Songs speak not just to us but also to one another, crossing years and miles and even genres. One of last year’s best hip-hop singles, written by a rapper from Compton, Calif., has an echo in a 14-year-old alt-country track written by a woman from New Orleans. Both are masterful short stories about the power of alcohol.
Last fall, when Kendrick Lamar’s “Swimming Pools (Drank)” was all over the radio, it set off a bell in my head from the first verse:
Now I done grew up
Round some people living their life in bottles
He talks about his granddaddy’s golden flask. He talks about his friends wanting to kill their sorrows. He talks about not fitting in anywhere, sitting in his dark room, the music turned up, “looking to make a vow soon” – his own version of Bruce Springsteen’s dancing in the dark.
Between the verses, a deep voice sets up a call-and-response, but for every call the helpless response is the same:
Pour up, drank. Head shot, drank.
Sit down, drank. Stand up, drank.
Pass out, drank. Wake up, drank.
Faded, drank. Faded, drank.
It took a few months for me to figure it out, but that ringing in my head found its answering bell. It’s a song by Mary Gauthier called “I Drink.” It should come with one of those surgeon general’s warnings: Listening To This Song Will Hurt Your Heart.
Kendrick Lamar had his granddaddy. Mary Gauthier has her daddy:
He’d get home at 5:30, fix his drink
And sit down in his chair
Pick a fight with Mama
Complain about us kids getting in his hair
Kendrick Lamar has his dark room. Gauthier has her little place on the edge of town. In four lines you know exactly what her life is like:
Chicken TV dinner
6 minutes on defrost, 3 on high
A beer to wash it down with
Another, then some whiskey on the side
And where Kendrick Lamar has his drone going “drank,” Mary Gauthier has a chorus that is just 16 words but damn near ruins me every time I hear it:
By and by
Sit and think
In subject matter, these songs show the value of writing about a common topic from a different direction. Hip-hop celebrates bottle service at the club and champagne flowing all night long. Country music treats alcohol as salve for a busted heart (when it’s not helping white people dance). But not as many songs deal with the consequences of life at the bottom of the bottle.
In technique, both songs use narrative to tell the story – going back in time, writing in scenes. When the writers cut to the nut of the story, the words get simpler and the sentences shorter. “Pass out, drank. Wake up, drank” says the same thing as “Old men sit and think. I drink” – and says it in pretty much the same way.
These songs cut to the bone because they show things just as they are. That’s a lesson for any kind of writing. If the material is strong enough, don’t dress it up. Just set it out there raw for the reader to feel.
Tommy Tomlinson is a staff writer for Sports on Earth, a new web venture dedicated to great sportswriting. He’s a former local columnist for the Charlotte Observer, and he has written for magazines including Sports Illustrated, Reader’s Digest, Southern Living and Garden & Gun. In his last musical-narrative piece for Storyboard, he wrote about “Ode to Billie Joe.” If you’d like to see him explore certain songs, drop him a line at email@example.com or on Twitter @tommytomlinson.