circumstance forced upon them. “I’ll never be the same” clearly refers to the protagonists feeling of internal integrity, a quality they seem to feel is corroded by this unholy preference of prorietary software over the playground of idealistic freedom in the form of open source software.

After another round of repeated lines slowly gnawing at our sould, we are presented with this section:

(And everybody) And
Everybody foolin’ with their rick rack, and
It’s about time we put them on their back
Meaner and leaner, we take up the slack
Klayton and Celldweller with no way to switch back
Cuttin’ you up with razor blade
Chokin’ you on them words you say
Hittin’ you rip-rap on you made
And the Celldweller is unafraid

It appears our protagonist now has fully lost his sense of self, while also warming up to the idea of violence in the second half of the paragraph.
Interestingly we also learn the identity of the protagonist, which seems to be either Klayton or Celldweller. We are not sure which of those identities belongs to the protagonist, but it seems likely that the intense stress of the recent endeavors has led to our protagonist developing a case of dissociative identity disorder leading to the development of multiple identities inside the same physical body.
Another explanation would be that Celldweller is not actually an identity, but rather a title. It could quite literally refer to the protagonist as a cell dweller, a dweller of cells. The cell in this context is likely to consist of a presumed cage of proprietary software which the protagonist desires to escape, but is unable to.

The remainder of the lyrics consists only of repition of previously made statements, confirming our suspicions once and for all. It seems the protagonist has fallen victim to their mental degradation, leaving us with an empty feeling of uneasyness.
While there is nothing we can do to aid the protagonist, we could at least try to raise awareness for the cause of his untimely descent into madness and spread the word about the glory of open source text processing software.

Inspired by Judging by the Cover


  1. I couldn’t find an official upload, but Wikipedia links to this one so that’s good enough for you. [return]
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Switchback_(Celldweller_song) [return]
  3. If you think the singular they form is ‘wrong’, then I probably think you’re an asshole. See, we’re free to think whatever we like! [return]
  4. “Popular” here refers to a wide adoption rate, not necessarily implying people like it. [return]
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