Meaning of “Radioactive” by Imagine Dragons
Though the entire Imagine Dragons crew along with several others is credited with writing this track, lead singer Dan Reynolds states that “Radioactive” is based on his own personal issues with depression. However, the song culminates in a feeling of joy and optimism, with the singer overcoming his mental afflictions and being gifted with a new, more-positive outlook on life.
The singer explains that he is currently in an environment filled with dangerous elements, more specifically of the artificial, “chemical” variety. He also paints a picture of doom and desolation, one in which even waking up is unpleasant, and the air he breaths is poisonous.
The refrain is a bit more challenging to interpret. Here, Reynolds does mention “the apocalypse” which is why, in addition to the song’s title and terminology used throughout, many people have associated Radioactive with “a post-apocalyptic world”. However, in the other a number of lines, he mentions “shaping up” and “prison bus”. Within the context of popular American society, this could have been an allusion to physically working out, as in weightlifting, with prison being known as one of the most-effective environment to successfully engage in this recreational activity. In other words, the writers (specifically Reynolds) may have been implicating that he was going to use “shaping up” as a means to help fight his depression, which was likely partially caused by a physical disease he effectively battled through working out.
Others have suggested that the “prison bus” is referring to real-life incarceration and that “Radioactive” is about being released from such and discovering how much the world has changed. And given the past history of some members of Imagine Dragons this theory is plausible. However, according to Reynolds himself this is not what the song is about.
Ultimately within the official context of the track, the “shaping up” the singer is referring to is more of a mental than physical occurrence. And the “prison bus” likely refers to him feeling held captive by his depression.
Again, the singer uses jargon that is commonly associated with a dismal, futuristic world, such as “new age”. However, based on Reynolds’ own interpretation of this track, it’s clear that here he is referring to actually overcoming the anxiety he expressed in the first verse.
In the main chorus, the singer boldly exclaims he’s “radioactive”. But what does he mean by this? He is basically telling the world that he has become so empowered that his exuberance is noticeably overflowing. At this point of the track, it becomes obvious that the writers used terminology often associated with nuclear war (“the apocalypse”) as substitutes for mental and emotional states.
Here the singer refers to a “revolution(ary)” approach he is taking toward life. Even though the imagery utilizes paints the picture of an actual, military-based upheaval, we already know that the revolution he is actually referring to is a 360-degree alteration in his disposition.
The bridge is the first time optimism is outrightly stated as the lyricist exclaims “the sun hasn’t died”. This is basically a continuation of the sentiment expressed in the chorus (with its second utterance directly preceding the bridge) even though in the chorus it is more deeply-veiled. The singer also exclaims that this feeling is emanating from “deep in my bones, straight from inside”. This would imply that this newfound feeling of joy he is experiencing is sourced from something happening internally; not as a result of dealing directly with anything on the outside.
Dan Reynolds on “Radioactive”
Speaking with MTV, Reynolds gave a brief explanation regarding what the song “Radioactive” means to him. According to him, in addition to having a “personal story behind it”, the song is about experiencing “an awakening” in life.
In another interview Reynolds had with Rolling Stone magazine, he was more specific with the personal story. According to him, the song deals with his battles with “anxiety and depression”. He added that the song was also about “becoming self-empowered”. Here are the exact words Reynolds said to Rolling Stone: