Song Stories: A People’s History of Popular Music

Kyle Bylin, Associate Editor


What you learn about when you study the history of popular music are certainly not trivial things. It is important to understand the times and the lives of the musicians and singers that revolutionized the ways in which music was played.  How their affluence allowed for their generation and those that followed to reimagine and challenge the boundaries that stood before them.  Through the eyes of these highly influential individuals and musical groups we peer out across the landscape of popular music and are left in awe at the impact that they had on the songs that now define our day — the lives that were changed because of their efforts.  Almost as if the history of popular music is but the biographies of these great musicians and singers, these astonishingly talented men and women.

Heroes such as The Velvet Underground and Nico, the Beatles, Sinatra, The Beach Boys, Elvis Presley, Patti Smith, Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, The Byrds, and Robert Johnson shaped the history of popular music both through their personal attributes and divine inspiration.  Thus, we view the history of popular music as having turned on the decisions of these “heroes” and give detailed analysis of the influence they garnered — Dylan going electric, the Beatles coming to America, and Elvis recording "Blue Suede Shoes." This is what we think of when we try to isolate those particular moments in time where after the fact, we were different now.  In ways that we may have not fully understood at the time, but in hindsight, it’s clear that our culture would never be the same.

Still today, their songs are known as the great songs.  Their songs speak to us.  Within those words we are able to see a little part of ourselves.  Some of which are known and others that were not.  We marvel at them — their genius.  Listening and trying to determine what it is that they felt.  What it is that drove them to write these songs.  In some cases, the mystery is revealed, but in others, the secret is shrouded.  Left to our own devices, we begin to imagine.  We begin to understand them through our experiences.  Their songs become a piece of our story — something we take with us, wherever it is that we go.  Inside of us and in our hearts and minds — their words linger. We recall them, but what we remember is not what they meant to them, but what they mean to us.

We interject ourselves into their songs and it feels as though they mirror our emotions and intentions.  Certain songs give us insight into those around us, those we love, those we hate.  We see the utter dysfunction in our relationships, come to understand the beauty and the darkness of our love, and learn about the kaleidoscopic nature of the human condition.  Still, some songs make us happy, while others bring sadness.  There are those songs that connect with the present and those that bring us back to the past.  Memories we’ve long since forgotten, or, at the very least, tried to forget.  Then, while there are songs that we simply enjoy because they don’t remind us of anything or anyone — there are those that are intrinsically tied to our identity and moments in our lives.  But, why is that?

“Part of the reason we remember the songs from our teenage years,” Neurologist Daniel Levitin explains in his book This Is Your Brain on Music, “is because those years were time of self-discovery, and as a consequence, they were emotionally charged.”  He continues, “in general, we tend to remember things that have an emotional component because our amygdale and neurotransmitter act in concert to “tag” the memories as something important.”  Through these mental processes certain songs become interwoven into the story of our lives — for the reason that, the more charged with emotion that a chapter becomes, the more likely it is that a song may come to be associated with our memories of it.  To the extent of not only our memories, but how we think we remember feeling.

This is what music does for us — it connects with the stories of our lives and it creates meaning.  It helps us understand each other better.  Yet, history has another lesson — that it doesn’t take a great musician to create a great song.  All songs are great songs, if indeed they’ve shaped our history and have become an important entry in our biography.  “Even the most broadly distributed, most market-inflected music comes to have a very specific and local meaning for people,” Candice Breitz, a young South African artist, explained to Larry Lessig in Remix, “according to where it is that they’re hearing it or at what moment in their lives they’re hearing it.”  This is true of the most obscure and independent songs we come across, providing they have, somehow, become significant to us.


Fast approaching is a day and age in which we will no longer learn about the history of popular music solely through the vision of a few great musicians and singers and their great songs, but through the eyes of common people.  From the view of those who experienced the music and felt so moved by it that they chose to share the music and how it became a part of their story.  Already searches for songs or their lyrics not only garner the traditional results but the various notes, tweets, and blog posts where they are also mentioned.  Where the users of Wikipedia fill in the blanks of an artist’s history that textbooks simply don’t have the page space to cover, fans have begun to extend beyond the cultural history of a song and attach their personal accounts of how it relates to their lives. 

These “song stories” deepen our understanding of music for the reason that they help us extend our interpretation of a song beyond what it means to us and what we think an artist wrote it about – to how the song was experienced by other people and what meaning it created in their lives.  How our stories overlap and the ways in which they are different – some of it may be meaningful, much of it trivial – provides us with the opportunity to see songs through the eyes of another and their emotions, not of our own.  In fact, no matter how long we live or how many people we meet, reading these stories is actually the closest we will come to gaining insight into the one thing that none of us will ever know – what the experience of the world is like through a consciousness other than our own.

In this respect, what these personal accounts give us is a partial glimpse into people’s lives, as opposed to knowing the whole story — we just hear little of it.  Then, we let our minds fill in the rest.  Given that many of the details are necessarily missing, our imagination solves this problem by filling in the gaps with details that it borrows from our own story.  That’s why when we read these stories we not only have the sensation of being drawn into their world, but instinctively, we also empathize.  For a moment, we feel what they feel and begin to see a song through their story.  Music has this same effect — singers pull us into their story.  They leave gaps in their thoughts and we fill them in with details that we borrow from the past  —  from the events that are happening in our lives.

Once a specific song comes to represent these events, these moments in our lives, it becomes our song story.  Prior to the Internet, there wasn’t a way for fans to share these stories with anyone other than that of their friends and the artist themselves through traditional fan mail, but, now, they have the ability to share their stories with the world.  For those who choose to share, what we gain from them is a people’s history of popular music.  Their stories provide a history of popular music from below — from the standpoint of the common people that are often overlooked in our textbooks and in our culture.  When looked at from below, the last decade of our history has a second lesson — that whatever change  happened was result of common people, not that of great musicians or singers.

“Previous decades were dominated by personalities and movements,” music critic Greg Kot argues, “larger-than-life figures such as Elvis Presley and the Beatles, and cultural shifts such as hip-hop, rave music and punk.”  During this time, the mindset of the record industry and that of the textbooks that cover this period, relates to the “Great Man” theory of history proposed by the Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle, who believed, “that it is the few, the powerful and the famous who shape our collective destiny as a species.”  Contrary to this, Kot argues that this last decade belonged to music technology and delivery systems.  “Most of all, he says, “the decade belonged to the fans."  Not to those who shape the history of popular music, but those whose histories are shaped by the music.


With the dawn of a new decade, we are now challenged to look beyond the great musicians and singers and their great songs.  That, in their place, we must try to understand the lives of the common people their music is a part of, what meaning it creates for them, and how these songs have become connected to their stories.  In addition to that, to paraphrase Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers, “we must appreciate the idea that values of the world we inhabit and the [music] we surround ourselves with [has] a profound effect on who we are.”  And that above all, our stories matter.  Not only towards how we experience music, but to how our stories have the potential to enrich the experiences and understanding of those who live just outside of our world — those we know and those we don’t.

Throughout our lives, we will bear within us and continue to build upon a history of music that’s unique to us, our taste in music, and life experiences.  It is important to some, neglected by others.  But, for many, it may very well be the closest thing they will ever have to the journal they never kept or to the old diary that has since been boxed up and packed away.  In its absence, the soundtrack of our lives has expanded into an ongoing playlist and it has transformed into the lens that we use to organize the spectrum of our emotions.  Each song creates a different meaning, one that evolves over time and helps us tell all of our stories.  And, unlike the journals and diaries of yesteryear, it’s not stowed in a drawer, but in our pockets and purses, and often times it’s held very tightly in our hands.

Truth be told, if we tried to perceive the changes of the last decade from the shoulders of giants and through the vision of a few colossal figures, much of the significance of the years passed would be whitewashed away — the richness and complexity gone.  To that end, this is certainly not a decade where by taking into consideration how heroes shaped the history of popular music through the vision of their intellect, the beauty of their lyrics, the skill of their musicianship, and, most important, their divine inspiration, we would ever so suddenly find ourselves bestowed with the knowledge we lacked.  No, the most crucial element to understanding this decade was people — those who were long since ignored, until the instant came where they had to be either acknowledged or prosecuted.

Since then, more so than that of any artist, this decade has belonged to the fans not because they have in some way shaped the history of popular music through their personal attributes and divine inspiration, but for the reason that they make history and change it through their daily actions.  The “young and the digital,” as Professor S. Craig Watkins named them, are strikingly different from previous generations and as a result of their persistent engagement with digital technology they have rewritten many of the most taken-for-granted rules in the record industry.  Along with that, they, and those of previous generations, have for quite some time now been sharing the stories of their lives and the songs that are tied to them, and what meaning they create for them, all across the Internet.

Unfortunately, at present, no one has sought out to collect and tell these stories, our stories — to form a people’s history of popular music.  Not because it isn’t important, but because doing so was previously impossible.  Therefore, what I challenge of you is to start making one.  Whether it’s through your fan base, record label, blog, or company, just start somewhere, and find ways to tell these stories.  Here, what the last decade has reminded is that we always need to ask:  what stories aren’t being told?  Whose voices aren’t we hearing?  In this case, it has been the voice of the fans that should have all along been the focus of the debate over the future of music, and up until now they have been relegated to the sidelines, but the time has come where we need to let their stories be told.

Additional Reading:


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