This Song Is About You
In the final fading moments of "Wilshire," the centerpiece on his chart-topping album Call Me If You Get Lost, Tyler the Creator admits he's just broken one of his own rules. He's spent eight minutes peeling off the skin of a secret, sharing myriad details of an emotional affair with a friend's significant other. "Wilshire"'s narrative is digressive, dodgy, the backtracking confession of someone who feels innocent but can't help but share the evidence against himself. A spare jazz-fusion sound bed borrowing DJ Shadow's classic sample of Pekka Pohjola's "The Madness Subsides" — an echo of an echo, we've heard all this before — reinforces the song's depiction of someone digging his own memory hole. Tyler knows that he's alone in there, and that for that reason sharing these recollections is unfair, if not a crime.
Finally, he drops the cadence of rhyming just as the song's about to end. That incessant, unresolved keyboard line won't let up, but he's done telling this story. Now he's apologizing for it.
I'm mad private with this side of my life 'cause people are weirdos, and
I just try to keep anyone I care about in the shadows
Safe from the commentary and spotlight and thoughts
'Cause it's just a story for the people outside of it
Tyler then throws in the towel on his would-be lover:
But I guess you're just another chapter in a book.
As if to confirm Tyler's insistence that he is honorable, "Wilshire" never names the woman for whom he pines. Yet the song's identifying details mark a path that many Reddit threads have followed. She is exposed. And the listener never knows; is this narrator reliable? Trustworthy? Then there's that shocking last line, a dismissal that annihilates the interpersonal connection that motivated Tyler's discretion, making a person into a character, a thing.
With that final aside, Tyler captures the writer's predicament, whether their medium is hip-hop or an ostensibly fancier one, say, fiction published in The New Yorker. I thought about "Wilshire" while reading the latest onslaught of exchanges about the inexhaustibly controversial short story "Cat Person," by Kristen Roupenian, last week. An account of an exploitive encounter between a 20-year-old woman and a 34-year-old man, "Cat Person," raised a furor in 2017 for its highly naturalistic depiction of sexuality as a fatally messed-up power game. Roupenian's writing was so raw that readers struggled to believe the story wasn't simply ripped from her own life. Now a woman named Alexis Nowicki has come forward to say it wasn't Roupenian's life but her own — the author had, according to Nowicki, befriended a much older ex-boyfriend of hers and, upon learning of their affair, thoroughly explored her social media pages, and grafted Nowicki's specifics onto the story's bare bones to lend it authenticity. Nowicki felt violated — ironic, considering that "Cat Person" is a story about violation — and confronted Roupenian, who admitted her appropriations. But, the author argued, that's what fiction does. It violates by repurposing the real.
That's what much songwriting does, too. The "Cat Person" debate made me think about Tyler and other self-referential musicians making waves in 2021 not only because so many notable current songs tread this ethically shaky ground between self and other, true and imagined, but because that's what songwriters who perform their own work have been doing for at least a half-century. Much literary talk today focuses on "autofiction," which operates in what the writer and podcaster David Sims has called "the fungible space between fact and fiction," but that much-resented term offers merely one way to describe the creative impulse that also feeds the binge worthy TV auteurism of Michaela Coel, Donald Glover and Bo Burnham, the now-canonical mumblecore trend in indie film, even the introspective charades of magic sensation Derek DelGaudio. What unites these artworks is a thrilling immediacy that comes at the risk of their makers' dignity and their close companions' right to anonymity.
This dig into the self, and the collateral damage it may cause, defined what singer-songwriters did as long ago as the late 1960s. Writing about the chart-topping bards of the Laurel Canyon scene in 1976's Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll, Janet Maslin questioned the emerging style's "reactionary expressions of frustration, confusion, irony, quiet little confidences, and personal declarations of independence." Finding worth in their dedication to rooting out the particulars of self-discovery, she nonetheless called out "the solipsism to which all singer-songwriters are notoriously prey." Abhrajyoti Chakraborty identified very similar issues in the talk about about autofiction, writing in The New Yorker in 2019: "We have ascribed to the genre certain flattening traits — a degree of self-absorption, a preoccupation with authenticity, the presence of a writer as a protagonist — that can seem like so much 'idle pondering.'"
Like the digressive, compulsively referential, assertively artless writing of today's literary darlings, songs driven by personal narratives embody a kind of intimacy that greases the line between one person's story and another's, and between imagination and reality. Singing and rapping — speech organized in time — reinforces this instability. In this heightened atmosphere the writer-singer demands to be believed even as she admits she is fictionalizing. Finding the song inside a true story goes beyond merely naming names; dozens if not hundreds of cries of desire have been issued for "Layla" (actually the endlessly inspirational Pattie Boyd) and "Lady D'Arbanville" and "My Sharona" and "Hey There Delilah" — and even, occasionally, "Steamie Gregg." There's something about going deeper into details, though, that can make even a gently murmured story song feel transgressive. This frisson enhances the song's impact; it feels worth the risk.
This has long been true, by the way, across genres, not just among those white musicians the industry identified as "singer-songwriters." Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye practiced this art alongside emblematic troubadours like Joni Mitchell and Carly Simon, and increasingly, it has become a specialty for musicians working in all genres. When Tyler, the Creator wrote "Wilshire," he was working within this lineage. He even briefly sampled Janet Jackson and Q-Tip's famous "Got 'Til It's Gone" sampling of Mitchell on his first album, Flower Boy.
Olivia Rodrigo's diaristic balladry is the most potent recent example of this approach to writing songs and performing them. Her career-launching "Driver's License," with its open-throated intimacy and easily traced backstory complete with response songs and a cathartic follow-up, shows exactly how the singer-songwriter makes herself into an autofictional character in the social media age. But that's just the biggest splash in a year that's offered many variations on true stories told, each raising interesting ethical dilemmas. From the uncensored, deeply considered desire expressed by girl in red and Jazmine Sullivan to the careful craft of Lucy Dacus and Clairo, songwriters in 2021 employ frankness and specificity in ways that are potent and risky, confronting the question of who owns what story — and to what purpose — in ways that don't always resolve, but often provoke.
Most popular songs, it should be noted, excel in the realm of exquisitely crafted generalities that feel familiar but remain open-ended. They're more like advertisements than short stories. When Justin Bieber croons, "I get my peaches down in Georgia" in the current hit that he wrote with five other people, he might be revealing something, but that's not the song's point, which is to get millions of others to sing along with that hook, remaking its meaning for themselves as they seem fit. The same can be said of the seven members of BTS singing "smooth like butter, pull you in like no other" or the label-matched Doja Cat and Saweetie announcing, "That my best friend, she a real bad bitch." Fans may project personal meanings onto these hooks, but no one would hold their hitmakers to them. Confessional songwriting stands out as a counterforce to pop's generalizing tendencies.
Since it made bashful idols of Bill Withers and James Taylor in the 1970s, confessional songwriting has, in fact, come to dominate pop's equivalent of what booksellers call "literary fiction," that critically embraced, modestly commercial realm where autofiction's darlings reside. Artists working in the folk-connected troubadour style relished making characters of their friends and family members, from Leonard Cohen kissing and telling about Janis Joplin in "Chelsea Hotel No. 2" to Lucinda Williams mourning Blaze Foley in "Drunken Angel" and Joan Armatrading getting inside the mind of a lovestruck friend with "The Weakness in Me." Bookish indie rockers followed suit — Paul Westerberg paid tribute to his flight attendant sister with the Replacements' "Waitress in the Sky," and Patterson Hood wrote a gorgeous elegy for AIDS-afflicted Atlanta musician Gregory Dean Smalley with the Drive-By Truckers' "The Living Bubba."
In the 2000s the forms such artists used expanded to show the influence of hip-hop — itself a richly referential narrative field replete with songwriterly rappers like Lamar, Vince Staples and NoName — and electronic music. Sufjan Stevens, Bon Iver and Joanna Newsom told quirky first-person stories in ways that pushed definitions of what a speaking (or singing) voice can do. On his Bon Iver-influenced singer-songwriter turn 808s and Heartbreak, Kanye West left a mark on hip-hop by doing something similar — and his newest release, named after his late mother, Donda, seems likely to see him revisiting this ground.
Though these experimentalists are highly influential, one woman has really set the tone for singer songwriters over the past 15 years: West's old nemesis, Taylor Swift. Swift is a commercial steamroller who's recently realigned her music and persona to fit in with the literary set, a transition that makes sense, given her influence on both the Disney-bred Rodrigo and next-gen indie stars like Phoebe Bridgers. Earlier in her career, she played a central role in returning the personal to the foreground in pop after the rise of team-built teen idols like Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake circa 1999. Swift's hyper-conversational writing style and modest singing voice adjusted confessional songwriting for a time when kids were beginning to author their autobiographies in public via online bulletin boards and platforms like Myspace.
Though she learned her craft in country music — a genre that, by that 1990s, relied heavily on well-turned cliches for its success — Swift grew into her art by paying attention to these forums, and to hip-hop, where, as Doreen St. Felix has noted, rappers had been making themselves into characters for decades. Lately, having mastered every aspect of the pop mainstream, Swift has been playing the doyenne in semi-retreat, even as she makes moves to assure her sole ownership of her still-growing empire. Taking up residency in music's middle class (albeit in the neighborhood's biggest house), Swift remains current songwriting's lodestar.
Key to her continuing relevance is her skill at doing that autofictional dance, and risking what Chris Kraus, a pioneer of the approach, once identified as its biggest problem and its superpower: the invasion of privacy. Kraus quoted the younger writer Emily Gould arguing for women once dismissed as "narcissists" or "famewhores" as the most necessary voices of the new century, because "they pose a threat to the social order, which relies on women's embarrassment to keep them either silent or writing in socially accepted modes."
Polite as she seemed in her early years, Swift did something similar in songs like "Fifteen," which told the story of her best friend Abigail Johnson losing her virginity to a cad in high school. (She asked Abigail's permission before she spilled this most treasured secret among teen besties.) As she matured, she honed her truth-telling skills in service of her own experiences, sometimes with identifiable men like ex-boyfriends Joe Jonas and John Mayer. Igniting firestorms of interest across social media — threatening the social order in her songs while maintaining decorum in her public life — Swift created a new template for confession as a game shared between a writer and her fans. The winners were young women who felt empowered by her example to speak their own minds and stay in control.
As she crafted her own destiny, Swift had a huge playlist to inspire her. Well beyond Laurel Canyon's center of gravity, songwriting's authorial types had shifted in rock from the advertorial and the folkloric — the ballad lineage embraced by Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and other mostly male raconteurs, who even when getting more personal presented themselves as third-person narrators instead of confessors — to the realm of the personal declaration. Often, rage fueled such confessional turns in rock, soul and, later, rap. Offering, as a prompt, "How Do You Sleep," John Lennon's bitter salvo against his new ex-bandmate Paul McCartney, I recently asked my community of music experts on Facebook for examples of such songs. The responses numbered into the hundreds — here's a playlist of just over 50 examples.
These songs stomp all over any concerns about invading the privacy of their subjects. They can be truly vicious — "You sucked my blood like a leech," Freddie Mercury howls in "Death on Two Legs," a tirade against Queen's ex-manager Norman Sheffield that caused the accused businessman to both sue the band and write a memoir in response. Ice Cube's "No Vaseline," directed at his N.W.A. ex-mate Eazy E, barrels into anti-Semitism and homophobia and caused critics to wonder if he should be censured, if not censored, upon its 1991 release. George Clinton ventured onto similar terrain in his verse aimed at music publisher Armen Boladian on Warren G's 2005 track "Speed Dreamin'"; Boladian lost his defamation lawsuit, as had Sheffield. In these cases, artists who felt (and, I'd say, were) trapped in exploitative business deals used their best weapons — their turns of phrase — to fight back.
The most recent iteration of this righteously aggrieved form of true storytelling is being perfected by women claiming the space opened up by the #MeToo movement — including Swift. Her songs calling out the bad behavior of cads she encountered, more recently expanded to include business associates like Big Machine's Scott Borchetta, drew down ridicule on Swift over the years; today, though, women who call out harassers or worse using identifying details often find themselves supported by others who view their testimonies as a form of justice. Kesha's "Praying," released after setbacks in her legal battle with ex-producer Dr. Luke; "Motion Sickness" by Phoebe Bridgers, widely interpreted as addressing her abusive ex-boyfriend and producer Ryan Adams and revived as a talking point after she and two other women offered details of his exploits in a 2019 New York Times piece; Megan Thee Stallion's "Shots Fired," speaking out after her then-companion Tory Lanez allegedly shot her at a party in 2020 — these songs carry political as well as personal weight. Two of the most moving ballads released this year, Billie Eilish's "Your Power" and Clairo's "Blouse," quietly but unsparingly add to this process of calling for justice. Others, like Stella Donnelly's "Boys Will Be Boys," about the rape of a friend, risk telling others' stories in the name of illuminating violence against women. Precedents for women speaking out in these ways long predate Swift's rise — many, like Liz Phair and Lauryn Hill, are now revered as pioneers. But only recently can women writers speak in this way and not be shadowed by accusations of excessiveness and, to return to Gould's insight, narcissism.
Beyond songs whose truth-telling sets the patriarchal record on its head, there's still the matter of ethics when it comes to autofictional songwriting. The long list of songs that wreak havoc while naming names is matched by an even longer one of tales told in admiration, love or, most often, grief. (Here's a playlist of those, also communally assembled.) Many of the most beloved of these songs — Jackson Browne's "Song For Adam," "Red Dirt Girl" by Emmylou Harris — are about people who died. (Perhaps the paradigmatic song in this category, in fact, is Jim Carroll's "People Who Died.") The ultimate absence makes it easier, perhaps, for a writer to speak in another's voice; there's no chance in those cases of being told directly that you got things wrong. Still, writers do take the risk of carrying the vital voices of others into that fungible space. The most touching attempts often acknowledge that such witnessing is always problematic. Arlo Parks's "Caroline," for example, with its incessant refrain of "I swear to God, I tried," captures the unnerving energy of a happened-upon fight between strangers and Parks's own anxiety about misrepresenting what she then still claimed as hers to share.
Lucy Dacus, who recently cited the paradigmatic Italian writer Elana Ferrante as an inspiration for Home Video, her album exploring the experiences she and her friends had as Christian kids in the God-rock 2000s, talked to those friends before sharing intimate details. "Thumbs" is an account of a tense meeting between a 19-year-old child of divorce and her deadbeat dad after years of separation. Dacus was there to witness the actual event, and in the last verse reassures her disappointed friend: "You two are connected by a pure coincidence," she sings. Dacus consulted her friend before recording the song, and in the process, realized that her own history as an adopted child who met her own father at the same age was shaping it, too.
"When I wrote the song, I was speaking to the friend: 'You don't know him, even if he said you did,'' Dacus explained to Pitchfork's Quinn Moreland upon Home Video's release. "But then I said it back to myself and realized I needed to hear that, too," Dacus's dedication to getting her friend's experience right helped her better understand her own. Songwriters are surely aware that their words will be scrutinized and seem to be taking more care to acknowledge their role in bringing someone else's story into the world. That ethical act may seem barely significant in the long arc of songwriters bending lived reality to their own ends, but it feels emblematic of this time, when true stories seem to be everywhere, and the truth more endangered than ever.
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