Everyone likes a good story – they make things relatable and affirm to us that we’re all human, going through the same stuff. Most songs tell stories. Unfortunately, not many people take the time to learn about the songs they listen to, sing along with or dedicate to each other.
My theory about this is that in general, people only know the words to the chorus of a song. You simply have to look around at everyone at a live concert to see that this is true. A song’s chorus results in the sound inside the venue increasing by a few decibels, whereas verses give everyone a chance to slowly sip on their drinks and check their phone.
Beware the consequences
Not knowing what a song is about can lead to some cringe-worthy consequences. These can be both personal, such as playing U2’s “One” at your wedding (the song is actually a bitter conversation between two people no longer in love) or on a grander scale, like the time Ronald Reagan used Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” in his reelection campaign (a song which, as described on Wikipedia, “sounds like a flag-waving anthem but is actually a wry and somewhat caustic commentary on the hypocrisy of patriotism”).
“Oops” on both accounts
A quick Google search clarifies a lot
Knowing what someone is singing about not only avoids potentially awkward situations but also adds a level of depth and understanding that makes the piece of music so much more meaningful. It connects you with the experience of the composer and gives you some insight into their views and things that they have been through. In some cases, they provide snapshots of random world events..
When I started thinking of which examples to include with this post, I struggled to narrow them down – there are just so many good songs with amazing backstories. In the interest of brevity, here are three which blew my mind.
Ernest Hemingway once famously said that going bankrupt happened “slowly, and then all of a sudden”. This pretty much how the Beatles broke up. The tension within the band during the recording of the White Album in 1968 was preceded by 2 years of not playing together, each of the 4 members pursuing solo projects and, of course, Yoko Ono.
“Let it be” reportedly came to Paul McCarthy during a dream during this traumatic time in the bands’ history. In his dream, he was visited by his mother, Mary, who told him that “it’ll all be alright, just let it be”.
Sometimes a song can be so catchy. You can sing along at the top of your lungs without giving much thought for the lyrics you’re belting out. You sing it because you just “hate Mondays”.
At the beginning of 1979, 16-year old Brenda Spencer from California opened fire on the school across the road from her house, killing two adults and wounding 8 children and a policeman. In the ensuing aftermath, when a journalist had asked her to “tell me why”, she had done it, she simply replied “I don’t like Mondays. This livens up the day”.
Bob Geldoff (the song’s composer) recalled in an interview how he read the news along with Brenda Spencer’s statement as it came out of a telex machine at the radio station he was working at at the time.
While still an amazing song, I’d imagine that not many of us hate Mondays this much.
Before I get hate mail, I’m fully aware that this piece is not a song with lyrics, but this piano composition has an amazing backstory nonetheless.
Russian composer Mussorgsky was friends with an architect-come-artist by the name of Viktor Hartman who died unexpectedly. To commemorate the artist, some of his artworks were displayed at an exhibition. The piece composed by Mussorgsky contains musical descriptions of 10 of Hartman’s paintings including those with titles such as “Gnomes”, “The Castle” and “Baba Yaga (the hut on chicken’s legs)”. Each musical sketch is linked with a recognisable melody which represents the composer strolling between the pictures.
Knowing which painting you’re listening to helps you visualise the music, so keep the CD booklet or a list nearby to enhance the experience of this piece. If you’re not a classical music aficionado, I highly recommend this piece as an introduction to the genre.
The lesson here is: Be careful which songs you sing along to with unbridled enthusiasm. and beware dedicating a song to the love of your life without checking what it’s about first.
And on that note (see what I did there), until next week, Happy Listening.