Week two’s word in Michelle William’s Journey to Freedom journal contest is “honesty.” Once again, when prompted with the word “honesty” the first thought that came to my head was again in the form of lyrics: “honesty, is such a lonely word, every one is so untrue, honesty is hardly ever heard, but mostly what I need from you” from Billy Joel’s “Honesty.” And, well, honestly, that about sums it up.
Thinking about my own “journey to freedom,” this holds true for my most defining life experiences. As Michelle says in her video, being honest with yourself and with others is crucial. I know Michelle and I are not alone, because everyone experiences this, and some of music’s biggest stars have all released songs that deal with this issue quite poignantly.
On the songs I’ve selected, the artists delve into their personal life experiences and very vulnerably share these private emotions with their listeners. These cathartic expressions are no doubt therapeutic for the artists, but also for the listeners.
1. “Honesty,” by Billy Joel is the quintessential song dealing with the theme of honesty. Joel does a wonderful job of encapsulating this theme in the lyrics to this piano ballad. The quote I included above does a wonderful job of summarizing the song’s message: “honesty, is such a lonely word, every one is so untrue, honesty is hardly ever heard, but mostly what I need from you.” The song was released in 1978, but no one’s said it better since. (However, Beyoncé did cover it.)
2. “Honestly” by Kelly Clarkson is an emotional ballad from her 2011 album, Stronger. On this track, though not written by Kelly, she deals with the frustrating feeling of wanting someone to be honest with you about their feelings. She sings pleadingly, “if you’re hating me, do it honestly.” We probably all know the feeling of being in a relationship where you can tell your significant other is unhappy but won’t admit it. On this song, Kelly is expressing those feelings, demandingly singing, “Face me, make me listen to the truth even if it breaks me… you can tell me.”
3. “Losing You” by Solange is from her 2012 EP entitled True. Like Clarkson on “Honestly,” Solange is seeking honesty: “Tell me the truth, boy am I losing you for good? We used to kiss all night but now there’s just no use. I don’t know why I fight it, clearly we are through.” She too shows her vulnerable side on this track, grappling with the same frustrating uncertainty as Clarkson on “Honestly.” While the vibe of the production harkens back to 80’s R&B, the vocal arrangements and vulnerable nature of the lyrics are both a bit more in line with one of Solange’s inspirations, Mariah Carey, who appears later on this list.
4. “Can’t Handle the Truth” by JoJo is brutally honest, but not in the way you’d expect. On this track lifted from her 2012 mix tape, Agápē, JoJo tells her man, “I hate lying to you, but you can’t handle the truth.” This song explores the reason why people opt to lie instead of being honest: because the truth hurts. Here, JoJo is confessing to infidelity, but blames it on his mistakes. It is not the kind of track typically heard from a woman (though, Destiny’s Child did something very similar, more on that here), but her honesty is commendable, despite her actions being a bit questionable.
5. “Confessions Part II” by Usher is very similar to JoJo’s “Can’t Handle the Truth,” and also preceded it. This song was huge in 2004, and is the title track of the diamond selling album. While it actually is not a true story (for Usher; apparently it’s cowriter Jermaine Dupri’s story) the messy honesty of “Confessions” turned the catchy song into a huge hit for Usher, and made Confessions his most successful album to date. The public loves a good, dramatic confession, it seems…
6. “Truth” by Janet Jackson is a mid tempo from her 2001 album, All For You. The song, a kiss off to her ex-husband Rene Elizondo, finds Janet reflecting on her career and defunct marriage. She urges him to accept the truth in this very honest, diary-like track. The song seems sweet but there are several rather shady lines laced within, such as, “It’s sad to think we couldn’t work it out, but how much is enough to pay for this mistake?” The song ends with the repetition of a question: “Do you know the truth?” as Janet commands him to: “Feel it. Live it. Trust it. Believe it. Embrace it. You want it. And need it. Find it. Embrace it and never let it go. The truth will set you free.” Here, Janet flat out says that on a journey to freedom, honesty and truth are essential elements.
7. “Resentment” by Beyoncé has been a controversial track as of late with her performing it on tour as divorce rumors swirl around her marriage to Jay-Z. The song, recorded for 2006’s B’Day album, was actually first recorded by the Spice Girls’ Victoria Beckham, and perhaps written about an affair by David Beckham. Beyoncé did however change some of the lyrics, perhaps to suit her own life experiences. Her rendition of the song drips with soul and intricate harmonies. Her vocal performance is gritty and raw, filled with intense emotion. Victoria’s is… well… quite understated. One of the most hard hitting lyrics to the song strikes at the very end, when Beyoncé quite vulnerably sings, “I can’t stop crying… You could’ve told me, you weren’t happy. I know you didn’t wanna hurt me, but look what you’ve done done to me now. I’ve gotta look at her in her eyes, and see she’s had half of me… how could you lie?” This bit also illustrates why this song is a perfect addition to this list.
8. “Languishing” by Mariah Carey falls in line with a number of her other introspective ballads (such as “Petals,” “Looking In,” and “Sunflowers”) however, it’s theme is a bit different. On “Languishing,” Carey is seemingly speaking to the public. She is essentially asking the listener whether or not they’d care if she was in pain. She opens the song by stating, “I was not put here for you to judge me and dispute my innermost truths.” The song is from her 2009 album Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel, which was released only months after the passing of Michael Jackson, and Mariah dedicates the album to him in its booklet. It is curious that Carey chooses to dedicate the album to him, and also this song about fame, questioning the public’s response if perhaps she too were suffering like Michael. The media and public love to ridicule celebrities for their struggles and hardships while they’re alive, but the tune changes with their death as evidenced by the reaction to Michael Jackson’s death compared to his public perception when he was alive. Even now, with recent rumors and seeming confirmation of a separation and looming divorce between Mariah and Nick (as well as Beyoncé and Jay-z), the media and the public already are saying negative and defamatory things, blaming Mariah, when no one knows the true story. It’s truly a shame, and Mariah poignantly handles the issue on “Languishing.”
9. “Dope” by Lady Gaga is a heartbreaking piano ballad from her latest album, ARTPOP. Here, Gaga sings about her struggles with substance abuse, which includes alcohol and other drugs. She asserts her desire to be clean and pleads for the love of someone – perhaps a significant other, or her fans. The audience is unclear, however, Gaga is being gut-wrenchingly honest with herself on this track and it is a truly moving listen. Her vocals are emotive and imperfect, yet beautiful, as she sings lines like, “Each day I feel so low from living high.” “Dope” is one of the highlights from ARTPOP.
10. “Don’t Speak” by No Doubt was a colossal hit in 1996, written by Gwen Stefani about fellow No Doubt member, Tony Kanal. The pair dated for seven years, but it ended, causing Stefani to write this emotional ballad of heartbreak. Again, we find the public gravitated towards a song with a confessional style lyric, dripping with honesty. “Don’t Speak” is filled with fear, as Gwen begs, “don’t speak, don’t tell me cause it hurts.” She knows the truth, but doesn’t want to know it. It would pain her to hear him say it because it would make it true. Honesty has an intense power and the truth really can be painful at times. Her emotional, pleading vocal is impassioned and moving which makes the song irresistible and moving.
11. “Dear Lie” by TLC is a song with an interesting concept. It’s essentially a letter from lead singer T-Boz, to a “lie.” She explores the problems with lying and ultimately realizes that the truth will set you free. The lyrics acknowledge how lies can have power over people, and that it takes a certain amount of strength to be honest and truthful: “Won’t let you control me, the truth will only free me and your lies won’t hurt no more.”
12. “No More Drama” by Mary J. Blige marked a pivotal moment in her career. The album, of the same title, brought Mary crossover success like never before thanks to its lead single, “Family Affair,” but “No More Drama” became her signature song. With this album’s release, Mary was honest with herself and admitted to dealing with substance abuse and, with this song, found a way to break free from those demons. The song is liberating, as Mary declares her freedom from the pain that suppressed her for so many years.
13. “My Vietnam” by P!nk is a metaphorical song comparing her childhood, to the Vietnam. This has a particular significance for P!nk, since her father actually served in the war. The song lives on P!nk’s breakthrough album, M!ssundaztood, on which P!nk opened up with several confessional like songs, under the guidance of Linda Perry. This is a lesser known song, hence why I chose it for this list. A companion to the better known “Family Portrait,” “My Vietnam” talks more specifically about her parents and life’s challenges with unrestrained honesty. On “Vietnam,” P!nk creates an honest dialogue with the listener and the people in her life.
14. “Beyond Imagination” by Kelly Rowland is one of several very personal songs in Rowland’s catalogue. Of course, the more obvious choice for this list might have been “Dirty Laundry,” but I think most are quite familiar with that song (and I plan to do a more in-depth article on it at a later date). However, “Beyond Imagination” was Kelly’s first introspective song, from her solo debut, Simply Deep, and was written by Solange Knowles. The song is a metaphorical pop/rock ballad that discusses Kelly’s childhood, more specifically, how her father abandoned her. It is written in a more relatable fashion (similar to the way Mariah Carey often writers her introspective tracks) so that the listener can apply it to their own situation. Kelly uses the pronoun “you” as if she’s saying that she knows what you’re feeling, and even sings “I hear your tone, and you’re so not alone.” However, the most telling line of the song is “father’s vacation tonight, is somewhat permanent…”
15. “Childhood” by Michael Jackson is one of his most moving songs, and perhaps even more so following his passing. Throughout the later years of his life, Michael was ridiculed for his “immature,” childlike personality. On 1995’s “Childhood,” the theme song to the film Free Willy, Michael is open and honest about this – he knows he is different. Asking the listener, “before you judge me, try hard to love me, look within your heart, then ask… have you seen my childhood?” He attributes his “strange eccentricities” to his lack of a childhood growing up as child star in the Jackson 5. While this song is well-known and was undoubtedly heard by many in 1995… I am not sure anyone really listened until it was too late.
16. “15 Minutes” by Michelle Williams is an epic, almost theatrical ballad from her 2004 solo album, Do You Know. In “15 Minutes,” Michelle vulnerably sings about the gratitude she feels for finding success as a musician. She attributes this good fortune to God, and thanks Him for the blessing. On the most telling lyric of the song, she sings, “I should’ve been a one hit wonder, 15 minutes of fame, with nothing gained and nothing left to lose… my only chance was you, and here you come again, I just don’t understand.” She struggles to understand God’s blessings, reveling in the miraculous nature of it all, in this very honest and humbling ballad.