The discussion in the previous post has been quite interesting. Let me try to recap the major points, as I see them and hopefully we can keep the conversation going.

As I understand, Ben was making three basic arguments:

1) That the terms “narrative”, “narrator”, and, in particular, the phrase “unreliable narrator” are all terms that have originate in, and only have clear definitions within, literary criticism. That any application of those sorts of terms to music is always going to imprecise, and somewhat poorly fitting.

He also points out, specifically, that the use of the phrase “unreliable narrator” that I quoted is not accurate, even allowing for imprecision.

2) If we want to use those terms in talking about music then it’s worth figuring out what we think they should mean.

The distinction that Ben found most helpful as a way to think about possible analogies to music was that of storytelling vs. theater. A storyteller is, practically by definition, a narrator. They directly address the audience and present a story. The storyteller can, and probably will, adopt a persona for the telling of the story. Based on the note in literary criticism that the narrator of a written work exists within the fictional world of the work, Ben would take the adopted persona as the “narrator” of a story, not the real world storyteller.

In theater, the actors are not narrators. they do not address the audience directly, and they do not present the fictional world. They play a character within the fictional world and, in character, they have no awareness of the audience or of the story being told. The character is just representing themselves within their own world.

3) From this Ben takes the important point that it’s possible for an audience to watch a story, without the telling of the story involving a narrator, with theater as an example.

The question he then asks is whether, as an audience, you feel like listening to music is more like watching a play or a storyteller.

RS asks the related question of whether the performer feels more like an actor or a storyteller.

In both cases, the answer will obviously vary based on the given performance. One can easily think of examples that clearly fall closer to one end of the spectrum or the other.

But the question then becomes which end of the spectrum feels more descriptive of pop music in general. Do we believe that pop music is paradigmaticly closer to theater or storytelling?

I’m still considering this, but hopefully that is a reasonable summary of the question.

  1. ben’s avatar

    That seems like a good summary of my current position, although I think you, sean and RS all had additional points. But I guess since I was the one who got fired up in the first place that at least frames the starting point.

    Thanks nick


  2. ben’s avatar

    Nick, rather then making the distinction as just between theater and storytelling, I would still included written fiction to make it a 3-way dynamic, because those examples were both in relation to writing. Personally, because I read so much poetry, singing a song often feels like reading a poem. So, currently I am thinking of a 4-way dynamic with Written Fiction, Poetry, Song, Storytelling.

    I’m just saying that a lot of my points are theater or storytelling contrasted to writing, not just each other.

    Thanks. It’s hard for a summary to include every detail, so I’ll stop revising and just charge forward.


  3. NickS’s avatar

    I wasn’t trying to leave out Sean (hi) or RS, but I focused on your points because I felt like you had been taking the most concrete position and we were all, to some extent, feeling around the edges to try to figure out where our intuitions fit.

    I’m personally still stuck at the point of thinking that “narrator” may not be the best term to describe the role that someone inhabits when performing a song, but that I don’t know what a better term would be.

    So it’s helpful for me to lay out the basic shape of the argument that you made.

    I still think it’s helpful to continue thinking about specific examples, as Sean and RS brought up.


  4. Sean Walbeck’s avatar

    ‘In theater, the actors are not narrators. they do not address the audience directly,
    [Sometimes they do – solioquys, asides, presentational plays, docudramas, interactive plays, musicals]
    and they do not present the fictional world.
    (Sometimes they do – prologues, epilogues, the Stage Manager in “Our Town” ain’t narrating, he’s presenting Grover’s Corners.)
    They play a character within the fictional world and, in character, they have no awareness of the audience or of the story being told.
    {Actors are always aware of the audience – they hold for laughs, they listen/feel the crowd and adapt performances to register desired reactions. Many characters are self-aware (Hamlet for example), and understand their place in the story being told (the witches in MacBeth)}
    The character is just representing themselves within their own world.
    Singing, like acting, is a performing art. Singers, like other performing artists, adopt or create a performance persona (or range of performance personas) and bring that to each song they sing. Their, if you will, voice.
    So if it sounds like I’m putting the voice before the text, I am a little. “I’m Every Woman” is fun singing in the shower, but it’s fiction to me and possibly even the original recording artist. Are the Righteous Bros. truly mad at “Baby, Baby” for losing that lovin’ feelin’, or performers outting full-out vocals and intent behind the lines and there’s no real “Baby, Baby?”
    The pop sensibility (we all got a “Baby Baby” situation in our lives, so we’ll get it) is a part of the equation because actors, singers, comics, dancers, musicians are in the room with the audience when the art’s happenin’ – it changes the paradigm and the vocabulary. Who’s got time to think “unreliable narrator” when you’re hearing “Baby don’t leave” sung out at the top of two beautiful desperate voices? It’s why a non-literal (and non-poetic )line like “Whoa, whoa whoa, whoa-oo-oh gone” lands with emotional clarity, it’s the character’s journey.
    The song’s character. Notice: not the singer’s character, the song’s character. To sing this song, you gotta deliver these points: some narrative, some emotional, all musical, very few literary.
    Not to say literary is a qualitative term, just like to point out deciding whether the Righteous Bros. are good for Baby Baby and that makes them unreliable narrators, or it’s an incomplete narrative, or it’s just another heartbreak of a breaking heart song might indicate that judging song with terms of fiction/print misses the living dimensions that give them their power. Performance jargon might be more accurate vocabulary. Mebbe. I dunno. It sounds good at 2 in the morning.


  5. NickS’s avatar

    Sean, thanks again for the comments again.

    In particular this:

    Singing, like acting, is a performing art. Singers, like other performing artists, adopt or create a performance persona (or range of performance personas) and bring that to each song they sing. Their, if you will, voice.

    [D]eciding whether the Righteous Bros. are good for Baby Baby and that makes them unreliable narrators, or it’s an incomplete narrative, or it’s just another heartbreak of a breaking heart song might indicate that judging song with terms of fiction/print misses the living dimensions that give them their power. Performance jargon might be more accurate vocabulary. Mebbe. I dunno. It sounds good at 2 in the morning.

    Makes me convinced that I want to figure out some word to use to describe that performance.

    Despite my intuitive inclination to reach for “narrator” to describe the performance persona, I agree that doesn’t seem like a natural fit for the Righteous Brothers. At the same time their performance is clearly contributing a lot to the song, and it’s important to be able to talk about elements of that performance.


  6. RS’s avatar


    Very helpful post. A lot of it makes sense to me.

    I want to bring this part forward from my previous post:

    Song is so different from a book, so I resist feeling constrained by the definitions that come from fiction — or in thinking that those words are off limits because they are defined in detail by people who describe fiction.

    So far, this discussion has looked at song almost exlusively from the perspective of the audience member. Ben mentions David’s observation that the singer usually has a different relationship to the song, but doesn’t open up the possibility that we can often have both relationships to the song: some times the listener and sometime the singer — as well as the obvious fact that people often sings songs to themselves.


    For myself, songs I sing when I am alone have a completely different existence than when they are sung for an audience.

    I feel like I actually done the song (or tune) when I find an emotional space that has integrity. Specific notes and chords are crucial, but those can be correct and the song still feel ungrounded and incomplete.

    Singing to an audience, I am usually more focused on making sure that they can understand it — and their response changes the singing — the bigger circle has to be closed. Sometimes understanding is “getting the story” while other times it is “getting the mood” — or even just the “sensual quality of the sound.

    I’m not sure how any of this fits with the song in a book, but that’s the way many people experience songs.

    I am sure that narrative has a primary place in many songs. I’ve become less clear about what the function of narrator: it’s not just the teller of the story.

    I think finding language that describes these aspects of songs in a way that is “recognizable as true” is a big and interesting challenge.

    I’m looking forward to more help from all of you on this!



  7. Matthew’s avatar

    Hey, I’m coming late to this, and I must admit I haven’t read everything that came before. But I’ll throw something in the ring anyway.

    I do think singing is a performing art, as Sean said. As someone who has done a fair amount of singing, but almost never in front of a big audience, I’m not always worrying about the audience when I sing. But I’m always performing, in that I’m doing it and making the sounds and the words myself.

    I agree with RS that this makes it really different than books. Fiction is the author’s voice, and the characters’ voices, and that’s the way it’s going to stay, even if I get very wrapped up in the story. A song, OTOH, carries the possibility that it could be my voice singing it. I’m very often aware of it as an invitation to inhabit what’s going on in the song, not just experience it.

    re: narrative, my first reaction was: the narrator is the person who talks in between the songs. I’m thinking there of musical drama and other very formal structures. Opera, broadway, disney movies, etc. Sometimes the narrator is singing his stuff (St. Matthew Passion) but it’s still not the songs; the arias are in the characters’ voices.

    For folk/pop/blues etc, stand-alone songs, if there’s a narrative at all then of course it’s the one singer who’s got to do it all.


  8. ben’s avatar

    “unreliable narrator” has meaning initially in the context of literary theory. It modifies an element (narration) that is ever-present in written fiction. Maybe it’s like the term “breaking ball” that looses much of its meaning outside of baseball.

    So, in response to RSs request for language, a starting point with music is to look, first for the things that are always (or most frequently) present. [somebody can start a list].

    This is (or not) language for the purpose of analysis. At the end of John Miller’s music theory class I asked him “what’s good about analyzing things?”. He said that analysis allows people to better recognize familiar patterns in a new context. He said that this skill (recognizing the familiar parts of new things) is a real limitation in most peoples use of knowledge. Analysis help with this.

    By the time an approach to art analysis is well-worked, it is a powerful too. The trouble is, fquently they seem completely crazy or lacking as a total theory of art. It’s seems it is hard to come up with a system that is specific enough to be usable, but general enough to seem like it actually describes reality.

    So, even though we are in the bigining part, with no worked-out system, we also have the advantage of not yet having a powerful yet crazy system. It’s kind of like Ned’s Ontology exercise – and even though lot’s of smart people have already developed detailed approaches, it’s surprisingly fun and useful to make your own from scratch.


    1. Staysha’s avatar

      You’ve imrpsesed us all with that posting!


    2. ben’s avatar

      powerful tool, I mean


    3. JRoth’s avatar

      Seems to me that, before we can pick which terms to apply and how, we have to decide what songs are doing*. Some songs are narrative in a straightforward storytelling sense (“There’s an opera out on the Turnpike…”); some are first person narratives (“Born down in a dead man’s town, first hit I took was when I hit the ground…”); some are direct address (“Together, Wendy, we can live with the sadness…”); and some are soliloquies (“With her soft French cream, standing in that doorway like a dream, I wish she’d just leave me alone…”). And obviously there are songs that blend these forms (often switching between verse and chorus).

      I think part of the difficulty in applying terms comes from these 4 very different voices (if you will) in the songs. Essentially, all of the literary types ben identifies apply, but differently to different songs.

      That said, I’m not sure it makes a _big_ difference which voice you’re discussing, because the songwriter is simply choosing a method for communicating his story. The voice he chooses impacts what parts of the story he can tell, and helps to form our response, but doesn’t define his own attitude towards the story.

      Thus – to get back to Newman – whether it’s ostensibly narration, direct address, or soliloquy, it’s always Randy telling a story/talking about an idea, and he’s always fucking with us (except in Disney movies), because that’s what he does. All the songs I cited before were Springsteen because he’s such a committed storyteller – he almost never is talking about an idea, or singing about love or loss in the abstract – and because he’s the anti-Newman: while it’s not right to say that he always believes the words his characters (?) say, but he always believes in them. He’s all empathy, which is why he’s such a touchstone for so many people.

      * I’m focusing on songs (rather than singers/performers or even songwriters) because one of the fundamental characteristics of songs – esp. popular music songs – is that they have really extended, vibrant lives beyond their moment of creation; plays sometimes have this character, but they have too much inertia, if you will, to be as portable as a pop song


    4. JRoth’s avatar

      Two more things in followup:

      Randy Newman’s “Blues” (which I have courtesy of a Wrongshore mix) is interesting in that Randy sings the verses as a narrator while Paul Simon sings the bridges (I think that’s what they are) in the first person . And Randy’s bits seem sarcastic or distancing (I can’t quite characterize them, even in my own head), while Simon’s seem sincere. As I say, interesting in light of Nick’S original comments.

      The other thing is that Newman is interesting for the fact that there are surely unironic covers of his ironic/”unreliable” songs, which gets back to the portability of pop songs and also the problems with irony as an artistic mode. “Randy, do you really love LA?” “I don’t even know.”


    5. NickS’s avatar

      JRoth, and RS, very nice comments, thank you.

      Speaking of Springsteen, I just happened to read this old post by SEK in which he also uses the word “narrator” and suggests an interesting distinction.

      Those of you currently reading Dante in your sophomore English classes take note: . . . [T]he Commedia is written by Dante the Man about Dante the Pilgrim as narrated by Dante the Poet. The Poet is the fiction’s conceit—the character who remembers and recalls what happened after he found himself per una selva oscura—and is not to be treated coextensive with Dante the Man. I invoke Dante here because Springsteen, like Dante, is frequently confused for his narrators by people who should know better. … [W]ith Springsteen, every word his narrators utter is [treated as] an expression of his personal beliefs even when he opens with a lyric like “[m]y name is Joe Roberts.”

      What’s interesting about that is that we wants to distinguish between the character “Joe Roberts” as presented in the song, and Bruce Springsteen’s role in performing the song. The latter role SEK calls the narrator.

      I’ve been thinking about what makes me hesitate to give up the term “narrator” and that quote is related.

      The obvious replacement for “narrator” is “the character that the performer takes on during the performance.” But I think in music, more than theater, it makes sense to be able to talk separately about the characters in a song, and also the performer as an entity in the song.

      In lots of cases that distinction isn’t going to matter. In the case of the Righteous Brothers, above, there’s really no need to talk about a character in the song.

      But consider Dylan’s “With God On Our Side” There is a character that is speaking in the first person “The country I come from / Is called the Midwest / I’s taught and brought up there / The laws to abide”

      But that character not only isn’t Dylan, I’m not sure that you would describe the role that Dylan has in performing the song as just portraying that character.

      Even if that distinction holds up, that would still require changing the way I use the term “narrator” which is probably good. I would have called Joe Roberts the narrator of the song, but I’m not sure about that now.


    6. ben’s avatar

      So, I’m listening to the Melvins. I’ve been thinking about words that describe the effect of music. With major reservations, I’ve been tossing around the word “spectacle” since this thread began. I don’t fully like it, though.

      Theater has the phrase, “willing suspension of disbelief”, literature has “the mind’s eye”. We can talk about the ability of a song to tell a story. But that doesn’t explain why my ex-roommate used to listen to “bullet in the head” by Rage against the machine every morning at 5am to get himself in the mindset for cross country practice. Or why for a better part of 2 years, “bob gun” by parliament every morning got me through another day of work, or what it means to be a Melvin’s fan.

      The word that popped into my head today was “tribe”. That gives me misgivings, too.

      I do think that music is not just about the suspension of disbelief in order to temporarily accept an artifice as real. Instead, it’s a tool,or a place or an activity that is part of my reality and competes, on an emotional level, directly with other parts of reality for importance.


    7. Sean Walbeck’s avatar

      Lotsa fun crunchy comments since I last looked in. So, if we start we a basic definition of music (rhythmic sounds intended for an emotional response), every other element is added to enhance and narrow the specific emotional response desired. So story, character, spectacle, diction (language choice), performance and presentation (all theatrical elements) can be read as choices the inital artist(s) make toward that goal.
      That makes the choice of 1st person, past-present-future tense, detached or involved narrator, allusion, assonance, alliteration, metaphor, allegory, etc (all literary elements) instructive to original intent of the piece.
      And people will still play “Every Step You Take” at their wedding because the music and a single line or two rings their internal bell a certain way. We respond to music emotionally first – intellectually afterwards (and with time).
      And Randy’s fuckin’ with us in Disney songs too.


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