Jun 24 2011 9:30am

Listen Up: Heroes, Tropes, and Popular Songs

Woman listening to music by LaertesCTB via FlickrSongs that tell stories appeal to me, both as a reader and writer of romance fiction. Tropes that populate the romance genre can also be found lurking within the lyrics of popular story songs. Here are a few depicting our favorite heroes:

1. The Reformed Rake

I’ve got a couple of favorite musical depictions of the reformed rake. But the one I come back to again and again is classic ’80s southern rock band 38 Special’s “Caught Up in You.”

Our hero, the speaker in the song, begins his song by expressing his disbelief that he is the one begging his woman not to let their love “slip away.” After all, he’s a rake. We know this because he tells us so—“Don’t you know the kind of man I am?”

So, just like our romance hero rakes, this guy who “played around” finds himself in love. Plus, he even says later that she’s “got me down on my knees,” just like many romance hero rakes are brought to their knees before the happy ending can be achieved. And is there anything better than a good grovel?

2. Friends to Lovers
There’s nothing quite like the sweetness of seeing best friends figure out that they’re ready to make the leap from friends to lovers. My choice for this one is sweet, too. It’s not particularly romantic, but ever the optimist, I hear something more lurking between the lines of Old 97’s “Buick City Complex.”

The song’s protagonist claims not to “want to settle down,” or “to make no plans,” but the fact that he “wants to get it right this time” says to me that this is more than just an off-handed proposition. So do his questions “Do you wanna be my girl?” and “Do you wanna be my friend?” Put the two together and you’ve got “girlfriend.” And voila! Friends to lovers.

3. Love in Disguise
Whether it’s a Regency miss disguising herself as a boy, or a modern-day version such as Johnny Christiano in Roxanne St. Claire’s Take Me Tonight, who pretends to be a gigolo for a case, romance is full to brimming with characters pretending to be other than they are. My choice for this trope turned song is “The Outdoor Type” by the Lemonheads. This is a confessional song.

The hero says: “I’ve never set foot inside a tent/I couldn’t build a fire to save my life/I lied about being the outdoor type”

What follows is a recital of the various ways in which the hero speaker is NOT the outdoor type. As with many story songs, this ending is not a happy one. Apparently the object of his desire is going away on a rock-climbing weekend and didn’t invite the hero speaker along. Which, if this were a romance, would lead us to the black moment...

4. The Black Moment
It’s pretty hard to resist a Scotsman with the kind of soulful voice that Del Amitri’s Justin Currie brings to the table. And as a songwriter, Currie uses the kind of evocative storytelling that immediately puts you in a certain place in a certain time. I couldn’t have come up with a better illustration of the Black Moment as song than “Driving with the Brakes On” if I had written it myself.

Driving through the long night
Trying to figure who’s right and who’s wrong

The speaker and his lover (wife? girlfriend? babymama?) are clearly at an impasse. Over what, the speaker never says. But whatever it is, it’s enough to bring forth the images of “driving with the brakes on” and “swimming with your boots on.” In other words, it’s a dark, heavy place. And it’s up to the heroine to give the signal as to whether they’ll be able to move past this dark moment where “it’s hard to say you love someone and it’s hard to say you don’t.”

5. Happy Ever After (aka the HEA)
Few things are more satisfying than following a couple through all the trials and tribulations that befall them over the course of a novel than seeing them safe in the warm embrace of their HEA. One of my absolute favorite songs that illustrates the concept of HEA comes from Neil Young.


In “Harvest Moon,” the speaker tells his heroine:

Let’s go out and feel the night/ Because I’m still in love with you/ I want to see you dance again

This song is a great example of a wonderful, feel-good epilogue, where we see the hero and heroine together after years together, but still obviously in love. Still dancing together beneath the light of the harvest moon. Makes me smile every time.

So, what examples of songs illustrating popular romance tropes can you come up with?

Woman listening to music image courtesy of LaertesCTB via Flickr

1. “Caught Up in You,” by 38 Special, Special Forces, 1982, full lyrics available at
2. “Buick City Complex,” by Old 97’s, Satellite Rides, 2001, full lyrics available at
3. “The Outdoor Type,” by The Lemonheads, Car Button Cloth, 1996, full lyrics available at
4. “Driving with the Brakes On,” by Del Amitri, Twisted, 1995, full lyrics available at
5. “Harvest Moon,” by Neil Young, Harvest Moon, 1992, full lyrics available at


In the third grade Manda read both Little Women and Agatha Christie’s Towards Zero. Is it any wonder she grew up to write historical romance laced with mystery? Her regency historical romance, How to Dance with a Duke, will be published in February 2012 by St. Martin’s Press. For more information and an excerpt, check out her website at She can be found most days on Twitter @MandaCollins

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Donna Cummings
1. Donna Cummings
This is great! I have a couple of songs that inspired a couple of heroes in my WIPs. One is "Sorry" by Buckcherry, and it's soulful and woeful, and it's perfect for those heroes who have effed up and realize it and will do whatever they can to fix it. Another one that fits the "Reformed Rake" category is one I'm using for a contemp hero: "Fooled Around and Fell in Love" by Elvin Bishop. LOL It's wonderful to hear the bewilderment in the singer (and the hero), because they thought they had everything under control. (I hope this doesn't moosh into one big paragraph. LOL I tried to keep them separated.)
Manda Collins
2. mandacollins
Oh, those are great, Donna! I'm not familiar with the Buckcherry one. I'll have to check it out. But "Fooled Around and Fell in Love" is one of those songs that I heard over and over again as a kid, so it's imprinted on my brain. And it totally fits the Reformed Rake trope!
Cynthia Eden
4. Cynthia Eden
Great post! The song that comes to mind for me is "Jesse's Girl"--the guy who is in love with his best friend's girl. Oh, the pain! The angst--so good. :)
Cynthia Eden
5. Terri Osburn
Great list, Manda, and a few songs I'd never heard of. Must check these out tonight when I can listen without getting caught at work. :) I create playlists for my stories, even though I don't listen to them WHILE writing. The lyrics and the "mood" of the song are what get me. And they almost always inspire a specific scene. A couple more HEA songs would be the recent "Marry Me" from Train and "Rhythm of Love" from Plain White T's.
Manda Collins
6. mandacollins
Ooh! These are all good!

Megan, I had heard the Cousteau song before, but didn't know who actually sang it. It is so languidly melancholy! Love it.

Cindy, I am a total Rick Springfield fangirl. And I think I could write a whole 'nother blog about jealousy songs. But "Jessie's Girl" is definitely the best, IMO. And the video--when he smashes the mirror? Oh, classic angst! Also love "My Best Friend's Girl" by the Cars. And dipping into my country phase, there's Lorrie Morgan's "Out of Your Shoes"--which refrains in true country wordplay fashion "I'd love to be, out of your shoes tonight..."

Terri, I tend to do the same thing. I'll have a song in mind, but I have a hard time listening to music while I'm writing. Sometimes I can do it, but a lot of the time I find it too distracting because I want to sing along. Haven't heard of Plain White T's. I'll have to check them out.
Cynthia Eden
7. Elisabeth Rodrigues
Good list. There's a Heart song and the accompanying video clip that is the secret baby trope. The story is of a girl who stops at a motel and spends the night with the receptionist guy and leaves in the morning before he wakes up. Then about 18 months later she gets caught in the rain and rushes into presumably the same motel except she's carrying a baby and when the baby turns around he's got the same colour eyes as the receptionist. The song doesn't have a happy ending becos she's with someone else who is infertile and "what he couldn't give me - you could". Good topic.
Carmen Pinzon
8. bungluna
I'd never thought of songs in this way. How about 10cc's "I'm not in love" for the rake category? The singer is in denial about his love. I especially like the part where the female voice whispers: "big boys don't cry".
Manda Collins
9. mandacollins
Ooh! Elisabeth, that Heart song is perfect! Wonder if there are any more secret baby songs out there. Hmmm...must think on this.

Bungala, that's a great one too! Must have been lots of raking going on in the 70s and 80s :)
Cynthia Eden
10. Janga
Great list, Manda! It's giving me ideas. I can't listen to music when I'm writing either, but when I get stuck on a scene, I turn to music. You know my story about the Keith Urban song "You Look Good in My Shirt" inspiring a scene when I couldn't seem to get my H/H out of bed.

The primary trope for my trilogy is homecoming, and all my titles are from songs that inspired scenes in the books: "The Long Way Home" by Mary Chapin Carpenter; "Feels Like Home," by Bonnie Riatt, and "Who Says You Can't Go Home?" by Bon Jovi with Jennifer Nettles.
Manda Collins
11. mandacollins
Janga, I've got another home song to add to your quiver: Patty Griffin's "The Long Ride Home"

Makes me cry every last time.

Mary Chapin Carpenter is such a great songwriter. And Bonnie Raitt has been a fave with me forever. I actually haven't listened to Bon Jovi in a loooong time. I'll have to check this one out.
Cynthia Eden
12. J Perry Stone
Black moment? Montagues and Capulets by Prokofiev. I know it sounds cliche (because of the obvious literary reference), but if you've ever heard this music, it is all that is drama. Delicious heart-wrenching drama!

And also, since I don't know a lot of popular music (and did not know even ONE of your examples, Manda), it was either this or the Peanuts theme song. Although Linus and Lucy are quite conflicted.
Cynthia Eden
13. Janga
Does that mean I need to make my trilogy a quartet, Manda. LOL

And I do know how to spell Bonnie Raitt's name--honestly! My typing, not my spelling, is to blame for the error and for my red face.
Cynthia Eden
14. J Perry Stone
Geez. I listed songs without lyrics.

Clearly I'm the one left standing after the music has stopped.
Carmen Pinzon
15. bungluna
Talking about Bon Jovi, 'You Want To Make a Memory" could be a theme for second chance at love.
Manda Collins
16. mandacollins
LOL, JPerry! No worries. Classical music tells some wonderful stories. Tchaikovsky is incredibly powerful for me.

Maybe instead of writing another book to go with the Patty Griffin song, Janga, you could have a subplot. It's not really a HEA after all. But man it moves me.

Bungluna--I think you're on to something with the second chance trope. I can't think of one off the top of my head, but I know there are some more out there.
Cynthia Eden
17. Lindsey Faber
Awesome blog, Manda! I know music is an inspiration for so many authors - and no wonder, with songs like this. I love a good theme mix, and these songs - plus the great suggestions in the comments - would make a great one.

I was once working on a Rake 'n Roll mix, and I know one of the songs was Freedy Johnston's "Bad Reputation" - that's another good one for the reformed rake category.
Manda Collins
18. mandacollins
Great minds, Lindsey! I teetered between "Bad Reputation" and "Caught Up in You" before finally going with the 38 Special one. I've got the other one on my housecleaning playlist though:) If you ever finish that Rake 'n Roll mix I'd love to hear it!
Cynthia Eden
19. southerngirl
A really great example of a "black moment" song is "Last Request" by Paolo Nutini. It is the most romantic breakup song I have ever heard. Paolo has such a soulful voice and he's Scottish. Paolo wrote this song after he broke up with his high school sweetheart. They later got back together, so it is a happy ending in reality!
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