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Storytelling in popular music: three key songs

Lily Allen – Not Fair

From the same album as her mournful ballad ‘Fuck You’, ‘Not Fair‘ is about Allen’s relationship with a man who is kind, mature, and in most ways respectable, but not very good at sex. It’s adapted, I believe, from a Tolstoy short story. ‘When we go up to bed/you’re just no good/it’s such a shame’, as she mournfully puts it. The song hinges on this tragic mismatch, and follows the couple, so much in love, but doomed to failure as a result of his inability to give sexual satisfaction.

Obviously a devotee of the English romantic poets, Allen uses vivid, striking language to create a captivating picture of her feelings: ‘It’s not fair/and I think you’re really mean/I think you’re really mean/I think you’re really mean… Oh, it’s not fair/and it’s really not ok/it’s really not ok/it’s really not ok.’

The tragic tale reaches a crescendo with a famous line in which she paraphrases the Roman philosopher Seneca: ‘Oh I lie here in the wet patch/ in the middle of the bed/ I’m feeling pretty damn hard done by/ I spent ages giving head.’

The song is gripping for its stark realism, but also its existential bleakness; in this respect it almost matches up to the now classic tale of despair and isolation ‘The Wheels on the Bus’.

The Stooges – Penetration

Devotees of the folk tradition of storytelling, the Stooges produced one of their finest narrative songs in ‘Penetration‘. Over an appealing guitar riff, t-shirt-phobic frontman Iggy Pop uses a first-person, present-tense voice to give immediacy to his tale of reckless lust. ‘Penetraaaaate/penetraaaaate me,’ he begs. This, we are informed, is ‘so fine, so fine, so fine’.

Hemingway-esque in its simplicity, ‘Penetration also draws on the work of St Augustine’s Confessions of a Sinner, particularly the lines: ‘I’m going down, I’m going down, pulsaaaating… Come on and take me, come on and take me.

By the time of the final blasts of ‘penetraaaaation, penetraaaaation, penetraaaaation, penetraaaation,’ listeners will be in no doubt as to the justice of the outcome, or the hard-won nature of the protagonists’ victory over seemingly impossible circumstances.

Incidentally, some scholars have pointed out numerous similarities between the song and the life of the early-19th-century economist David Ricardo. Mr Pop has never commented publicly on the issue.

Asher Roth – I Love College

Delivered with a languid world-weariness, Asher Roth’s 2009 song ‘I Love College‘ is the definitive satire of the famously decadent lifestyle George IV pursued while Prince of Wales.

Adopting the voice of ‘Prinny’, he describes the previous evening’s festivities, which were ‘awfully crazy… I danced my ass off and had this one girl completely naked’. This is an obvious reference to the actress Mary ‘Perdita’ Robinson, one of his early mistresses, to whom George sent indiscreet letters which later had to be bought back by his father, George III, to prevent embarrassing revelations.

Roth depicts the prince’s life as an exhausting and pointless cycle of debauchery. ‘Time isn’t wasted when you’re getting wasted… Pass out at three wake up at ten/Go out to eat then do it again’.

Capturing George’s voice exactly – his addictive personality, his financial recklessness, his infidelity and cruelty and charm and magnetism – he croons, ‘Man I love college, and I love drinking, I love women, I love college’.

Who could not sympathise with this deluded protagonist? Fundamentally, all he wants is a stable life with Mrs Fitzherbert, the Catholic whom he risked the throne to secretly marry. When they broke up for the first time in 1794, in Roth’s tale, George lapses into his old ways, a spiral of partying in which the key rules are ‘don’t pass out with your shoes on… don’t leave the house till the booze gone… and don’t have sex if she’s too gone… Then tomorrow night find a new joint’.

Towards the song’s conclusion, the repeated line ‘Do somethin crazy!’ is an obvious reference to his conduct during the Regency Crisis for the late 1780s, in which some felt he was making a grab for power. George III recovered from that bout of madness, and the prince, helpless, still unable to control his impulses, still unhappy, still self-pitying, almost has no choice but to cry: ‘Let’s get fucked up/I’m next on the table’.

Note: The paragraphs on Lily Allen are based on/lifted from an article I wrote for the Bath Impact student newspaper in 2009.

Words by Steve Ramsey