Why telling a great story in a song matters.
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Does storytelling matter in songwriting?

Does storytelling matter in songwriting?

This is part 5 of 5 of my analysis of telling stories in love songs.

My aim was to understand if the craft of telling a captivating story matters in how successful a song can be. I wanted to find out which of Westlife’s love songs resonated with their fans, which didn’t and why?

There should be a reason why What makes a man was the first single that didn’t make it to number one in the UK singles chart while all the previous singles made number one. And why did Westlife’s Manager Louis Walsh hate that the song Lighthouse that was released as a single for the Greatest Hits Album?

 

In this article I sum up every takeaway from the last four articles and specifically look at the original Westlife songs and how they influenced the success of their albums.

 

You'll find all the links to the Westlife songs, lyrics, the spreadsheet and the infographic here.

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Why telling a great story in a song matters.

Why the album Westlife was the best considering the storytelling:

Westlife AlbumAll of the singles on the album Westlife told captivating stories. These songs had something in common.

Whether they were about confessing one’s love or breaking up, they all told a story with a mature and likable protagonist who knew what he wanted and/or gained a better understanding.

All of the songs not only posed a problem the protagonist had to face, but they also provided a helpful solution to the listener.

The stories were specific and relatable and their resolutions showed the consequences of the protagonist’s decision.

And more importantly, they all had a positive ending.

 

The first song on the second album My Love met their fans' expectations with good storytelling as well. It reached number one. 

Westlife best single releases

Westlife best single releases

The success of Westlife songs released as singles

What makes a Man (spreadsheet #26) was the first single that only made it to number 2 on the UK singles chart. This song deviated from Westlife's previous style of songwriting by having a desperate protagonist who begged his love to tell him what he could do to win her love again.

This song presented a story where the character first denied the breakup was happening to feeling desperate that he lost her. The protagonist comes across as weak and naive. The song does not provide a solution to the problem of how to deal with a breakup. 

So after Westlife had enticed fans with a mature protagonist on their first five original singles, this song did not satisfy in the same way. That’s likely why the song only made it to number 2.

Westlife Bop Bop Baby

 

In Bop Bop Baby (spreadsheet #44) the protagonist questions the love he shares with someone. His self-doubt makes the listener believe the relationship won’t last. Furthermore, the song didn’t have a clear message. Bop Bop Baby made it only to #5 in the UK singles chart.

 

Westlife TonightIn Tonight (spreadsheet #68) the protagonist made a mistake and he wants to make it up to his love. The solution to the problem could have been helpful to the listener. But the song suggests the way to make up for your mistakes is to have sex. But strong relationships are based on more than sex. It's about not taking them for granted anymore. Maybe the song would have pleased more people if the chorus hadn’t been just about sex. (Reached #3 on UK singles chart)

 

Westlife ObviousIn Obvious (spreadsheet #73) we miss the resolution. The protagonist puts all his efforts into getting noticed. The chorus builds up the momentum by changing from 'I've done everything but say it' to 'Done everything but sing it' to 'So finally I'll sing it'. This shows how the protagonist comes from the realization he has to come up with another idea to finally putting his idea into action.

And he does it.

The last verse is his confession of love. He took us on his journey.

The only thing missing is the resolution: Did she finally notice him or not? My thought is if there would have been a kiss in the end or a touch that says more than words, this song could have made number one (reached #3 on UK singles chart)

 

Westlife AmazingAmazing (spreadsheet #83) deals with the big question of do you risk being vulnerable by sharing your love with another person and trusting they won’t hurt you OR do you protect yourself and never find true love. He weighs his options. But there's no climax. We don't learn what he decides to do. The song would have been stronger if it had ended with ‘We are amazing now’. That's a resolution and we know what decision the protagonist made. But instead, we are left wondering (reached #4 on UK singles chart)

 

Westlife Us Against the WorldUs against the world (spreadsheet #90) is like the hero and his love in the trenches. They fight against the world together which creates a very strong theme. And there’s a very strong and sophisticated protagonist which is the most important feature a good love song needs. But still, this song only made it to position 8 in the UK singles chart. My thought is that it lacks specificity and we have no clue what those two are fighting against. So we don't get any hint of what's going on. And the song doesn’t tell a story.

 

Westlife SafeSafe (spreadsheet #112) reached number 10 when it was first released. The other option for the single release was I will Reach you (spreadsheet #114). Even though Shane Filan said in his book ‘My Side of Life’ that Westlife just no longer had the devoted fans who would buy a single on its release day, I think the song Safe only reached number 10 because the song doesn’t work. Who is the protagonist talking to in the first verse? From the start, I have no idea what the song is about. Because the song is so vague, it doesn’t touch me.

On the other hand, JLS’s Love You More made number one that day because the story in the song is so compelling because it takes you through the maturation of the protagonist and how grateful he is for his love. It deserved to be number one. 

And then there was The Flood of Take That. It’s an amazing song that tells a deep story and provides so much more meaning to the listener. Compare these two songs to Safe and you’ll see why it just wasn’t good enough.

 

Westlife LighthouseLighthouse (spreadsheet #122) only reached number 32 in the UK charts. Westlife’s manager Louis Walsh had said that he hated that song. Well, the comparison is nice: Telling someone to be their lighthouse. But the protagonist is weak and pathetic. We look to love songs expecting to get helpful love advice but I would never take advice from the character in this song because he’s at his lowest low: ‘This kind of love Is more than a lifeline For a man as weak as me Who has no self belief’. (© Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC)

Unfortunately, the video is not much better. They are standing around in a cornfield which has nothing to do with the song. Interestingly, the B-side track on the single release of Lighthouse called Poet’s Heart (spreadsheet #126) told a much better story. Comparing love and creative work is beautiful and relatable. The refrain sounds wonderful and made me smile. I loved it! But my complaint about the song is that the crisis is not stated and if I have to make one up for the songwriter, then the song doesn’t feel complete. However, I love the resolution. That’s what stays with me. He has a poet’s heart because of her. Amazing what love can do.

I think on the Greatest Hits album Beautiful World (spreadsheet #123) should have been released as a single instead of Lighthouse. Isn’t it a great message to tell everyone that the world is beautiful?

I even love the official video that shows all the memories of Westlife’s years together and the fun they had. This song shows clearly that the protagonist has learned a lesson and he is able to make better decisions now. He appreciates the world he’s living in. And he thanks his love for that. He’s grateful and captivating. A man to fall in love with because he has so many great character traits. This song is the best in a long time considering the last albums. 

 

The storytelling on Westlife albums

Most of the albums had more or less songs telling stories with likable and mature characters.

The only two exceptions were Face to Face and Gravity.

Westlife Storytelling Albums

Westlife AlbumThe first album Westlife is the one that tells the most captivating stories, most of all in its singles but also on the album itself.

It includes the obligatory moments of a love story in 14 of 15 songs (93%). It mostly deals with breakups but there are also some great songs about the confession of love or the first intimate moment together such as a first kiss.

Most of the stories show a crossroads moment for the protagonist and all but one end positively. It’s also the album in which the protagonist faces a problem that he has to overcome in every song. And he does so in 13 songs of 15 that all provide a helpful solution to the listener.

Even the Narrative Drive (mostly using suspense) is the strongest on this album.

This album is by far the one that tells amazing stories with likable and mature protagonists who offer guidance.

 

Westlife Face to FaceFace to Face only had five original Westlife songs on the record (42%). In three of those songs, the protagonist faced a problem. And the problem was solved in only two of those songs but neither in a way that was helpful for the listener.

Three songs of five told a story, but only the single Amazing had a positive outcome for the protagonist. Furthermore, none of the protagonists seemed to be mature or sophisticated and only two songs provided a protagonist the listener might like. 

 

Westlife GravityGravity had Safe released as a single (see notes above). That song didn’t work because it left the listeners confused as to what it was about. The rest of the record (10 original Westlife songs = 87%) had only two songs that told a story and both of them ended with a sad (Too hard to say Goodbye) or even tragic ending (I get weak).

Furthermore, only 2 songs had a mature protagonist and, even though he was likable in half of the songs, the album did not fulfill the listener’s expectations of a love album. Only three songs included an obligatory element of the love story (love story moment: confession of love) and only one included a convention of the love story (secrets from another).

Just look at the infographic below that shows the number of album sales. Gravity was the least selling album so far.

 

Conclusion

With a catchy melody, a love song can become an evergreen, even without a clear story.

But if you want the message of your song to be unforgettable, you need to tell a story.

Songs are short but there is plenty of time to capture a moment that changed the main character for better or worse. And those moments create long-lasting, chart-topping songs.

 

Westlife singles tell better storiesAs I started analyzing Westlife’s original songs I had no idea what kind of results I would come up with. It was a journey I hadn’t seen anyone take before.

As I had all my data gathered I was struck that singles are the leading song category that told the most captivating stories. I noticed this trend with the very first album of Westlife. Its singles were so strong but the B-side tracks weren’t.

So with all that data, we can say for sure that there’s a reason why certain songs are chosen to be released as singles and others aren't. Even though that decision is not always the right one (‘Bop Bop Baby’ or ‘Lighthouse’), overall the decision was justified.

In those two graphs you can see that singles are indeed telling the most captivating stories:

Westlife Singles tell better stories

 

After I had done the full spreadsheet (gathered all the data) and created most of my infographics I thought about if there might be a correlation between telling amazing love stories and the number of albums sold.

So I used the UK shipments figures based on certification alone (how many Platinum albums did Westlife get) and compared that data with how well the albums told a captivating story.

Westlife Sales Data and Storytelling in Songs

 

Having done the infographic I was speechless. There is a correlation between albums sold and how well the original songs on the album told a captivating love story.

Even though Face to Face doesn’t tell stories as good in its songs as other albums, the sales number is still high.

Since we can consider singles as one of the main reasons why an album is bought, the song Amazing as well as the two cover songs You raise me up and When you tell me that you love me have influenced the album sales number. Face to Face was not a complete cover album like The Love Album or Allow us to be Frank but it was the one album that had more covers than original songs on it.

 

There are only two albums where the lines do not take a similar curve (Spectrum is still pending since it’s just been released in Nov. 2019)

Westlife Coast to CoastCoast to Coast had a very strong single with Against all Odds – a duet with Mariah Carey which might have raised the album sales.

Where We Are on the other hand, only had one single released which was a cover of What about Now. A song by the band Daughtry who isn't that well known in Europe.

 

Westlife TurnaroundThe record Turnaround is the only exception in this entire graphic where there must have been other influences as to why this album didn’t sell.

The storytelling was good and it received positive critical reviews. But the album's lead-single Hey Whatever only reached number 4 on the UK Singles Chart. The album was released after the second single, the well-known love song Mandy, a cover version that made it straight to number 1 on the UK Singles Chart.

But: A single (especially the first one of a new album) is there to introduce a new album release and make a promise as to what to expect on the album (same with a movie trailer, the cover of a book, ...). It doesn’t only establish the sound, but in the case of Westlife who are associated with singing love songs, people expect to listen to another great love album.

But Hey Whatever was no love song. People might have thought Westlife had strayed away from singing only love songs and portrayed that thought onto the album which could have been a reason the number of albums sold was low.

Westlife Infographic Songs Storytelling

 

Storytelling matters in Songwriting

Even with that exception, we can conclude by saying that the craft of telling a great story indeed matters in songwriting.

This huge analysis is proof, and I am so excited to go on testing that theory and analyzing more songs and albums.

For now, I conclude by saying I’d love to do a concept album with Westlife or any other band that’s interested in telling a captivating love story from beginning to end on their next album. 

Of course, Westlife is dear to me because I have spent probably more than a couple hundred hours in this entire process of analyzing all of their original songs. And I feel there’s so much potential for them to create a love story concept album that could become a once in a lifetime album like Green Day created with American Idiot. And I would love to apply everything I’ve learned in the process to help Westlife create this special concept album. 

 

Thanks for taking the time to read this article and the previous ones.

If you have any questions or would like to leave a comment, please do so in the comment section below.

 

If you are a singer, songwriter or a band and you’re interested in writing songs together or you want to predict the strength of an album in relation to how successful it can be, just get in touch with me. I’d love to talk about your project with you.




Does storytelling matter in songwriting? - Why telling a great story in a song matters.

Full data - the spreadsheet

If you want to see the full spreadsheet that I used for collecting my data, you can sign up for my newsletter and I'll send you a link to the complete, downloadable Google Spreadsheet.

Here's an explanation to better understand the spreadsheet: Spreadsheet Explanation


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Links, Downloads & more

If you want to check out the lyrics to the songs mentioned or read my comments, you can find all 137 original Westlife songs here:

 

The infographic

If the spreadsheet is too much to look at (I understand, it's huge!), you can also look at the complete infographic that includes all the infographics of this article and more. Open the complete Westlife Infographic here.

 

Fiction writers

If you’re a fiction writer and you wonder how you can write better romance novels by studying love songs, read my blog post on the Story Grid website: “What Romance Writers Can Learn From Studying Love Songs”.

 

More about storytelling in songs

If you want to read more about storytelling in songs, please sign up for my newsletter. I’ll keep you updated with my latest articles and new insights. Find out more about my current projects and song analysis here: Bands & Albums.

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