Too much tertiary education... Former performer/wrestler, teacher, scientist; Published author & Father... Want to be a writer if I grow up...
Published October 9th 2021
Not talking, but singing a conversation
The duet is something that has been around for as long as there has been music. Two instruments working together, two dancers in sync with one another, two guitarists playing off one another, and, of course, two singers sharing vocal duties. The use of two voices to harmonise (as in the Everly brothers) can really add something special to a song. Two voices can also run back and forth in order to tell the story of the song in an interesting way. And some duets become the best-known songs of the artists involved. Duets are a staple of music, and rightfully so.
However, some songs go beyond just the two voices harmonising or sharing vocal duties. Some songs actually take it the next level and the lyrics are a conversation between two people. And then there are those artists who sing a conversation and take on both sides of what is being said. Conversations in song are not that common but have often produced some of the most interesting lyrical lines.
Now, quickly, some duets that seem like conversations aren't really. An example is 'I Got You, Babe' by Sonny & Cher, which is not really two people talking to one another as supporting one another's statements. So that meant a lot of song listening for me to make sure that I had things worked out properly.
Oh, and thanks to Kat on Twitter for the column suggestion. Took me a little while, but I got around to it!
So, usual rules apply – I need to like the song, one song per artist. All tracks come from my own collection so, as usual, if I've left anything out, please add it in the comments section below! (Oh, and I find 'Baby, It's Cold Outside' really sleazy, so, no, it's not here.)
Songs that are conversations!
'Anything You Can Do' by Ethel Merman and Ray Middleton (1946)
From the original cast recording of Annie, Get Your Gun, this is not so much a conversation as a musical argument. This has been done so often subsequently, but there is something about Merman's voice that is just incredible.
'Hey Joe' by The Jimi Hendrix Experience (1966)
Yes, while done by one singer, this is Joe being questioned by someone who thinks his behaviour is strange and getting a very honest series of responses in reply. One of the greatest cover versions of all time, so much so that no one knows the original anymore (The Leaves, 1965).
'Father And Son' by Cat Stevens (1970)
A sort of argument. A man is giving advice to his son, and his son thinks the old man isn't listening to his desires, but the old man continues to talk anyway. A conversation that accentuates the generation gap that became so evident in the 1960s and 1970s, it is one of my favourite Cat Stevens songs.
'Don't Go Breaking My Heart' by Elton John and Kiki Dee (1976)
Two lovers convincing one another that they are going to be true. Very sweet song, a little twee, but it's hard not to like Elton John. The call and response style of lyric sharing works very well in this case.
'Paradise By The Dashboard Light' by Meat Loaf (1977)
Two young lovers – Meat Loaf and Ellen Foley (on the album, not in the video) – are about to have sex (hence the baseball metaphor of bases, which was a common Americanism for decades indicating how far "petting" went, with home base meaning going all the way), when the woman demands the man loves her forever, they argue, he agrees, and then they regret the decision. From one of my favourite albums, written by the late Jim Steinman, this is such a glorious over-the-top song.
'Don't You Want Me' by The Human League (1982)
A guy tells the girl all he did for her, the record producer type, and then she responds with the truth as she saw it, all at the end of a relationship that was probably both professional and emotional. This is one of the best songs of the 1980s, and one of the all-time classic New Wave tracks. So good.
'Fairytale Of New York' by The Pogues with Kristy McColl (1988)
A couple talking to one another about lousy this Christmas time is. This is one of my all-time favourite Christmas songs, and through their conversation we see their relationship fall rapidly apart. This is such an amazing song.
'Hip Hop Police' by Chamillionaire feat. Slick Rick (2007)
Probably best known for 'Ridin'' (the basis for 'Weird Al' Yankovic's 'White & Nerdy'), this was Chamillionaire's follow-up, and it's a protest song about police brutality and racial profiling, with the conversation between a police officer and a random African-American. It's presented as light, with a story conceit that hip-hop/rap is illegal, but there is something deeper behind it.
'Somebody That I Used to Know' by Gotye feat. Kimbra (2011)
A conversation between two people whose relationship has fallen apart, and they know it. This is one of the best Australian pop songs of the twenty-first century, with the two voices meshing so well. This song is beautiful.
'Exile' by Taylor Swift feat. Bon Iver (2020)
A couple who see one another after their break-up, and they're not happy about not being together. Lyrically, this song is so well written, coming from one of the best albums of 2020. Two voices complementing each other so well, singing such a great song.
Yes, these songs are, on the whole, a little depressing, but the way they are put together is really stunning. There are a lot of great ways to present songs, and this is one that seems to be quite difficult to pull off well. And when – as in these 10 examples – it is done well, it can be something that really elevates song-writing to another level.
So, I hope you enjoyed this list.
And, remember, talking is important. Talk to people if you feel the need to. Don't keep it inside.