Why Are Folkloric Narrative Songs Everywhere—from Video Games to Taylor Swift Concerts?
Something is changing in the music (and maybe society too)
I’m told that there are 1,200 different music genres.
What a mess—we’d be better off ditching most of those categories. And I plan to write about this foolish way of compartmentalizing music in the future.
But today, let me simplify things for you. I can reduce all this confusion to three kinds of popular song. And they haven’t changed in thousands of years.
Go ahead and listen to a million pop tunes. You can always fit them into one of these three categories:
The LYRIC song expresses an emotion or mood.
The NARRATIVE song tells a story or conveys information.
The DANCE song gets people moving—and doesn’t even need words.
Sometimes they mingle or overlap. A lyric can also convey a simple story. She’s my best friend’s girl—she used to be mine. And some dance songs express an obvious emotion. Bitch I’m Madonna. But this overlap doesn’t change the basic categories.
Lyric, narrative, and dance—those are the facts when you get to brass tacks.
Each of these three idioms has a unique role to play in society. When you see one suddenly rise to dominance, displacing another, it signals deeper changes in the culture—I’ll give some examples and predictions at the end of this article.
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If this feels constraining to you, I have even worse news to share.
During our adult lives, two of those categories have dominated. Dance music and lyric songs of emotional expression almost always control the charts.
Story songs haven’t disappeared completely. They linger on in a few genres (especially country—I’ll have more to say on that below). But it’s been a long time since narratives set the tone for popular music.
But that’s now changing.
I’m seeing more narrative-driven songs recently—and in unexpected places. I’ll even call it a movement. And after you see this trend clearly, it just might help you anticipate a larger shift in society as a whole.
A few minutes into her Eras concert, Taylor Swift interrupts her song to address the audience.
Alright Los Angeles, we have arrived at the very first bridge of the evening. Now I have a question. Does anyone here know the lyrics to this bridge?
There are screams of affirmation from the audience. So Swift demands of them: “Prove it!”
The audience holds up their end of the bargain. They definitely know these words, and sing along with Taylor Swift as she tells her story:
I'm drunk in the back of the car
And I cried like a baby coming home from the bar.
Said, “I’m fine” but it wasn't true.
I don't wanna keep secrets just to keep you.
And I snuck in through the garden gate
Every night that summer just to seal my fate.
And I screamed for whatever it's worth:
”I love you,” ain't that the worst thing you ever heard?
He looks up grinning like a devil…
This is a modern commercial tune, but the tone here is straight out of the folk ballad tradition—which hasn’t dominated popular music since the 19th century. (Sorry, Kingston Trio fans, but that’s the truth.)
I note that this kind of narrative song is especially well suited to the four-chord patterns that underpin so many current day pop hits. Those repeating harmonic cushions don’t offer much in the way of musical sophistication, but do create ideal vamps for supporting a story—not much different from the gusle drones used by Eastern European bards to underpin their epic tales.
And that’s now how those four chords are now getting used.
But this new trend is much more than just a matter of Taylor Swift and pop radio hits. Narrative structures are now impacting listening habits in numerous ways—and they just might be giving us a glimpse into an emerging movement in society at large.