Wait? Who‘s talking? by Songwriting Tips & Tricks • A podcast on Anchor
Hey and welcome again to another episode of songwriting tips and tricks. My name is Kieper, and I am so glad to talk to you again this episode. I hope you enjoyed listening to the latest episodes, and one of my music colleagues gave me some feedback on the show so far. He says that he loves the titles I’m choosing for the episodes. I was so flattered, as it takes me so long to find a proper title and put some fun into it to make it more appealing. Thank you as well for some of the reviews on the platforms you’re listening to; this really keeps me going! If you know someone that is stuck with writing lyrics or is just starting, please feel free to share this podcast with them to support me with this program.
Anyway! In last weeks episode emergency songwriting, we were talking about the w-Questions and being on the phone with an emergency officer. But later, I realised that there is one crucial question missing in this emergency questions and it is the question for intention or motivation: why? Why is the protagonist doing this? Just food for thought. It is highly essential to tell the listener about the motivation of the situation that you are describing. I know, you would not say to an officer about the motivation on the phone. Still, in a later interview with the policemen, you would definitely tell about your motivation or the motivation you expect to be at the core.
So much for last week, today we will be talking about perspective. And this could not be more important to your songwriting. The point is, how would you start if you would not know who is speaking, to whom and what the relation between these two is? And another point to perspective is the way you are telling the story. So two contrasts we are going to talk about later in the show.
But first, how do you write your songs usually? Well, I assume that most of us use a first-person perspective. You are the protagonist, perhaps, or at least you are part of the story and experience the situation. And to be honest with you, I do most of the time. Pop songs nowadays seem to always follow this rule. And maybe you have been wondering if there are any, what are the different ways to tell a story from different perspectives.
And this is a good question, what possibilities are there for us to tell a story.
Okay, so let’s strip this down to pieces and building up a picture in your mind. So there are several ways to tell a situation.
So besides the direct address, which is you talking to someone in a story, there are various other ways to tell a story, which you might not know immediately but use in your everyday life.
A good example is You and I by One Direction or Bad Guy by Billie Eilish. To prevent any copyright infringements, I will not provide you with any sound as a reference. However, I will put links to the songs in the description of this, and you can listen to them later.
You and I
We don’t wanna be like them
We can make it ‘till the end
Nothing can come between
You and I
Not even the Gods above
Can separate the two of us
No, nothing can come between
You and I
So you’re a tough guy
Like it really rough guy
Just can’t get enough guy
Chest always so puffed guy
I’m that bad type
Make your mama sad type
Make your girlfriend mad tight
Might seduce your dad type
I’m the bad guy
First and most often used, the first-person perspective. You are telling a story through your eyes, it is like in a game with a first-person view, but you are telling your mate on the phone what you are doing at the moment. But despite it is quite relatable and can get to a core quickly, the problem is the restriction in outlook and eyesight. This could also be an opportunity because you can go into much more detail about small things. But if you are stuck in this type of narration, then you should at least try any of the following examples to shift your mind.
A perfect representative for this type would be yesterday by the Beatles, where the Chorus settles this kind of narrative.
Why she had to go
I don’t know, she wouldn’t say
I said something wrong
Now I long for yesterday
So next, another type would be second-person narration. And how could you think about this? Well, you could be talking to someone. However, this time the narrator doesn’t have to be an active part in the story. Writing a song in second-person is quite hard really, just like writing a book in second-person would be. And really it is hard to explain to you with words what this type really means. You, as a narrator, are talking either to the protagonist or the audience about a third person mostly.
An excellent example of this complex narration is Suzanne by Leonard Cohen. It might not be your type of music, but it gives a unique description of how this works.
Suzanne takes you down to her place near the river
You can hear the boats go by
You can spend the night beside her
And you know that she’s half crazy
But that’s why you want to be there
And she feeds you tea and oranges
That come all the way from China
And just when you mean to tell her
That you have no love to give her
Then she gets you on her wavelength
And she lets the river answer
That you’ve always been her lover
So moving on, next would be the third person narrative. And you might be familiar with this type of narration, as it is just like novels tell stories most of the time. The narrator usually is not a part of the story. However, you can get creative and break with this tradition. You can also use this in the previous type and be talking about someone else if you like. So anyway. The narrator mostly has a birds-eye perspective and knows about all the feelings and thoughts in the protagonists’ minds. So it is vital to shed light on these different views and perhaps show discrepancies in the expectations of the acting parties. However, there is also the option to have the narrator only know about one persons thoughts and feelings. We differentiate between a limited and omniscient, all-knowing narrator. This narration type is quite limitless, just pick a random book from your shelf and open it. Et voila, chances are high; there is a third-person narrative. You can tell whole libraries in this kind of narration. So just try this out for some time, perhaps when you have writer’s block. It broadens your horizon to tell things differently.
Without giving songs for both omniscient and limited 3rd person narration, a good example would be The Hurricane by Bob Dylan.
Pistol shots ring out in the barroom night
Enter Patty Valentine from the upper hall
She sees the bartender in a pool of blood
Cries out, “My God, they killed them all!”
Here comes the story of the Hurricane
The man the authorities came to blame
For something that he never done
Put in a prison cell, but one time he could-a been
The champion of the world
And now we are shifting towards plural narrative, yes you are right. We are just using all the forms of grammar there are. So the next type would be the first person plural. And how would we do so? Well, we simply include any other protagonist into our narration and tell a combined story. We either have us tell the whole story from our collective perspective, or we can use it in a duet perhaps. So quite straight-forward, is it not? So pragmatically speaking this is quite an engaging kind of narration, as we include the listener. It combines first and second person narration and provides us with a combined narrative that could shift into their own perceptions every now and then to add individual voices to the speech.
But the thing is, this is not a real narrative type. Why is that? Well, because it is just a kind of direct address, isn’t it? For some time in the song, we act as an item, as one group. However, then again, we are just two individuals that have their own thoughts and feelings, right? It is hard for a listener to relate to a group of people, as we are not omniscient. But there are just some exceptions to this rule, and I would argue that there is such a thing as the first-person plural narrative in songs.
Because the best example for this is We are the world by the U.S.A for Africa. A music project of singers that consisted of Micheal Jackson, Bob Dylan, Tina Turner, Stevie Wonder and so many more great artist. The song is quite unique in its narration, and I would count it as a first-person plural narrative. Give it a good listen and let me know what you think about it.
We are the world, we are the children
We are the ones who make a brighter day
So let’s start giving
There’s a choice we’re making
We’re saving our own lives
It’s true we’ll make a better day
Just you and me
So next up, the second person plural narrative, in English this means the you pronoun. So this type is highly provocative and argumentative if it is rightly put, I think. You can talk about a group of people that you don’t like perhaps, or talk about problems they are causing possibly. The thing is that these people have no chance to answer you right away in this song. Or you simply won’t let them. Perhaps you do, it is your choice. However, you could also be talking to your parents, and they reply in your story. There are seemingly endless ways to combine the types.
So finding a song that is written in this form was quite hard for me and actually never came to a conclusion. So I thought about this for a minute and understood that you can not really write from their perspective, but as I said before, write about them. So I would instead call this the plural direct address. The best example I could find for this is Masters of war by Bob Dylan again.
Come, you masters of war
You that build the big guns
You that build the death planes
You that build all the bombs
You that hide behind walls
You that hide behind desks
I just want you to know
I can see through your masks
So lastly, there is the third person plural address. And it works just the way as you would expect it. With one difference to the previous type. You are talking about a group that you are not addressing directly. So you are just giving a description, generalising individual voices to one collective that is telling or doing something. In this case, your protagonist becomes a victim the passive. If they do something to him or her, then he has no control. So you can play with this vulnerability and try using this type to let a collective voice judge his actions. I can already see a dystopian world being told in a song.
The best example in contemporary music would be Ridin’ by Chamillionaire. Which I think most of nowadays kids know mainly through YouTube Fail video clips. You better have a listen to it as it contains explicit content I do not want to speak out on this program.
So, I guess the time’s up already, and we are going to talk about this topic again in another episode of this podcast. But let me conclude this enumeration of narration types. While the first three singular types are rather stable and standard and are what you are probably going to use most of the times, the latter three are somewhat unstable and can slip back into singular easily or even consist of a certain degree of individuality and the singular. So some might only be possible in connection to a singular narration type. And it really is a complex and scientific topic. Maybe you don’t need a PhD to know everything about narration and grammar, but it is no harm to know a bit about grammar and storytelling.
If you like the podcast and have some feedback, feel free to rate, comment or share this podcast to help me go on with the show and please let me know what you think about narrating your songs and what your experience is so far. If you want to further support me, go ahead to my Patreon page in the description and support the podcast for exclusive access to Patreon only episodes and in-depth analysis of songs and lyrics.
Thank you again for joining me today, and I hope you keep on writing brilliant songs