14 votes

What are some songs/albums that strongly benefit from their "outside story"?

What I mean by this: information that is not self-contained in the song/album enhances or changes our interpretations of it. It can be something the artist said/did, the historical or cultural context surrounding the music, the inspiration for the song or its writing/recording process, or anything else that makes the target music more meaningful.

Arguably any music can benefit from knowing its "outside story", so I'm looking for particularly noteworthy examples -- ones where this information is especially significant. This is of course subjective, so really anything goes! If you think it's important, well, then that's good enough to share!

13 comments

  1. kfwyre
    (edited )
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    In 1996, the United States federal government passed the Defense of Marriage Act, which explicitly defined marriage as being between a man and a woman, effectively outlawing any potential federal...

    In 1996, the United States federal government passed the Defense of Marriage Act, which explicitly defined marriage as being between a man and a woman, effectively outlawing any potential federal recognition of gay marriages. In the years following this, 31 states also passed amendments to their constitutions banning same-sex marriage. It wasn't until the landmark 2015 Supreme Court decision Obergefell v. Hodges, almost two decades after DOMA, that these were overturned.

    In those two decades, the topic of same-sex marriage was fraught and difficult. Many queer people wanted to hold out hope that one day they'd be able to get legally married, but as more states passed bans, the landscape was looking increasingly hostile and chances increasingly slim.

    After George W. Bush's State of the Union address in 2004, where he mentioned the possibility of a nationwide constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage which would effectively embed the provisions of DOMA into our nation's founding document, San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom directed his city to begin issuing same-sex marriage licenses. His actions garnered national attention and the licenses were issued for a full month before the California Supreme Court intervened to stop their distribution and then, later, nullify all licenses issued.

    At the time, many gay couples from across the country heard about this and chose to travel to San Francisco. For many of them this moment represented their first -- and possibly only -- chance to get "legally" married within the US. Given that DOMA allowed states to deny same-sex marriage licenses issued elsewhere and that Newsom's order was by all accounts illegal itself, these marriages were more symbolic than anything else, but 4000 couples still flooded the San Francisco city hall over the course of the month in order to receive legal recognition for their relationships.

    Vienna Teng's "City Hall" doesn't need all this background in order to land, as it's a beautiful love song in its own right, but knowing the context makes it so, so much richer. The song is about a couple who hears about the marriage licenses being issued and takes a road trip out to San Francisco:

    Me and my baby on a February holiday
    'Cause we got the news
    Yeah, we got the news
    500 miles and we're gonna make it all the way

    Teng specifically wrote the song to be gender neutral -- there's only a narrator and references to the partner that the narrator affectionately refers to as "my baby". There's not a single gendered pronoun in the whole song, making it applicable to queer couples of all stripes.

    The lyrics are here, and as much as I'd like to do a line by line breakdown, I'd rather let Teng's beautiful words speak for themselves. I will say that the moment in the song where the marriage happens, followed by "if they take it away again some day, this beautiful thing won't change" brings me to tears every time.

    It's especially resonant not just in the context of this song, where the licenses issued in 2004 were later voided, but because the 2004 event led to a court case that eventually did legalize same-sex marriage in California in June of 2008. However, months later, in November of 2008, California voters passed a Constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages, once again "taking away" the opportunity for marriage, much like what happened in 2004.

    If you were to listen to the song on its own, it's likely you'd know nothing of the specifics of the event. San Francisco isn't named but is instead "a hilly seaside town".There's no mention of laws or the wider political climate. The previously mentioned lack of pronouns means that it's entirely possible to hear the whole song and not even realize it's about a gay couple. A cursory listen makes it sound like a simple story of an elopement -- nothing more.

    Instead, the song is deeply, movingly topical, and it is absolutely made better when its full context is known. It is one of my favorite songs of all time, and it was a source of hope for me in the decades of my life where I wasn't sure if I ever would be able to get married.

    When I finally did get to marry my husband, I quoted this song in my vows, in front of the Justice of the Peace, as we stood together to be wed at our own City Hall. :)

    7 votes
  2. [3]
    onyxleopard
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    The Joy Division song "Love Will Tear Us Apart" has two contexts that stand out to me: 1: 2: Edit: My favorite cover of this song is this one.

    The Joy Division song "Love Will Tear Us Apart" has two contexts that stand out to me:

    1:

    "Love Will Tear Us Apart" is a song by English rock band Joy Division, released in June 1980 as a non-album single. Its lyrics were inspired by lead singer Ian Curtis' marital problems and struggles with mental illness.[6] The single was released the month after Curtis' suicide.

    2:

    In 1980 Joy Division released Love Will Tear Us Apart, an answer song[22] to "Love Will Keep Us Together".

    Edit: My favorite cover of this song is this one.

    5 votes
  3. [4]
    suspended
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    In the eighties there was a huge uproar from Christian groups that accused rock musicians of placing Satanic messages in their music using backmasking. One of those accusations was against Led...

    In the eighties there was a huge uproar from Christian groups that accused rock musicians of placing Satanic messages in their music using backmasking.

    One of those accusations was against Led Zepplin's Stairway to Heaven.

    The 24 second portion played forward:

    If there's a bustle in your hedgerow, don't be alarmed now, it's just a spring clean for the May queen. Yes there are two paths you can go by, but in the long run (and?) there's still time to change the road you're on.

    The same 24 second portion played in reverse:

    Oh here's to my sweet Satan. The one whose little path would make me sad, whose power is Satan. He'll give those with him 666, there was a little toolshed where he made us suffer, sad Satan.

    You can listen to these here.

    5 votes
    1. [2]
      kfwyre
      Link Parent
      You know, I've known about the controversy for a long time but I never really sought out the songs themselves and listened to them for myself. I'm kind of surprised at how "clear" most of those...

      You know, I've known about the controversy for a long time but I never really sought out the songs themselves and listened to them for myself. I'm kind of surprised at how "clear" most of those lyrics are in reverse, both in terms of being able to make out the words and the thematic consistency. I can at least see why some people would have some concern, as I could see "coincidence" being an unconvincing argument when you have three Satan references along with a 666 thrown in for good measure, all in the same stretch of song.

      2 votes
      1. suspended
        Link Parent
        I've read about this quite a bit and I believe that these guys encapsulate what is going on.

        I've read about this quite a bit and I believe that these guys encapsulate what is going on.

        1 vote
  4. thestarflyer
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    Cherry Lips by Garbage comes to mind. The song was inspired by a couple of "autobiographical" novels about a teenage male-hustler turned writer. The novels later turned out to be works of pure...

    Cherry Lips by Garbage comes to mind. The song was inspired by a couple of "autobiographical" novels about a teenage male-hustler turned writer. The novels later turned out to be works of pure fiction written by a woman writer.

    Shirley Manson wrote the lyrics based loosely around two novels she had just read, Sarah and The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, written by author Laura Albert under the pseudonym of JT LeRoy. "I took a bit of poetic license, but I wrote it for JT. It's easily the most uplifting thing we've ever done. It sounds nothing like us; it sounds like a Shangri-Las song", Manson explained. Like the rest of the world, Manson had believed that LeRoy had been a teenage truck-stop hustler who'd escaped the streets to become a writer. [...] In 2005, LeRoy was exposed as an invention of Laura Albert in articles published by Stephen Beachy, The New York Times and Vanity Fair. "I know a lot of people felt conned in the end," Manson explained. "I didn't. I just felt sad that a woman felt she would stand a better chance in the world if she was a man, that JT was 'dead' and wouldn't be part of my life anymore". Manson still felt that the books "remain a marvel and whoever wrote them is still a genius whether they are a man, woman or wilderbeast."

    5 votes
  5. knocklessmonster
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    Jethro Tull's Thick as a Brick. First, I don't think of albums as "my #1 favorite," but this would consistently be my pick if I had to. It has an internal narrative, but would not exist without...

    Jethro Tull's Thick as a Brick. First, I don't think of albums as "my #1 favorite," but this would consistently be my pick if I had to. It has an internal narrative, but would not exist without the backstory.

    Ian Anderson, the singer/bandleader was annoyed by accusations that their previous album, Aqualung, was a concept album. Only two songs were actually tied together (Aqualung and Cross-eyed Mary) by obvious references, as sort of a character exploration in the two songs. "Thick as a Brick" came to be because Anderson basically thought "If you want a concept album, we'll give you one!" and proceeded to so so. It's origins are as a prog-rock genre parody, but it was also taken seriously by everybody in the band, and became a hit.

    3 votes
  6. [2]
    imperialismus
    Link
    The story of Bon Iver's breakout album For Emma, Forever Ago (2007) is a case where the outside story has taken on almost mythological proportions. Justin Vernon was dissatisfied with his life,...

    The story of Bon Iver's breakout album For Emma, Forever Ago (2007) is a case where the outside story has taken on almost mythological proportions. Justin Vernon was dissatisfied with his life, broke up with his band, broke up with his girlfriend, got laid down low with illness, and decided to move to his dad's cabin in a remote part of Wisconsin to find himself. He spent the next three months chopping wood, hunting game, and writing an album that would make him famous. Later, he said that the titular Emma "isn't a person. Emma is a place that you get stuck in. Emma's a pain that you can’t erase."

    This origin story has arguably been overinterpreted to the point of almost overshadowing the actual album. It's like the ultimate dream of every hipster dude wearing a lumberjack shirt circa 2007, made into life. Nobody could talk about the album without mentioning the backstory, and each time the story was told, it became even larger and more impressive in the retelling, like a fishing story.

    The album still holds up today. It's still great. But this is an example of an album that's been so thoroughly overanalyzed in the context of its backstory that it might be better to just approach it fresh. It's still full of emotion even if you don't imagine Justin Vernon in a red-and-black checkered shirt carrying a moose carcass into a cabin that was raided by a grizzly bear the day before.

    3 votes
    1. blender_cuttingham
      Link Parent
      Wow. I still listen to this album almost weekly. I never knew ! But I must say, I listen to music for the music itself. Could not care less if the artist is a guy, a dog or an alien or what he had...

      Wow. I still listen to this album almost weekly. I never knew ! But I must say, I listen to music for the music itself. Could not care less if the artist is a guy, a dog or an alien or what he had for breakfast while recording it...

      1 vote
  7. culturedleftfoot
    Link
    To me the obvious answer is Fleetwood Mac's Rumours, legendary for its background of tangled intra-band relationships and affairs. Marvin Gaye's Here, My Dear is another notable one. He created it...

    To me the obvious answer is Fleetwood Mac's Rumours, legendary for its background of tangled intra-band relationships and affairs. Marvin Gaye's Here, My Dear is another notable one. He created it as part of a settlement during his divorce from his first wife Anna Gordy (sister of his Motown Records boss Berry Gordy); she received half of his royalties from its sales. It's primarily about her and their breakup, and it's a bitter, tender, angry, regretful, sincere rollercoaster of a soul opera. It's not necessarily easy to get into as a mellow listen, but it's a fascinating and perhaps cautionary look into a broken man's heart.

    2 votes