Academic journal article MEIEA Journal

So What Does "Set Fire to the Rain" Really Mean? A Typology for Analyzing Pop Song Lyrics Using Narrative Theory and Semiotics

Academic journal article MEIEA Journal

So What Does "Set Fire to the Rain" Really Mean? A Typology for Analyzing Pop Song Lyrics Using Narrative Theory and Semiotics

Article excerpt


Lyrics that tell a story have always been a defining characteristic of American popular music. Musical adaptations of nineteenth-century folklore (The Ballad of John Henry), teenage heartbreak songs of the early 1960s {Tell Laura I Love Her), and compositions by singer-songwriters of the 1970s (e.g., Harry Chapin, Jim Croce) all demonstrate Americans' appetites for listening to, becoming immersed in, and interpreting story. While some music genres, such as country, tend to emphasize linear narratives, many major pop hits leave listeners reading between the lines for some semblance of a story (Adele's Set Fire To The Rain). Even "meaningless" dance hits oftentimes offer some obvious or underlying narrative (LMFAO's Party Rock Anthem). Despite advances in technology and digital music tools, storytelling is still at the core of many of our culture's mass-mediated musical expressions. In sum, story is song and song is story.

A quick Google search for "story songs" returns numerous sites offering best-of lists and commentaries: "26 Songs That Are Just as Good as Short Stories," "Ten Story Songs and the Stories behind Them," and many more. A follow-up search at a music community site (e.g., songmeanings. net) will reveal almost as many interpretations among listeners as there are songs to sing. The opinions offered up by visitors are oftentimes based on listeners' views of the song's story or on the message the songwriter was trying to convey. In many ways, both the art of conveying an explicit or implicit narrative and the listener identifying with that narrative are the essence or magic of pop music. Excuse the manufactured pop culture reference, but after all the makeup and dance moves, perhaps storytelling is the "X-Factor."

While there have been many analyses of song lyrics in a general or cultural sense (Tagg 1982, DeWall 2011) as well as studies on the effects of song lyrics on adolescents (American Academy of Pediatrics, Council on Communications and Media 2009, Peterson, Safer, and Jobes 2008, Greenfield 1987), little has been written on the construction of narrative or the structure of narrative in pop music (Neal 2007, Nicholls 2007). Even most basic how-to books on songwriting give the subject little direct attention, approaching narrative merely in passing as an approach, often comprised of just a section on archetypical story songs that have a very linear beginning, middle, and end (Brahemy 2006, Pattison 2009). With story being such an integral part of song, it is somewhat surprising that narrative theory has not been used more to parse out the elements or structure of story in song, explicit or implicit. Unlike narrative theory, however, semiotics has been used in several studies. For example, Machin (2010) outlines a variety of ways semiotics can be used to explicate the "meaning" of song lyrics at a micro or macro level.

This paper utilizes a combination of semiotics (Barthes 1974) and narrative theory (Bal 1997) to present a systematic method that can be used to analyze and codify the lyrics of virtually any pop song into one of four major categories. It is hoped that this typology can be used both to better understand how pop music plays a role in cultural storytelling and to aid teachers and students in the development and understanding of songwriting pedagogy.


The topic of analyzing song narrativity must include a discussion of lyrical narrative origins. The narrativity of song is a rich area of study, as the origins of American popular music are rooted deep in storytelling. American pop traces its beginnings to Anglo-American folk music, which, in turn, is derived from European mythic and epic storytelling (Cooke 2000). Wandering minstrels and troubadours in Medieval and Renaissance Europe who performed in small hamlets cemented the oral transmission and regionally distinct nature of folk narratives, establishing that their music was for commoners (Tick and Beaudoin 2008). …

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