Lessons in storytelling from 3 retro pop tunes

July 29, 2018

We’ve heard all about the power of storytelling when it comes to making an emotional connection with clients.

The beginning, middle and end. The conflict, resolve, elation. The hero and the battles he must fight before he wins the war and the girl.

That’s the perfect story.

But who has time for all that? We’re not all Luke Skywalker. How are you supposed to tell a powerful story when you’re just a regular person?


As long as your story is heartfelt, detailed and believable, you can make a human connection. But you must tell it clearly and get to the point quickly, otherwise your audience is going to get bored.

So rather than chew through Star Wars let’s take a look at the world of pop, where the constraints are much tighter.

Imagine only having 3 minutes to create a yarn your audience can understand, believe in, and get emotional about.

It can’t be easy, so in the name of academic research, I’ve looked for 3 random pop tunes that achieve this. It’s time to look again at their lyrics and give credit to their subtle plots and narrative arcs and see what we can learn.

1. All Rise, Blue

This may be a little pop tune sung by a group of 4 lolloping meatheads, but we’re about to get serious, people. For a start it’s set inside a courtroom – you can smell the leather seats and the wood panelling a mile off.

A great injustice has been done.

The plot involves a two-timing girlfriend and stars the boyfriend as the accuser. Each member of the band has a verse to make their impassioned plea to the judge.

The evidence is damning: money has been leant and not paid back, lifts in cars have been given. Secret phone calls have been made and there’s been ‘faking’ – we’re not told what kind, but can only imagine…

In the face of such unequivocal cruelty it’s impossible not to sympathise with these poor boys (even Antony Costa).

Plus, the song’s grammar is impeachable – witness the most elegant rap in pop: “You find that your stuff is gone. But in reality to whom does the stuff belong?”

All Rise is the pop equivalent of an episode of Kavangah QC, but much more haunting and emotional. It reached number 4 in 2001.

I rest my case.

Little known fact: Will Young was part of the original line up.

2. Don’t you Want me Baby, Human League

A sense of place can be a useful device when it comes to storytelling, especially if your story is short.

“You were working as a waitress in a cocktail bar when I met you,” launches you straight into the scene. There you are, perched on a bar stool, sweating in your shoulder pads and sipping a Buck’s Fizz.

Lucky you.

But what’s this? It seems you’re slap bang in the middle of a break up conversation, told from two opposing views, and it’s getting rather messy.

The male narrator just can’t let go. He’s threatening to destroy Waitress if she doesn’t go back out with him, telling her she was nothing before he picked her out and turned her around and he can put her back there too. He sounds very angry actually.

Thankfully we get to see Waitress’s side of the story and she tells him she would have made it “either with or without you”, however, she still loves him. (It’s complicated).

The lyrics were inspired when lead singer Phil Oakey read a photo story in a teen magazine. On reflection, it sounds less tragic and more threatening than I remember, still, different times and all that.

And there’s no doubt that both points of view help to paint a vivid picture of the end of a 5-year relationship in less than 3 minutes and 25 seconds. It’s no wonder it was number 1 for 5 weeks in 1981.

Little known fact: 56% of all men choose this as their favourite karaoke tune.

3. Everything She Wants, Wham!

If you’re struggling for authenticity then why not add some real world context? This lament by Wham! radiates Thatcher’s Britain like a tropical suntan.

Everything She Wants was the B-side to the band’s epic Last Christmas and came out at the tail end of their career, before George went solo. It marked a departure from the frothy pop they were known for and gave us a taste of the more serious stuff George would develop on his own.

We’re firmly in the cut and thrust of the 80s here, and greed is good, but not for our hero. George plays the role of the oppressed husband who is having to work his guts off to pay for everything his material girl demands of him. He feels “Like a stranger, but with wages, walking in and out of that doo-or.” This is bad.

We can only imagine what “The things we buy and the things we sign” are. I mean, there were so many cool gadgets on offer in the 80s, Mrs Michael would be spoilt for choice. And I don’t think we’re talking Soda Streams and microwaves here. I suspect she’s more of a home espresso machine and state-of-the-art CD player kind of girl. A proper 80s yuppie.

In a twist, the second verse takes the story a step further by revealing that the woman is having his baby. Imagine the John Lewis bill! “If my best isn’t good enough, then how can it be good enough for two?”asks George, his Princess Di hair quivering with tightly controlled emotion.

It’s not every boy band that can mix socioeconomics and a drum machine, but this manages to do both, making for a believable and heartfelt story, which helped to make it a million-selling gold-certified hit single.

Little known fact: This was George’s favourite Wham! Song.

While you might not have access to synthesisers or a Yamaha keyboard, your story can be just as poignant. All you have to do is make sure it’s clear, detailed and genuine.

People buy from people and the easier it is for your client to connect with you, the easier it will be for them to trust you. So don’t be afraid to show some emotion, as Joan Armatrading once sang. (See, I can be highbrow sometimes).

 Photo by Namroud Gorguis

July 29, 2018

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