Songwriter’s Revenge: Writing Heartbreak Into Country Songs Is Sweet Retribution
By Annie Reuter
When gearing up for the GRAMMY Awards last year, Radio.com interviewed songwriter Ali Tamposi whose “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You)” garnered three GRAMMY nominations including Record of the Year, Song of the Year and Best Pop Solo Performance by Kelly Clarkson.
On the day of her writing session with Jorgen Elofsson and David Gamson, Tamposi was spending time with her mom who was in town visiting. What started as simple advice from a mother to her daughter became one of the most well-known and beloved songs of 2012.
“I was going through a break-up from someone I had been with for seven years. In the midst of tears, anger, and a bad attitude she said the magic words, ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,’” Tamposi recalled.
The song came together in three hours and when asked if she was afraid to reveal so much in the song, for fear that her ex would know it was about him, she said it was the exact opposite.
“I write the song hoping that the person I write about hears it over and over again,” she said. “You can call it songwriter’s revenge. I wouldn’t advise anyone to piss off a songwriter.”
These words echo clearly throughout country music. One name that came up countless times throughout over 20 interviews with country artists and songwriters about the topic of songwriter’s revenge was Taylor Swift. Well known for being brutally honest and extremely descriptive in her music, Swift is the queen of songwriter’s revenge.
“I think Taylor Swift has made tens of millions of dollars getting back at her boyfriends,” Bob DiPiero said backstage during a CMA Songwriters Series event in New York. “To me, I would rather write songs that are more healing than revengeful. I think just the fact that I’ve written love songs for my wife probably gets back at the ladies that I’ve been with.”
And he would know, as his songwriting credits include everything from George Strait‘s “Blue Clear Sky” and Montgomery Gentry‘s “Gone” to Sunny Sweeney‘s “From a Table Away” and Tim McGraw‘s “Southern Voice.”
“Like I said, Taylor Swift has done great with those songs. So has John Mayer. The list goes on and on and on,” DiPiero added.
But that isn’t to say that artists before and after her haven’t written from the point of view of revenge. In fact, many have. From Sugarland’s ode to mean girls to Dallas Davidson’s kiss-off to a girl who insulted him at a bar, Radio.com asked each songwriter if they’ve ever written from a place of revenge. And most of them have.
“On the Sugarland record, the song ‘Mean Girls’ was definitely inspired by personal experience,” Jennifer Nettles told Radio.com. “I’ll put it to you like this. I have told people who have come in and out of my life, especially those who before I was married have come in and out of my life from a relationship perspective or intimate perspective, ‘I will probably write a song about you. Whether it’s bad or good is up to you.’ You gotta know going into it with a songwriter. You may be a muse or an inspiration in another way.”
Meanwhile, Jerrod Niemann learned the hard way that revenge is not always the best medicine for getting back at an ex.
“My second single ‘What Do You Want’ was an autobiographical situation for sure. Ironically enough, I was like, ‘Hahaha, hope you hear this.’ But now it backfired because now we’re engaged years later. I guess you have to watch out how vengeful you are,” he said. “There was one song on Lee Brice’s last record called ‘That’s When You Know It’s Over’ that I had sent to an ex-girlfriend and said, ‘Lee Brice just cut this song that I wrote about you.’ And she said, ‘Good. I’m glad there will be a song about me on the radio.’”
Niemann learned from this experience and warns all songwriters to “use music as a tool, not as a weapon.” However, sometimes the pen can be the weapon, in a sense. Songwriters can use the pen to speak up for those who don’t have the ability or power to as Charlie Worsham explained.
“You can speak up for people who don’t have that opportunity to speak up for themselves and that’s a great thing. When people are fighting a terrible sickness or lost a love one or suffered injustice,” he said. “One of my favorite Nashville songwriters is Will Hoge and he put out Modern American Protest Music. I don’t ever want to get political and yet this record to me, without jumping on either the left or right side, is such a great representation of the revenge of the common man and his frustration with all the things in society that we tend to get frustrated with as citizens.
“To me, when I think of revenge of the songwriter that is the higher calling. That harkens back to the ’60s and the protest music that was the soundtrack to a really important time in our history. I think we can go back to that again with music. I think that that’s something that songwriters have an opportunity to be on the frontline and have a hand in.”
For others, writing might just keep them out of, you know, prison, for doing something unthinkable, as Cassadee Pope explained.
“Whenever I write a negative song it’s usually about my past or my exes and how they’ve hurt me,” Cassadee Pope said. “Even in the business sense, people that have done me wrong. I look at it as more of a therapeutic thing. It’s just so nice to be able to get my emotions out there, even if they are irrational, on paper. Because, if I were to say these things and do the things that I want to do to these people who have done wrong, I would be in jail. I can take my anger and frustrations out on a song. I do hope they hear it and know how I feel. But, for the most part it’s me getting stuff off my chest and putting it out there and hoping people are feeling the same way and know their not the only ones who are crazy and think these things.”
While Steve Wariner admits that when he was younger he would write about relationships in a more ambiguous way, he understands the concept of songwriter’s revenge.
“You just write songs about what you’re living. Young artists and young writers do that. Especially a young single artist, going through your life being single and the relationships, I think it’s natural that you would write about experiences,” he said. “As I get older, I notice the evolution. My topics change. I write about my sons and my family and try my best not to be too sappy or too boring to people. You just write about what you feel and what you live.”
Like Wariner suggests, songs often come from everyday life experiences. For Dallas Davidson, “Kiss My Country Ass” was revenge on a girl he met at a bar.
“I was talking to this girl she’s like, ‘You’re country’ and I was like, ‘Yeah.’ I can’t remember exactly what she said but it was degrading, like I was dumb because I’m country. Far from it. So I said, ‘I’ll tell you what, you can kiss my country ass,’” he recalled. “I wound up writing that song and I hope she remembers when that came on the radio. I doubt it, but that was my little song to get revenge for everybody who thinks country people are stupid and slow.”
At the end of the day, all of these songwriters got revenge on the person or situation who hurt them by having something to write. While some wound up radio hits for themselves, for others money was also made, which sometimes is enough to make that heartbreak or devastation worthwhile.
“It’s a therapeutic way to get your feelings out,” Kacey Musgraves said. “And then hopefully do something positive. Maybe make some money off that idea. It’s cool as a songwriter you can do that.”