In the modern world of songwriting, artist and music marketing, there are rarely songs that become big hits without a story behind it—and to make actual money from music these days, a big hit is extremely helpful. We see this with “drivers license” by Olivia Rodrigo, “Lose You to Love Me” by Selena Gomez and recently, “Easy on Me” by Adele.
There is a difference between not writing in a vacuum and working with external marketing and context to get the meaning of your song across. If you avoid writing in a vacuum, you can draw from idioms, symbolism and pop culture because you can safely assume that people will be able to understand them or be able to research them quite easily.
Here is an example from Verse One of “Easy On Me”, where the song uses a metaphor:
There ain’t no gold in this river
That I’ve been washing my hands in forever
I know there is hope in these waters
But I can’t bring myself to swim
Although there is no clear-cut explanation of what she is singing about, the metaphors of “swimming forward” and “washing hands” are common ones that are presented in this verse. They are written in an interesting way so that they don’t sound cliché and provide enough background to understand that the character has been struggling in these “waters”—a recurring problem—for quite a long time.
The next two lines are little more confusing:
When I am drowning in this silence
Baby, let me in
We are presented with the concept of “silence”, leaving us wondering what that means. Perhaps we will find out later in the song. We also experience a sudden switch of perspective; where the character set an understanding that the character is singing to herself or the audience, the switch when we realize she is singing to a certain someone feels a little sudden.
But this character isn’t just any character, is it? This is Adele singing, and most of us know Adele and about the divorce she went through.
Therefore, when we reach the Chorus…
Go easy on me, baby
I was still a child
Didn’t get the chance to
Feel the world around me
I had no time to choose what I chose to do
So go easy on me
We know from external context why she is asking, “Go easy on me” even though the song only provides the context of her struggling to swim. We don’t know why the person she is singing to would not go easy on her in the first place without knowing her story. We wouldn’t know why she is singing, “I was still a child”—what was she too young for?—or “I had no time to choose what I chose to do” with the context of the song alone.
Verse Two does give us more of the backstory:
There ain’t no room for things to change
When we are both so deeply stuck in our ways
You can’t deny how hard I have tried
I changed who I was to put you both first
But now I give up
Although the lyrics are a little contradictory—“there ain’t no room for things to change”, but she says “I changed who I was” just a few lines later—there is a lot more context of what was going on between the characters. We understand the tension and the tug-of-war situation.
Still, without external context, we probably wouldn’t know for sure that this is the singer’s lover (but the address of “baby” is a good hint). We wouldn’t know who “you both” would be without knowing that Adele had a child since her last album. There is still no context for her choices and how she ended up in the struggle she spoke of in her first Verse.
But there is something to be said about leaving these details out on purpose. By doing this, does it open up for details to be filled in by the listeners? Does it allow an interactive experience of listening to the song, prompting the audience to think harder about what the song means, perhaps even researching it? Does it draw more attention to Adele and her story outside of her songwriting?
There is no doubt that this song is relatable and powerful for those who have gone through Adele’s situation. Today, selling a song is heavily reliant on good marketing tactics, which can include being able to connect with an audience with a story. Do you think this is effective, or do you feel it takes away from the songwriting? Leave a comment with your thoughts!