Based On A True Story: Half-Truths In 3 Popular Songs
One place where music differs from other media is its relationship with the truth. Movies might be "based on a true story." Episodes of a television show might be "ripped from the headlines". If you're Mike Daisey you might refer to your monologues as an "exaggerat[ion of] my own experiences".
Photo by Pearl Jam Official.
Rarely do musicians use "truth" as their hook to get you to listen in.
The social contract for most listeners and artists is pretty simple: It has to be you on the record. If you're a singer, it has to be your voice. If you're credited with playing an instrument on a song, it has to be you playing it. If you're a DJ with a mix, then it has to be something you mixed together.
As long as the end result is you, fans and critics will give you a fair shot -- unless you're The Monkees.
As long as a song is good, people are willing to accept a half-truth just as eagerly as they'll accept a full lie.
We don't expect songs to be newspaper articles. A lot of people don't even care about the lyrical content of a song as long as the vibe is right. One of the things that makes music great and different from other forms of media is that songs don't have to be slaves to a plot.
And so we allow artists to take dramatic license with their songs.
Songs that stretch the truth can be slotted in to three different categories. Check out these examples of great songs that aren't completely honest.
Song: Pearl Jam, "Alive"
Category: Inspired By True Events
The Story: A mother reveals to her son that the man he thinks is his father isn't. His actual father is dead. Mother and son knock boots. He doesn't enjoy it. Mother wonders if he is OK. He isn't. She reminds him that he's still alive. That's the problem.
The Truth: Eddie Vedder's mother did in fact reveal to him during his teenage years that the man he thought was his father was actually his stepfather. The knowledge was a burden to him at the time. Most of us will never experience that kind of shock to the system, especially at an age as confusing as our teen years. The first and third verses of the song appear to be an accurate description of events.
Vedder admits that the second verse is pure fiction. There was no incestuous relationship with his mom. In fact, that part of the song exists because "Alive" is the first part of a trilogy of songs that includes "Once" and "Footsteps". The main character goes insane, kills, and ends up in prison. Thanks mom.
Songs like this are a lot like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: Something real happens (Ed Gein keeps body parts in his house) and a creative spark is lit that leads to something very different inspired by that real event.