Songs That Tell A Story So You Can Escape From The Real World For A While
Different songs aspire to different things. Some songs aim to get your booty shaking, and thus the lyrics are mostly "Yeah!" or "Watch me now!" Others shine light on some deeper human truth, almost as if the artist is hoping you'll cry every time you hear the chorus. (Adele, I'm looking at you.) Some songs tell a story, a full-fledged narrative that can make you laugh, cry, or sympathize with characters just like you would with a book or a movie. The last one isn't the most common form of songwriting, but there have been quite a few notable examples of this kind of song that span numerous genres.
You know the sort of songs I'm talking about. Often, they're a little bit longer, a little bit more complicated lyrically, and you kind of have to pay attention to understand exactly what's going on. Some are catchy or iconic enough (like "Monster Mash") that you might not even notice anymore that there's a full-fledged narrative occurring in the lyrics. Others are a bit repetitive in their musical structure, but are interesting to listen to because of the performer's vocal presence, or the sharpness of the lyrics (like most of the story-songs from Cher).
Here are some of the most interesting, weird, and iconic songs that tell a story in their lyrics.
"Harper Valley PTA" — Jeannie C. Riley
If there's anything better than classic country feminism, I don't know what it is. "Harper Valley PTA" tells the story of widowed mother Mrs. Johnson, who gets a nasty letter from her teenage daughter's Parent Teacher Association. The letter slut-shames Mrs. Johnson for wearing high dresses and "runnin' round with wild men." So what does Mrs. Johnson do? She puts on her mini-skirt, marches down to the PTA, and calls out every jerk there on the adulterous, alcoholic, thieving skeletons in their closets. It's awesome.
"Spill The Wine" — Eric Burdon and War
While the narrative might not exactly be the most cohesive on this list, it's still got a beginning, middle, and end. Beginning: a man strolls through the park and decides to take a nap on the ground. Middle: Once asleep, he dreams that he's in a Hollywood movie, until someone takes him naked to a mountaintop, where there's a myriad of different women (presumably also naked, although it's not explicitly stated). End: One of the women gives him a glass of wine and tells him to spill it. (Unspoken Epiloge: The man wakes up and realizes the dangers of doing acid in a public park.)
"Fancy" — Bobbie Gentry/Reba McEntire
Bobbie Gentry wrote the song originally; her version is lovely in its nuance, but Reba McEntire's is delightful with its bombastic '90s camp.
"Paradise By The Dashboard Light" — Meatloaf
This song is essentially a nine minute rock opera in three acts, about embittered lovers recalling their first sexual encounter with one another.
"Monster Mash" — Bobby Pickett
Ah, that age-old tale of romance: Boy meets Monster, Monster throws party, Boy joins party, then Boy and Monster dance with other Monsters. Classic.
"Gypsys, Tramps, and Thieves" — Cher
Though it's super politically incorrect today, Cher's 1971 hit tells the story of a "gypsy" girl "born in the wagon of a traveling show" who dances for money. When her family's convoy picks up a stranger, they have an affair, and the girl gets pregnant. The wanderer leaves her to take care of the baby with her family, and the cycle continues: her daughter is born in the back of a wagon, and the girl continues dancing for money. Somehow, Cher sells it as an upbeat song, but the plot is pretty dark.
"Ode To Billie Joe" — Bobbie Gentry
I know, I know... I've covered a lot of country music already, but what do you expect? Country singers just love telling a sad story. Few country singers were better at it than Bobbie Gentry, who has two songs on this list. "Ode To Billie Joe" won four Grammies at the time, and it tells the story of a young man who fell to his death off a local bridge in a small town. Told through the lens of a family dinner conversation, it's revealed that the narrator had a personal connection with the boy, and it's implied that it was a suicide. It's heavy, but it's a beautiful song.
Of course, these are only a few of the amazing songs out there that tell a full narrative. Sometimes, you listen to music because the singer just gets how you're feeling. Other times, music is an escape where you can sympathize with another poor sap for a while. These songs are perfect for that.