The Struggling Protagonist
It’s no secret that the most powerful works of art in any field are often those written from a place of pain. Those exploring a life-altering, painful struggle, the description of which often leaves a memorable mark on whoever receives the art. Pop music might be considered a light and enjoyable genre for the most part, but it has of course, tried to explore this field as well. The results of this exploration however, have ranged from sounding superficial and generic to more powerful and empathetic.
Like in any sub-category of pop, there are numerous songs in this field with pretty wishy-washy lyrics: these are the tracks which attempt to present a “noble and struggling” protagonist to the listener, but ends up creating an exaggeratedly glorified and generic image. The most recent example which comes to mind is Clean Bandit, Anne-Marie and Sean Paul’s Rockabye, which was number 1 on the charts for several weeks. The song describes the obstacles in the life of a single mother. It is evident that the image Clean Bandit wants to create through the lyrics in spite of the upbeat, electronic backing is one of an unhappy mother who’s putting on a brave face for her child. Lyrics like “She’s gonna stress, so far away from her father’s daughter” and “All on her own, no-one will come, she’s got to save him” strongly suggest that she is in a pitiable position. However, one frequent criticism of this song coming from listeners has been how the artists have deliberately generalised the life of single mothers, suggesting that they should be pitied, and that their life is unfulfilling, more than anything else. Such tracks fail to portray empathetical pain, and instead end up sounding like a rather confused effort with a clichéd image.
However, there are also tracks which have similarly described financial struggles in a more understated but impactful way, like Tracy Chapman’s Fast Car, which describes the first-person protagonist’s desire to leave her mundane life behind and her difficulties due to her commitment to her alcoholic father. The lyrics describe this unfortunate situation in a matter-of-fact way without pity, unlike Rockabye, with lines like “I said somebody’s got to take care of him / So I quit school and that’s what I did”.
A lot of pain in pop music, of course, comes from romantic entanglements. Leaving the breakup songs aside for the moment, the main source of suffering in romantic pop music is often unrequited love. Calum Scott’s recent soulful rendition of Dancing on My Own, originally by Robyn highlights a loyal and loving protagonist who laments his loneliness as he watches another man with the girl he loves, with lyrics like, “I’m giving it my all / But I’m not the guy you’re taking home”. Though these lyrics are quite self-pitying and have an overly-wounded kind of tone to them in a style similar to Rockabye’s, it is likely that anyone is a position similar to Scott’s in the song would enjoy feeling sorry for themselves, whereas that’s not necessarily the case with all single mothers. Of course, when it comes to pop music, there are also several songs about a once-happy protagonist drinking and smoking their pain away. Ed Sheeran’s Eraser highlights the many pains behind his successful image: in the track, Sheeran suggests “another one will take the pain away” and that he’ll “find comfort in my pain eraser”. Sheeran, and countless other artists like to portray substance abuse as their struggle as well as their attempt to mask a bigger problem.
At the end of the day, whether it’s superficial or strong, whenever artists try and take this kind of angle in pop music, what listeners find is music with some kind of story behind it: let’s face it, that’s already more effort behind a track than most pop music today.