Sign in

Songwriting for Them: Identity & Pop Songs

I’m not putting pronouns in my music. Why? There is much more to it than you think.

My name is James Rosa. I am an up-and-coming singer-songwriter who is preparing to debut soon.

I’ll begin by saying this: you should write your songs how you want. There is no purpose to songwriting if you aren’t letting your own experiences & feelings inform the music, regardless of whether the song is about your life or you’re building an immersive third-person universe (see folklore by Taylor Swift). Maybe pronouns play a big part in your songs. Maybe they make your songs feel real.

For me, refraining from pronoun usage plays a big part in my songs (I’m referring only to gendered pronouns). It is merely a personal choice, not my agenda for the music industry. I only dream that the music industry will fully welcome all the diverse stories that get erased simply because certain perspectives aren’t marketable for nonstop radio play. These stories exist and they deserve to be heard.

Personalization in songwriting is pretty much how mainstream music resonates with us. From Beyoncé cryptically referring to a “note in the hallway” in her JAY-Z revenge anthem, Sorry, to newcomers like Olivia Rodrigo longing for answers to why that “blonde girl” (allegedly fellow Disney alum Sabrina Carpenter) seems to have ‘everything’ in the melancholy driver’s license. These personal touches add a sense of rawness to those songs & help both artists foster a real connection with their audience.

Filipina-American singer Olivia Rodrigo’s “driver’s license” is double platinum in the United States (RIAA). Photo: IMDB

But personalization does not only come from mentioning specific people, places, or events. Personalization is sometimes directly tied to the singer’s identity. More often than not, Top 40 radio is all ‘girls singing songs about boys’ and ‘boys singing songs about girls.’ Well… I guess there’s nothing wrong with that. And there’s nothing wrong with referencing your blonde-haired, blue-eyed exes in your songs either. The issue is that mainstream music is almost exclusively made up of these heterosexual, usually White narratives.

A lack of relatability to people of color & LGBTQ people in pop music is not a songwriting problem, but a representation problem.

We are living in a great time in music history. It is an era where WAP hitmakers Cardi B & Megan Thee Stallion can top the Hot 100 while rapping freely about female sexuality as explicitly as men always have. And recently, we have breakout star Lil Nas X singing about gay love in MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name), with the goal of opening up doors for “queer lust in music” (Daw). It is currently the #1 song in the nation. But despite these massive achievements for marginalized groups, there is much more work needed to be done to decenter White, patriarchal, and heteronormative narratives in music.

Lil Nas X’s music video and song for “MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name)” has opened up conversations about sexuality in music. Video: VEVO, Lil Nas X, Columbia Records.

Sure. Being able to separate yourself from the creator’s narrative is integral to consuming art, but imagine this: what if every song on the radio was written by LGBTQ and non-binary people, and society told cisgender heterosexual people to just “enjoy the music,” without needing to relate to any of it?

My choice to refrain from writing excessively gendered songs is because I want everyone to directly relate to my music. I don’t think that omitting the gender of the person I’m singing about takes anything away from the heart of the song. Instead, I argue that it is a new level of sincerity and is even empowering. It’s not a new phenomenon either. Korean pop superstars BTS have been writing inclusive, gender-fluid lyrics in their songs for years (Dazed).

I think that we owe a lot to LGBTQ folks. Finding the perfect breakup song to eat a pint of Ben & Jerry’s to is not a cliché afforded to all. While SZA, The Weeknd, and Adele can pretty much put everybody in their feelings, sometimes people do need songs that closely mirror their lives to get the emotional release we all need and crave. He/him and she/her pronouns in songs can really hinder the immersion needed for this catharsis. For LGBTQ people, I assume that the lack of love songs reflecting their unique experiences can be both frustrating and damaging. This is why I vow to use they/them pronouns in my songs. Because everyone deserves a love song.

To BIPOC and/or LGBTQ musicians: continue to sing about Black love. Sing about they/them. Sing about the beauty of monolids and jet black hair. Sing about brown skin and curls in the sun. Show the world that you too can make songs people cannot relate to.

Writing this prior to my debut as a singer, I hope to create music that can inspire and encourage the youth to unapologetically declare themselves through their art. I am an Asian-American artist in the music industry. We are few and far between. I hope the songs I write will change that.

Find me on Instagram and my official website.

Daw, Stephen. “Lil Nas X Wants ‘Montero’ to Help ‘Normalize’ Same-Sex Lust in Music.” Billboard, 29 Mar. 2021, www.billboard.com/articles/news/9547933/lil-nas-x-montero-call-me-by-your-name-lyrics-breakdown.

Dazed. “How BTS’s Androgynous, Fluid Style Is Empowering Teens Worldwide.” Dazed, 12 Dec. 2018, www.dazeddigital.com/music/article/42565/1/bts-gender-fluidity-teen-angst-column#:~:text=The%20fluidity%20of%20BTS's%20identity,sense%20of%20fluidity%20in%20meaning.

Knowles, Beyoncé. “Sorry.” Lemonade, Columbia Records, 2016, track 4. Apple Music, https://music.apple.com/us/album/lemonade/1460430561.

“Lil Nas X — MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name) (Official Video).” YouTube, YouTube, 25 Mar. 2021, www.youtube.com/watch?v=6swmTBVI83k.

RIAA. Gold & Platinum Certifications. https://www.riaa.com/gold-platinum/?tab_active=default-award&ar=Olivia+Rodrigo&ti=Drivers+License#search_section

Rodrigo, Olivia. “driver’s license.” Geffen Records, 2021, track 1. Apple Music, https://music.apple.com/us/album/drivers-license-single/1545051447.

Swift, Taylor. “folklore,” Album, Universal Music Group, 2020. Apple Music, https://music.apple.com/us/album/folklore/1524801260.

X, Lil Nas. “MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name).” Sony Music Entertainment, 2021. Apple Music, https://music.apple.com/us/album/montero-call-me-by-your-name-single/1556766750?i=1556766751&ign-gact=3&ls=1.

James Rosa is a musician based in the U.S. He enjoys writing as well as making music. Connect with him on Instagram: @imjamesrosa.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store