Although the majority of chart music surrounds itself with lyrics about relationships, breakups, and love (with the latter the most commonly used word in popular song lyrics in every decade since the 1960s), some lyricists choose to use their songs as a way to voice opinions, share their ideals, or even try and change the world in some way – see the likes of Billie Holiday, Billy Bragg, and Rage Against the Machine for exhibits a, b, and c. Others, including Pop Smoke, Katy Perry, and Justin Bieber – to name but a few in the charts at the time of writing – show a way of life that is unreachable to the vast majority of listeners, with their respective depictions of having ‘500K on the wrist’, riding ‘Harleys in Hawaii’, or invitations to ‘Hop in the Lambo’.
Others still go for less outlandish scenarios, like clubbing or holidaying that are usually attainable to us mere mortals, albeit slightly less glamorously than the perma-tanned, dazzlingly white-toothed models cavorting in the music videos. In lockdown 3.0, though, usually attainable is now unattainable. So Little Mix singing ‘Yeah, I’ll find a way to dance without you in the middle of the crowd’? Not without getting fined, you won’t. Jason Derulo’s ‘Let me take you dancin’, two-step to the bedroom’? I very much hope the two of you are in the same bubble. Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande’s ‘I’d rather be dry, but at least I’m alive: rain on me’? I hope you’re outside for essential reasons or for your daily exercise ration. etc. etc. With many of us gazing longingly out of our windows at a world that’s off limits, some like to live vicariously through lyrics, so songs about the aforementioned clubbing and holidays might be a welcome tonic. To others, however, myself included, Dua Lipa belting out ‘I’m feeling so electric, dance my ass off’ is just another reminder of yet another thing we can’t do at the moment, where all too often our only ‘ass’ movement comes from ungluing ourselves from the settee to put the kettle on.
And that’s why I find myself drawn more and more to the less common tool in the songwriter’s arsenal: the everyday, the banal, the ordinary, the things that shape our lives in small but important ways. Because such lyrics are depicting a life I can understand: a life I currently live. In December, Paul McCartney released the album McCartney III, with all songs recorded in isolation during ‘rockdown’ and its closing track ‘When Winter Comes’ seeing McCartney pondering how he must ‘dig a drain by the carrot patch’, and ‘fix the fence’. One of the biggest, most famous pop stars in musical history living just like we do, not a hint of ‘Patron, Poolside drinking, or Margarita rounds’ in sight (sorry, Drake). It’s no wonder McCartney landed his first number 1 album in over 30 years, as this was music we needed; music that reflected our lives back to us and showed that we weren’t going through this alone.
Maybe it’s just hopeless optimism on my part, but there seems to have been an upturn in artists embracing the everyday since lockdown 1.0. Lady Leshurr’s ‘Quarantine Speech’ speech kicked things off: ‘I went Sainsbury’s just to get bog roll’, and the baton was expertly taken up by Niko B’s ‘Who’s That What’s That’: ‘Copped a Big Mac, milkshake and some large fries, it cost four pound fifty, take the gherkin out of the inside’, and most recently in ‘Drivers License’ from Olivia Rodrigo, which sits at the top of both the UK singles chart and the Billboard Hot 100 at the time of writing and contains the delightfully ordinary lyric: ‘I got my drivers license last week’. Even Ed Sheeran, the king of the generic and saccharine love song, managed to squeeze in a bit of the everyday on ‘Afterglow’ with: ‘The sun’s reflected by the coffee in your hand’, and ‘the radio is playing, Iron & Wine’ (presumably he’s tuned to BBC Radio 6).
Perhaps the biggest sign of a potential shift can be seen through a music video from one of the world’s biggest artists of the past couple of years. Instead of the bells and whistles, fireworks and waterfalls extravaganza that her budget would no doubt allow, Billie Eilish’s video for ‘Therefore I Am’ was set in one of the most everyday locations of all: a shopping mall. And there wasn’t a ‘Lambo’ or ‘Harley’ in sight, either. In a world where ‘normal’ is no longer something boring, but an aspiration, it seems to me like the everyday is just what we need in our music.
So let’s have more, please.