Songwriter U: Use of the First-Person

Since a song is such a short form, songwriters forever face the challenge of transmitting a lot of information in a very short duration of time. The use of voice — telling the song by first person, using “I,” second person (“you”) or third person (he, she) — is on of many meaningful songwriting tools you can use that will impact the song in a big way, and one directly connected to the use of voice. 

Because each use of voice changes the entire tone, and direction of the song. The use of specific voice has a big impact on the kind of song you are writing. Each is quite distinct for the others, and creates a specific kind of song. 

Third-person songs build their narrative on the use of a character outside of the narrator, a ‘he,’ ‘she’ or character name, such as McCartney’s “Eleanor Rigby.” To do this, write a song about someone else, it creates a story song which is not ostensibly about the songwriter who is telling it. It is about a character outside of the songwriter, and is aligned with old traditions of narrative story songs, which portray characters. 

Second-person songs are coming directly from the songwriter, but directed outwards, towards someone addressed, as ‘you.’ There are many examples of this, such as Carole King’s “You’ve Got A Friend.” Which begins with the lines, “When you’re down and troubled, and you need a helping hand.” Which uses the second-person in a loving way, which is how it is used often in songs. 

Paul Simon’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” also uses the 2nd person in this way, offering comfort, starting with “When you’re weary, feeling small, when tears are in your eyes…” 

Both of those are uses of second-person in which love and kindness is offered. But it can also be used in the opposite way, to condemn or castigate someone directly in song, as in Dylan’s “Positively 4th Street,” which starts in by raging in the second-person, creating a very real dynamic. “You’ve got a lot of nerve to say you are my friend.”  

Another famous use of the second-person not to praise but put down someone is Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain,” with its famously ironic lyric, “You’re so vain, you probably think this song is about you.”

The use of first-person is distinct from these and offers many options. Most fundamentally, first-person can be used to deliver a straight-ahead song about the songwriter. McCartney’s “Let It Be” does this from its opening line: “When I find myself in times of trouble …”

But first-person can also be used as shorthand to convey much information in few words not only by what is spoken, but by what is not.

In “Norwegian Wood,” Lennon slyly uses first-person to suggest what is happening both through the character’s attitude, and what is left unsaid:  It starts with: “I once had a girl or should I say, she once had me.” In that one line is both attitude and action. The common conceit of a romantic love-song is punctured immediately with use of this language for love, “I once had a girl” which is then qualified with, “… or should I say, she once had me.”

It signals to the listener that this narrator is essentially indirect, both commenting on the action and describing it. It relies on the common human dynamic we all share of knowing someone is not being direct, and, rather than tell the truth, is coloring it. This shifts the meaning of every line from its literal meaning to a coded one, in which words mask actuality. When John concludes, “So I lit a fire, isn’t it good Norwegian Wood,” we are unsure if that is an admission that he lit the whole place on fire. That unanswered question instills a mystery which is more compelling than a plain statement of fact.

Lennon even brought the first-person song to a new place, one frequented often in hip-hop, in which the narrator writes a song about himself, even using real names. “The Ballad of John & Yoko” relates the real-life story of Lennon and his wife.

Lennon did this repeatedly through his career, writing intimately harrowing songs such as “Mother” and “God” which are about aspects of his own life, his own loss of his mother, and his own transference of faith from God to himself.

Similarly, “4:44” by Jay-Z, is a first-person account about the actual songwriter and his wife.

But it is the inverse use of first-person that has influenced so much modern songwriting. Use of a first-person “untrustworthy narrator” is a remarkably potent way of projecting a narrative using attitude and unspoken implications.

Randy Newman is the king of this style. His “Sail Away,” for example, is told in first-person by a slave-trader convincing potential slaves to come to America. Set to a beautiful, alluring melody which accentuates its air of attempted seduction, it’s a song of overtly false promises: “In America every man is free/ To take care of his home and a family.”

That is, of course, an outright lie. Freedom is a false promise. Yet the narrator’s unapologetic plea, set to heroic, beautiful music, makes the underlying actuality even more egregious, all of which is accomplished with few words.

Many others have used this method, such as Bruce Springsteen with “Born In The USA,” in which the anthemic conceit of the chorus is inverted to be a condemnation, rather than a celebration, of America (as Reagan wrongly assumed).

Sia’s “Chandelier” also subverts the anthemic party vibe of the chorus to reveal a darker truth, that this is an escape more than a celebration. “I’m a mess,” she allows, “… here comes the shame.”

“Pumped Up Kicks” by Foster The People plays with this dynamic, projecting a celebratory vibe musically and lyrically that inverts the message into a  lethal implied threat: “You’d better run … faster than my bullet.”

Similarly, Mark Knopfler’s narrator in “Money for Nothing” uses first-person to project American envy and inverted values in the character of a delivery-man bemoaning the unfairness inherent to fame-obsessed America.

In all of these songs and countless other examples, songwriters play with the effect of first-person to create a multi-dimensional song. In many ways, such an approach is closer to the reality of human interaction than more conventional lyrical methods, in which all meaning is on the surface. In real life, we forever temper that which people say to us with our understanding of their attitude and perspective. Utilizing that dynamic in songs creates songs as unique, mysterious, and timelessly compelling as human experience itself.  

Foster The People, “Pumped-Up Kicks

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