People See Big Things
You can understand people getting the wrong idea here, particularly because of the two big lyrics, "One of 16 vestal virgins," and "as the miller told his tale." It also doesn't hurt that the song is influenced by Bach's music. It just sounds like it should be important. And because it sounds important, people go looking for meaning, like this anonymous, arrogant twit who insists (wrongly) that the song is about a cocaine overdose. But most people, myself included, typically think the song references The Canterbury Tales because "The Miller's Tale" is the most famous part of that work. Bach, Chaucer, and a reference to Roman religion (vestal virgins) sure sound like heavy shit.
Georgios Kollidas/iStock/Getty Images
But the Song Is About So Much Less
Well, let's just go right to the lyricist, Keith Reid, who claims he was just trying to create a simple girl-leaves-boy story.:
"I had the phrase 'a whiter shade of pale,' that was the start, and I knew it was a song. It's like a jigsaw where you've got one piece, then you make up all the others to fit in. I was trying to conjure a mood as much as tell a straightforward, girl-leaves-boy story. With the ceiling flying away and room humming harder, I wanted to paint an image of a scene. I wasn't trying to be mysterious with those images, I wasn't trying to be evocative."
Oh, but what about the Canterbury Tales reference? Reid has said, "I'd never read The Miller's Tale in my life. Maybe that's something that I knew subconsciously, but it certainly wasn't a conscious idea for me to quote from Chaucer, no way." And lastly, while Romans did believe in the virgins of Vesta, the legend goes that there were six of them, not 16, so y'know, sometimes words are just fun! You don't get lit credit for almost referencing things of significance. If you did, songs about Shakespeare's Henry the 69th would be super heavy.