I am listening to a song by Joanna Wang: "Wild World"


It is originally by Cat Stevens, and some lyrics are near the end of this question. I wonder what the following phrase means:

It is hard to get by just upon a smile

Does it mean it is difficult to survive in this world just because she shows a nice smile? (or that she can get by using a smile, but probably only because there are many guys who will cater to her smile and use her, and dump her when they get tired of her, so she can't survive that way?) What does the phrase mean?

Now that I've lost everything to you
You say you wanna start something new
And it's breakin' my heart you're leavin'
Baby, I'm grievin'
But if you wanna leave, take good care
I hope you have a lot of nice things to wear
But then a lot of nice things turn bad out there

Oh, baby, baby, it's a wild world
It's hard to get by just upon a smile
Oh, baby, baby, it's a wild world
I'll always remember you like a child, girl

You know I've seen a lot of what the world can do
And it's breakin' my heart in two
Because I never wanna see you a sad girl
Don't be a bad girl
But if you wanna leave, take good care
I hope you make a lot of nice friends out there
But just remember there's a lot of bad and beware

A side note is that this song was written in 1971... I listened to it for probably two hundred times over the years, but never knew or was aware what the lyrics meant, probably because I am not a native speaker of English. I told my mom several years ago that more and more I found the world to be a jungle and full of just animals -- tigers, lions, wolves, all waiting to eat the sheeps, deer, and rabbits, but my mom refuted right away "how can it be? human has civilization. it cannot be a jungle." But I found it surprising that back in 1971, the songs already said what it was "It is a wild world... I have seen a lot what the world can do... I hope you make a lot of nice friends out there. But just remember there's a lot of bad and beware."

  • 2
    It means you can’t get through life just by smiling. Anything beyond that is a matter of literary interpretation rather than linguistic analysis and as such is probably not a suitable question for EL&U. Nov 26, 2011 at 9:45
  • You may find useful the interpretations of Wild World at the Songfacts website. Here is the entry: songfacts.com/detail.php?id=291
    – sarah
    Nov 26, 2011 at 17:16
  • Read The Death of a Salesman.
    – Hot Licks
    Apr 30, 2015 at 22:34

4 Answers 4


In the context of the lyrics I interpret it as meaning that she shouldn't be too naive and think that just being nice (smiling to people) will mean people won't try and use her. She has to be aware that other people are not always good and should look after herself because "there's a lot of bad" out there.

Of course song lyrics can often be interpreted in different ways so other people may disagree with me on this.

  • That's exactly what this line means. It presumably is a song from a parent to his/her daughter. Kids are usually fairly naive when they step into the society for the first time. This whole song is essentially there to give them a heads-up. Nov 28, 2011 at 3:52

I pretty much agree with what the above answer says. I have always pictured this "girl" as being young and naive and she probably has lived most of her young life within her family and her school, and possibly she's been with the singer. In all those contexts, she may have been able to get what she wanted by her engaging smile— he implies perhaps she has used it as a sort of manipulation. Getting someone else to do her work for her, perhaps, or give her something, share their food or bum a cigarette, maybe. But her basic needs had always been provided for by her family, and maybe by the singer, after that. Now she is going off to live on her own, and he is warning her that it's not like it is within her family or in a protected relationship. She is going to have to have a job, pay her bills, cook her food etc, plus she may run into people who may want to exploit her, as the above answer suggests, and her smile won't help her at all. I just read that I should back up my answer with references, personal experiences. This song came out when I turned 30, and I heard it throughout those years, as I was having my second and third child, then got divorced, and worked in a variety of jobs. I had a sheltered childhood and found out a lot about the world as an adult. The worst thing was having a child who got addicted to drugs and committed suicide. For her, the world was wild after she left the protection of her marriage, and gave in to her addiction to alcohol, drugs, relationships and spending money. The money had always been there. Now it was not, plus the economy went belly up, and she lost her job, Thanks, Mr. Bush, and she died severely in debt.

Just read another comment that said this is a parent warning a child. No, I think not, there's too much in in it that implies a sexual relationship. "I'll always think of you as a child." That's not a parent saying that. And "Baby, baby..." parents don't call their grown-up kids "Baby."


It means you have to be more than a pretty face to survive, people will take advantage, people will use you and there's alot of bad out there. He tells her he's sad she's leaving, but hopes she's got alot of nice things to wear because he knows she's going to use her looks to get by... then he says he hopes she makes lots of nice friends but always with a warning, there's alot of bad out there. Its a wild world. He loves her but she's leaving so he can't protect her.


Cat wrote the song about his breakup with ex Patti D’Arbanville. She was a model “getting by on her smile” and also part of Andy Warhols factory scene, which was a very wild group. Cat also wrote the Lady D'Arbanville song about her.

  • so that means... making a living and having friends and dealing with the world "by her look (and a smile)" ? Feb 11, 2023 at 19:18
  • interesting, I just later on know a girl, who would fit this "getting by on her smile", but then she'd mooch and ghost (a guy), and mooch and ghost again and again. So it may not be she has to worry about the bad guys out there. It is more like the guys have to worry about being mooched by her and getting ghosted. But frankly, I really wonder what karma or results she will get by repeating this mooch and ghost behavior Feb 11, 2023 at 19:23

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