This is part of a weekly seven-part series by a-devil-in-your-smile analyzing the lyrics of Louis Tomlinson.
PART 1: INTRODUCTION
Boyband music is often accused of being shallow, idealistic, and fantasy-driven. And to be fair, One Direction’s first couple albums adhere pretty well to this formula.
But in 2013, when the band members began taking a more active role in writing their music, there was a noticeable shift in the depth, maturity, and artistry of their songs. (This is really when they stopped being a boyband and started transitioning into a mature one.) Louis Tomlinson took the lead when it came to lyrical contributions, writing on 37 of their songs (nearly half their discography)—including many of their hits and even more of the fan favorites that never made it out to the general public.
Many fans consider Louis’ lyrics to be one of the reasons for One Direction’s phenomenal success, and he is undoubtedly one of the best lyricists of his generation. In art, we look for the words we need to articulate how we feel about our own lives, and this is something Louis does brilliantly. His lyrics manage to be mature but relatable, sophisticated but not stuffy, realistic but positive, and poetic but not garbled. He shifts effortlessly between the poetic and the prosaic, the playful and the poignant, the vulnerable and the darkly sarcastic. His lyrics are often pointed, but never accusatory. Instead, they reflect a deep emotional intelligence, willingness to take responsibility, and unfailing optimism.
But perhaps most importantly, they resonate.
One of Louis’ greatest strengths as a lyricist is his ability to use his own experiences to tap into universal emotions. This is the gift of the true artist, and the reason so many of us connect with his writing.
Even when the specifics of our experiences are totally different, the universal emotions are the same. We all know what it’s like to not be in control of our lives, to face hardship, to struggle in imperfect relationships. Louis does not know the particulars of our own emotional experiences, and yet, he finds the words we need to describe us to ourselves.
For example, consider this passage from “Strong”:
I’m sorry if I say, “I need you”
But I don’t care, I’m not scared of love
‘Cause when I’m not with you I’m weaker
Is that so wrong? Is it so wrong
That you make me strong?
Sometimes, one of the hardest things to admit in a relationship is how much we need our partner. We fear the dependence and vulnerability of it—often without even realizing it. Louis describes for us a feeling we didn’t even know we had. The words are brave, heartfelt, and emotionally aware.
From “Miss You”:
And we can’t even be on the phone now
And I can’t even be with you alone now
Oh how, shit changes
We were in love, now we’re strangers
For anyone who’s been through a breakup (or rough patch in a relationship), these words really hit home. That awkwardness, that sense of “what the hell happened to us?” Simple things that were once smooth and easy staples of the relationship (like phone calls and time alone) have now become hopelessly uncomfortable. How did this person you loved become such a stranger?
From “Just Hold On”:
Wish that you could build a time machine
So you could see the things no one can see
Feels like you’re standing on the edge
Looking at the stars, and wishing you were them
It doesn’t matter what your specific problems are—we all know what it feels like to be on the edge, facing an uncertain future, and wishing our problems away. It’s a universal emotion. The song will mean something different to each listener depending on her own personal life experiences, but the emotional core is the same, and it is one we can all relate to.
Sometimes, the relatability comes directly from the phrasing. From the more poetic “Ready to Run”:
There’s a lightning in your eyes I can’t deny
Then there’s me inside this sinking boat, running out of time
Then there’s me. You instantly relate to him. Because of the way it’s phrased, you’re not just watching a person in a sinking boat, you arethe person in the sinking boat. And the phrase makes us feel diminished, somehow—just as the singer does. Everyone around us seems perfect and exotic (“lightning in your eyes”), but “then there’s me.” Inside ourselves, we feel imperfect, boring, messed up, and unworthy.
This isn’t an accident. This is the artistic precision of someone who knows his craft.
And it’s not just about the emotions, either. Louis is clearly a lover of words. Throughout, he shows a keen sense of word choice—rarely using weak, boring, or excess words (so important in song-writing, where you have so few words to work with). He also sustains the lyrical interest throughout the song rather than repeating the same thing over and over, as so many pop songs do. But he doesn’t just string pretty words together randomly, either. It always means something. He knows what he wants to say, and he says it beautifully.
This is one of my favorite lines, again from “Ready to Run”:
There’s a devil in your smile that’s chasing me
And every time I turn around, it’s only gaining speed
It’s playful and vivid, and I know what that feels like. The words are unique and fun, but they also mean something.
Two things that are central throughout Louis’ music: he’s action-oriented, and he’s devoted to the people he loves. In song after song, he protects, he reassures, he finds the way.
From “Through the Dark”:
Oh, I would carry you over fire and water for your love
And I will hold you closer, hope your heart is strong enough
When the night is coming down on you
We will find a way through the dark
And it’s alright
Calling out for somebody to hold tonight
When you’re lost, I’ll find the way
I’ll be your light
You’ll never feel like you’re alone
I’ll make this feel like home
From “End of the Day”:
When the sun goes down, I
Know that you and me and everything will be alright
And when the city’s sleeping
You and I can stay awake and keep on dreaming
But he’s not afraid to be vulnerable, either. Also from “End of the Day”:
I told her that I loved her, was not sure if she heard
The roof was pretty windy and she didn’t say a word
I said you’re on fire babe
Then down came the lightning on me
Love can be frightening for sure
Rejection and uncertainty. That’s frightening, for sure.
And sometimes, he’s powerless. Here’s an interesting line from “Back to You”:
We’re on the ground, we’re screaming
I don’t know how to make it stop!
His biggest frustration isn’t even that they’re screaming—it’s that he doesn’t know how to make it stop. What’s tearing him apart is that he’s unable to protect the people he loves.
And this is a common theme in Louis’ music—he always puts himself in the active role. He is the one taking the responsibility and doing the self-reflection. Even in songs like “Back to You,” which are fairly cutting, he recognizes his own agency and the complex emotional nuances of the situation. He screams out his frustration, but he does not paint himself as the victim:
You got me so addicted to the drama
I tell myself I’m done with wicked games
But then I get so numb with all the laughter
That I forget about the pain
You stress me out, you kill me
You drag me down, you fuck me up
I love it, I hate it, and I can’t take it
But I keep on coming back to you
Louis does not write fluffy, meaningless platitudes. Instead, he writes from the learned experience of someone who’s been through the dark and come out wiser. He’s not afraid to dive into the deep, messy, complicated corners of his emotional life and confront the things we’re most afraid of, or most likely to hide from ourselves. But throughout is an overwhelming sense of optimism and reassurance. “It will be alright,” he tells us again and again. Not because there are no problems in life, but because you can make it through them.
Louis’ lyrics don’t promise us a fantasy. They offer a guiding light through the darkness.
Next week: Part 2: Optimism & Resilience
All of Louis’ songs are credited to multiple writers, often including his bandmate Liam Payne. Per both Louis’ and Liam’s accounts, Louis focused on lyrics, while Liam focused on melody. As I understand it, the other writers primarily focused on the music—the instrumentation, production, etc. Because of this, and because the songs Louis wrote on contain a distinct literary “fingerprint” (in word choice, themes, imagery, and song structure), as well as generally reflecting what fans understand about Louis’ life, I think we can assume that Louis was the primary lyricist. However, it should be noted that all his lyrics were written in a collaborative environment, and it’s possible I am mis-attributing them.
In choosing songs for this analysis, I have mostly ignored the first two albums (which are more “boyband-y”), songs written by multiple 1D band members (because it’s too hard for me to distinguish who wrote what), songs I believe to be about the band’s relationship with their label (which are addressed in a separate series), and a few others that, for whatever reason, just don’t seem to have a lot of artistic merit. (This isn’t a criticism—not all songs need to have a lot of depth in them, and even among the best artists, some art is going to be better than others.) So basically, this analysis is focused on Louis/Liam songs and Louis’ solo work.
In condensing the song excerpts for space purposes, I have at times removed repeated and redundant lines, removed lines unrelated to the discussion, removed a distracting word (like “whoa”), and occasionally done mild rearrangements for clarity (ie, putting all the verses before the chorus). The full lyrics are readily available on multiple websites if you want to reference them.