One Year of "The Story" by Conan Gray: Song Review

 

"The Story"

written by Conan Gray, produced by Dan Nigro

Sometimes songs have to grow on me for days or weeks or months until I realize just how amazing they are. My brain has to mull them over and unlock the quiet genius sitting inside. That's why I hate writing song reviews if I've only listened to the song or album once or twice. "The Story" is a rare exception to that rule. I wrote about it briefly in my best music memories of 2020 article (read it here) and I mentioned it during my Kid Krow reaction video (watch here), but I've never had the chance to write a full review about it. One year ago, when I first heard the song, sitting in the dark with my earbuds in, I knew it was special. That it was important. I've never had a first listen experience that gave me full body chills. I can now confirm that I was right. "The Story" was the first time I'd ever heard of Conan Gray, and for that, it defined my 2020 more than anything. Kid Krow became the album of my year. For the anniversary, I wanted to write about the song and the brilliance I find in it. 

"The Story" sets itself up for an uphill battle because, at its core, it's a song about hope. Hope songs might be among the most important, but they're also the easiest to veer off course with because basically every way to discuss that has been shrouded with cliche or a level of cheesiness. "It gets better" and similar messages have become utterly devoid of meaning, and when you've lost hope, there aren't many words of encouragement you actually want to hear. Somehow, Conan blends the right amount of doubt and cynicism with his hope like a spoon full of sugar. The song leads with a sense of understanding that the world is cruel, unjust, and unpredictable. In that, it builds trust with the listener. 

From a structural perspective, it's clear that the narrative is the central element of the song. It's slightly anthemic, slightly a collection of almost modern folklore. The song has three verses and a bridge to give the story more space to develop. I love that it opens with two verses with two specific stories. The production also is in complete service to the lyrics. Most of the track is a simple acoustic guitar arrangement that makes it feel quiet and intimate. It doubles down on the opening line, "Let me tell you a story". The production slowly builds with every chorus repetition as the song gains strength and conviction. By the final chorus, there are drums, piano, and bass with the guitar to create the mini anthemic moment, it's rush of possibility that feels safe to believe. Gradually adding in the extra instruments gives the song space to breathe and tells the listener right where the emotional fever pitch is. There's wall of sound that breaks with Conan's quiet whisper of "okay" before the last lap of the chorus and bridge, and it feels like all the worry and fear built up over the first verses snapping. Producer Dan Nigro truly protected the song by refusing to add in the drums till that last moment. And then everything strips out. From loud back to totally quiet, just the one guitar. It makes the song feel incredibly full circle, and by that virtue, gives the album a satisfying feeling of conclusion. Like you've truly seen everything. While I've seen plenty of people shrug the song off for being boring, it's the simplicity that makes the song spin. Anything more and it starts to lose that integrity. 

Getting into the lyrics, the simplicity echoes here too in the most satisfying way. The first two stories in the verses are achingly sad, but he doesn't play for dramatics here. He says each line casually, and chooses simple words that feel like a shrug that only compounds the sadness. The first two verses start in third person, allowing some distance. Conan talks about how the song is a mixture of stories he heard around his town growing up and experiences he's had. It opens, "Let me tell you a story about a boy and a girl/It's kinda short, kinda boring, but the end is a whirl". It's so unassuming, but it does that ultimate country storytelling technique of inviting the listener into the world. Centering them in the narrative. "They were just sixteen when the people were mean/So they didn't love themselves, and now they're gone/Headstones on a lawn". The language is so unassuming, but the repercussions are incredibly loud. In these couple lines, he touches on the mental health crisis among teens, soaring suicide rates, and the repercussions of bullying through the lens of a single tragedy. The world is an incredibly cruel place, and that can have devastating effects. "So they didn't love themselves, and now they're gone/Headstones on a lawn" has echoed through my head for the last year. It's the truth, but it's one people are more than happy to flinch away from. Also, I can't get over the simplicity of "the people were mean/so they didn't love themselves". That line makes me want to cry more than any poetic, flowery piece I've read on the same topic. No one wants to acknowledge how achingly simple those chain of events are and how much they haunt even those of us who make it out. 

The next verse has that similar eerie space in it. "And when I was younger, I knew a boy and a boy/Best friends with each other, but always wished they were more/Cause they loved one another, but never discovered/Cause they were too afraid of what they'd say/Moved to different states". The chain reaction is clear and logical and unremarkable in a way that forces you to realize these heartbreaks happen every day. That we live in a society that loves to pat itself on the back for the level of equality that's been reached when teens in small Texas towns and all over the country still have to live in fear of people's reactions if they come out. We don't live in the well adjusted, safe society some people would like to believe. Sometimes the saddest moments are over things that never happened but could've. 

Then we get the first loop of the chorus that zooms out to take a lesson from these first two stories. The way he leads into it is key. "Oh, and I'm afraid that's just the way the world works/It ain't funny, it ain't pretty, it ain't sweet". He's not trying to spin these stories into a some kind of pretty moral. He's not trying to say those horrible things happened for a reason, like so many people are desperate to. The world is not going to be nice to you, and he's not going to argue otherwise. The hope comes in a wink at the end, almost like a whisper. "Oh, and I'm afraid that's just the way the world works/But I think that it could work for you and me/Just wait and see". Like the shrug in the verses, this is delivered quietly and with plenty of doubt. "I think" is the operative phrase here, regardless of how many times English teachers have fought to rid it from everyone's vocabularies. All he can do is hope and believe, and he doesn't try to assert that he has more power than that. It closes with, "It's not the end of the story". Really, the chorus isn't screaming "life gets better" in your face, it's just a quiet plea to keep getting up in the morning because you can't get anywhere better unless you put one foot in front of the other. Just stick around long enough to see where this goes. 

The third verse turns into the first person as Conan further asserts himself into this narrative, and it carries the energy of the chorus. It's his anecdote about the importance of just continuing, and he maintains his style of just telling it how it is. "Now it's on to the sequel about me and my friend," I love this transitional slide. Like the first two stories were ones he'd heard that shaped his world view, people just slightly older than him, and now he's the next book of stories. "Both our parents were evil, so we both made a bet/If we worked and we saved, we could both run away/And we'd have a better life, and I was right/I wonder if she's alright". If you've followed Conan, this verse clearly tracks with his life. Starting in Texas, getting kicked out his senior year, making YouTube videos to save the money needed to get to LA, and ultimately making it out by getting into UCLA and finding security. In a series of Tweets during his freshman year of college back in 2018 he wrote, "I'm so happy at this point of my life. i can genuinely say i am so very happy. ah. aaaaahhhh. i feel safe and alright for the first time in a long time. i forgot how this felt. i don’t even know how to talk about it. wheeeeeee!!!!!! a year ago around this time i was terribly scared. depressed. kicked out of my home and living with friends. working my ass off to get out of texas. i was so scared but i put on a brave face so that i could succeed. and it all worked out, somehow. there’s a lot i haven’t told y’all because i want to be a happy piece of y’alls lives. but last year was hard, my hardest. moral of the story is, no matter how shitty your life may seem right now, things will get better. just keep going. i know you have it in you". He did what he set out to do, and I think that backstory makes the lyric more powerful. There's some living proof in there, not just canned advise. The message of both the tweets and the lyrics are the same- just keep going.

But even this success story is dotted with doubt, uncertainty, and a bit of loss 'cause the verse isn't just about Conan. He and his friend both worked hard and made it out. He was right that they could follow a plan until they got where they needed to go, but then he adds a last line that coats the whole story in doubt again, "I wonder if she's alright". Somehow, they lost touch along the way, and we don't know the end of that chapter of the friends story. It tempers the joy that erupts from the pain in that third verse. Continuing that theme, the third verse feeds the increasing frantic energy of the chorus- the desperation. Every piece of this song is a building block for what comes next.

Finally, the bridge comes in to start the anthem. "And the movie's always running in my head/All the people, all the lovers, all my friends/And I hope that they all get their happy end/In the end". It's like all these stories are on a film reel, always playing on an endless loop. Like I pointed out the "I think" in the chorus, it's "I hope" here that's the important puzzle piece. It's the hoping that's the key to keeping the song grounded in reality. He can't know, but he definitely can want that for everyone. It's an open ended possibility that they get what they truly deserve ultimately. I also love that the bridge doubles down on "in the end" as the key phrase. Maybe it won't get better right away, but it could be at the end of the day, later on down the line. Not being afraid of the uncertainty lets the song hit harder. It ends with a final loop of the chorus that seems to have grown more sure of itself yet is still resigned to quietly hoping that if you play your cards right, you can overcome the now and get to a better later.

Somehow, even a year later, every time I hear this song, I experience the same magical pull as the first time. I'm always on that emotional rollercoaster, propelled by the ache in his voice and the swell of the instruments, heart hurting for those whose stories are told and yet hopeful that it isn't the end of the story. Though this layer didn't exist on release night, it's almost the perfect reminder for the last year we've been through and the year that's coming. No one is where they want to be right now or where they thought they'd be, but this mess of a time is not the end of the story.

Finally, I just wanted to mention how this song is the album closer, and it serves that purpose spectacularly. The album discusses a rollercoaster of topics from love to break-ups to friendship to that gnawing fear of growing up to observations about the world. "The Story" feels like it's incorporating and digesting all the stories on the album too and wrapping them up into a message that despite all the lows on the arc of the album, there's always hope in the end. Conan discussed this with Apple Music saying, "The album is so chaotic, and it can be pretty sad and dark at times in the middle. I wanted to end on a more hopeful note. I had a pretty rough childhood; a lot of it was just really unsafe. There were times as a kid that I wished so badly that I just didn’t exist anymore. I wanted so badly for my pain to stop, and I wanted to just stop existing. Every single time that I would hit those rock-bottom moments, something would just tell me to keep going. I wanted to write a song talking about all those moments in my life and all the things that happened to me and my friends growing up where we thought that life was just going to stop, but with the smallest amount of courage—and with people who can show you that they love you—you can keep going and it’s never really the end". In previous interviews, he also mentioned that he wrote the song and was going to trash it until his friends assured him that the song was good and needed to be on the album. It's a message I need to hear repeatedly, so I'm glad that it did make its way into the world. "The Story" perfectly melds smart, considered production and expert storytelling


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