Understanding Lyrics: Identifying the Setting

by criticalhit009

This post is part of a series on how to do close readings of lyrics. For the full list of analytical tools for lyrics, see my introductory post. To help flesh out the previously posted list on close readings of lyrics, I shall go through each item listed and give some examples to help illustrate some real-world examples of the concepts being talked about. Those familiar with analyzing poetry will find much familiar in this list, as this post will be a basic overview examining the purpose of a song’s lyrics. Songs cannot be examined by their lyrics alone, but they serve as an important piece of the work to evaluate. This series seeks to help shape the conversation in lyrical analysis to broaden the rhetorical discourse on song lyrics.

Identify the Setting

  • Where do the lyrics take place?
  • When does the situation occur? 

These two aims are easy enough for someone to ferret out on their own in terms of a close reading of a text. However, one might want to consider the importance of historical, cultural, or other contexts in which the text may gain alternative readings.

Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” might prove as an adept example. The overlapping mix of political, historical, and cultural contexts shape the piece’s cry against injustice. Knowledge of the damaging years of Ed Koch as mayor New York City, the song’s use as a key text with Spike Lee’s film Do The Right Thing, and artistic relationship between Chuck D and Flavor Flav (the latter often playing the role of comic relief, for instance) can serve as insightful pieces of knowledge to help grasp the meaning of the text.

But you don’t need to know these to interpret the song correctly.

To understand the song as a product of its time, certainly necessary. To grasp at artistic intention, however that can be possible, an admirable goal, at least.

But it’s not necessary.


The death of the author is a liberating thing.

It removes the parental authority of the authors for interpretation. It gives texts their own agency, their own voice. It is no longer “Keats says this” but “Bright Star says this.” The multiplicity of viewpoints and dialogue possible is limitless.


The nitty gritty of how one figures out the setting of a song, and how can that shape the song’s meaning isn’t too difficult, or engaging. A mention of the Empire State Building, the song probably takes place in New York City. From there the geopolitical context of the place can shape the interpretation well. And if the lyrics are vague? Google it. It’s not very interesting to make examples, but here are at least things to look for:

  • seasons
  • weather
  • city/state/country
  • land type
  • country/urban/rural/city
  • home/away
  • buildings/school/home

The list can go on. In my previous writing years ago, I emphasized contexts of all type for the single correct interpretation of a song. I no longer have such naïveté. So for now I’ll emphasize that specific details within the lyrics should be the building blocks, at the very least, to getting at the setting and therefore some of the meaning laden in song lyrics.