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Looking Back: Our Favorite Lyrical Lines in Pop Music From 2021

Michelle Zauner of Japanese Breakfast performing live
Michelle Zauner of Japanese Breakfast performing live.

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There are a lot of things that can be said about 2021. It was truly a year no one expected to go quite the way it did. But, as can be said through all historically difficult time periods, out of great pain, comes great art — and this week’s Grammy Awards showcased that for sure.

Mirroring the lived experiences of last year, we heard breathtakingly beautiful and heartbreaking pieces of song that reflected all those feelings, created in all genres by artists around the globe, many by familiar names and faces, and a few new ones as well. So we wanted to shed light on the song lyrics that really stood out last year, here are some of our favorites from 2021.

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Adele – “Easy on Me”

“I know there is hope in these waters,
But I can’t bring myself to swim,
When I am drowning in this silence,
Baby, let me in.”

There was no way we could make this list without including Adele, so we might as well start here. These lines from “Easy on Me” resonate with those of us who have gone through hardships with their partner. The metaphoric duality of swimming (fun, carefree) versus drowning (trouble, silence) is so vivid, and used here in a pastiche of imagery.

It’s almost cliché that (of course) these lines stood out lyrically from the piece, though it was a hard choice in actuality. This song is incredibly lyrically beautiful throughout, and features bold storytelling.

Mitski – “The Only Heartbreaker”

“If you would just make one mistake,
What a relief that would be,
But I think for as long as we’re together,
I’ll be the only heartbreaker.”

Mitski is back with another incredible song (that song title!). She writes from the perspective of the “bad guy” in a breakup and gives so many of those who’ve felt the same conflicting emotions a voice to sing along with. She shares a daring lyrical line about the side of heartbreak that so often gets ignored in song narratives. These lines in particular stood out in the conversational way Mitski addresses knowing she’s about to be take power in this particular situation, acknowledging the sense of hoping your partner messes up and gives you an excuse to let them go.

There’s something about the simplicity of it that makes these lines hit so much harder for me, personally.

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Bo Burnham – “All Eyes On Me”

“You say the ocean’s rising like I give a shit,
You say the whole world’s ending, honey, it already did,
You’re not gonna slow it, Heaven knows you tried,
Got it? Good, now get inside.”

If you have yet to watch Bo Burnham’s film “Inside,” then you’re missing out. But even if you haven’t, you’ve likely heard the music from its viral run on TikTok last year. Bo Burnham creates a dialogue about the state of the world that is both haunting and yet relatable and spot on with his lyrics to “All Eyes on Me.” The above lines in particular stand out because of the modern conversational tonal elements he employs, which sound so shocking in the context of the song, yet they’re unfortunately just as shockingly real. They grab your attention immediately.

Willow – “Transparent Soul” (feat. Travis Barker)

“I don’t fucking know if it’s paradise or it’s a trap,
Yeah, they’re treating me like royalty, but is it kissin’ ass?
No one’s brave enough to take the fall right,
But it’s all your fault,
Why you actin’ like it’s alright?”

Willow broke through with a new sound in 2021, starting with the incredible, viral song “Transparent Soul.” Speaking her truth with a biting edge, the lyrics of this song include images that sting and can speak to anyone who’s ever dealt with “fake friends.” The way these lines set up paradise as a trap, and exemplify kissin’ ass to royalty, makes it fun, but provocative and powerful. It’s oxymoronic and confused all at once, but represents the truth about feelings that are hard to articulate.

Brothers Osborne – “Younger Me”

“Younger me,
Made it harder than it had to be,
Trying hard to dodge my destiny,
Would get the best of me.”

Brothers Osborne swung hard and struck gold with this beautiful ode to their younger selves who — big spoiler alert — got them to where they are today. This short passage is only the tiniest of examples of the mastery of the lyrics in this song. However, using words like “dodge my destiny” and the simplicity of saying his younger self made it harder than it had to be make these lines and visuals hit so hard they captured my attention right away. We’re all thinking so much about our former lives, pre-pandemic, and what we’re destined to become now that we have a renewed sense of how the world is supposed to work.

Olivia Rodrigo – “Drivers License”

“I got my driver’s license last week.
Just like we always talked about.
‘Cause you were so excited for me.
To finally drive up to your house.
But today I drove through the suburbs.
Crying ’cause you weren’t around.”

Olivia Rodrigo’s “Drivers License” was unavoidable in 2021, in the absolute best way. Her beautiful vocals mixed with deeply emotional and imagery-driven lyric created an unforgettable song that not only captures the nostalgic experience of learning to drive for the first time, but tells the story of heartache in a refreshing, understated way.

While songwriting and lyrics are very personal and interpretive, these lines in particular feel so powerful because they describe a situation that so many of us have experienced; and tie it together with heartbreak in the very last line. The masterful reveal at the end that Olivia is driving around crying hits especially hard because of that relatability factor, and how she foreshadows that her partner had been excited with her.

Girl in Red – “Serotonin”

“I’m running low on serotonin,
Chemical imbalance got me twisting things,
Stabilize with medicine,
But there’s no depth to these feelings,
Dig deep, can’t hide,
From the corners of my mind,
I’m terrified of what’s inside.”

We love the bedroom pop sound of Girl in Red — so we could not make this list without her? After a year of absolute insanity, a song that feels all too relatable to many dealing with emotional and mental struggles of all sorts, this lyric came through. Delving into intrusive thoughts and complicated shifts in our behaviors, her use of visual imagery like “dig deep, can’t hide,” saying her chemical imbalance has her “twisting things,” and that there’s no “depth to these feelings,” all really hammers home the impact that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on us. Her lines paint a vivid image, one that we can hopefully forget soon.

Taylor Swift – “All Too Well” (10 Minute Version)

“And you were tossing me the car keys, ‘fuck the patriarchy,’
Key chain on the ground, we were always skipping town,
And I was thinking on the drive down, any time now,
He’s gonna say it’s love, you never called it what it was,
‘Til we were dead and gone and buried,
Check the pulse and come back swearing it’s the same,
After three months in the grave,
And then you wondered where it went to as I reached for you,
But all I felt was shame and you held my lifeless frame.”

The Queen of lyrics herself, Taylor Swift, released a 10-minute version of “All Too Well” this year, and those extra lyrics pack a heavy punch with every word. Some people even say it’s better than the originally released version (which is saying a lot for the average pop music fan!). Either way, it was a blessing for 2021.

From this additional passage, I think everyone can imagine that “f*^# the patriarchy” keychain hitting the ground and what it must have looked like for a young Taylor Swift to witness; how it opened up new lines of communication for the storytelling expert to explore. The metaphor she uses comparing their love to something dead and gone and buried, and the way her partner comes back checking the pulse for life after the fact is so tragic. These 10 minutes feel like mere seconds with passages like this.

Lorde – “Solar Power”

“My cheeks in high color, overripe peaches,
No shirt, no shoes, only my features,
My boy behind me, he’s taking pictures,
Lead the boys and girls onto the beaches,
Come one, come all, I’ll tell you my secrets,
I’m kinda like a prettier Jesus.”

Lorde came back in 2021 with a new album, but the same level of astounding lyrics — and we actually broke down the music of this track too. These lines from “Solar Power” pack a punch with heavy, familiar imagery that sends you right to where she wants you to be. What’s more, Lorde uses her adept skills in visual metaphor and storytelling to compare her cheeks to overripe peaches, and paint an image of a boy taking her picture alongside the shocking hyperbole that she’s “like a prettier Jesus.” These lyrics are so magnetizing it’s impossible to look away.

Doja Cat – “Kiss Me More” (feat. SZA)

“We could kiss and just cut the rubbish,
Then I might be on to somethin’,
I ain’t givin’ you one in public,
I’m givin’ you hundreds, fuck it.”

There can’t be any kind of musical list from 2021 that doesn’t mention Doja Cat. Her fun, quirky style is showcased to full effect in “Kiss Me More,” a song that brought up the mood of a truly dark year. There’s something so playful about these lines in particular, where Doja sings that she’s going to give her partner hundreds of kisses after setting up that she’s shy. The light conversational tone is really what stood out to me in this lyrical passage. Doja’s lyrics find mastery in moments like this.

Clairo – “Bambi”

“It’s not that I crave,
Any more company,
I’d like to say, say a few things,
Clearing your throat while I count to three,
Keep hold of my hand,
We both know I can leave.”

Clairo’s “Bambi” features one of the most gorgeous lyrical lines of 2021 — by far. She has a mastery of subtle language and “bedroom” emotion that weaves effortlessly through her music. Especially in lines like this where Clairo is able to capture a moment so beautifully and extend it into these gorgeous pocket melodies in a way you can almost picture yourself in this domestic partnership, clearing your throat while she counts to three. Ending the lines with “we both know I can leave” gives her a platform to reclaim a sense of power, which really made this story stand out for me.

Billie Eilish – “Happier Than Ever”

“I don’t relate to you,
I don’t relate to you, no,
‘Cause I’d never treat me this shitty,
You made me hate this city.”

Billie Eilish hit us with yet another banger in 2021. “Happier Than Ever” has been everywhere, from radio, to playlists, to TikTok, and beyond. These lyrics in particular stick out so heavily within the narrative, it had to earn a place on this list. Transposing her relationship onto the landscape of the city, tying in memory and moments with certain places, has a real universality to it that can be appreciated. We all go through traumas, in relationships or just life in general, and it’s hard to separate those feelings from the places where the events took place. But Billie also talks about not relating to her partner because she would never treat herself the way they’ve treated her.

Kacey Musgraves – “Breadwinner”

“He wants a breadwinner,
He wants your dinner,
Until he ain’t hungry anymore,
He wants your shimmer,
To make him feel bigger,
Until he starts feeling insecure,
I wish somebody would’ve told me the truth,
See, he’s never gonna know what to do,
With a woman like you.”

Kacey Musgraves has always had incredible lyrics in her music — “Breadwinner” is no exception. Not only does this song tackle a challenging narrative, it does so in a way that’s so telltale of the experience far too many women have lived through. The description Kacey uses saying this man wants a breadwinner “until he ain’t hungry anymore,” and “wants your shimmer” until he feels insecure is such a great way to highlight power struggles and our empathetic blind spots. But Kacey will not be manipulated, and here she gets to say exactly what she means in a beautifully poetic lyrical sense that really makes her song’s chorus lyric shine.

Japanese Breakfast – “Be Sweet”

“Tell the men I’m coming, tell them count the days,
I can feel the night passing by like a mistake waiting for me,
Caught up in my feelings, overthink the truth,
Fantasize you’ve left me behind,
And I’m turned back running for you.”

Japanese Breakfast everybody! Michelle Zauner gifted us with another potent lyrical line in 2021. “Be Sweet” tells the story of wanting to believe in someone again; and compares time passing by to a mistake waiting for you. The “fantasy” of someone leaving you — and your act of running back for them — create such visual, palpable imagery that these lyrics needed to be highlighted.

Halsey – “I Am Not a Woman I’m a God”

“I am not a woman, I’m a God,
I am not a martyr, I’m a problem,
I am not a legend, I’m a fraud,
So keep your heart, ’cause I already got one.”

Halsey’s project “If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power,” dropped during the pandemic and “I Am Not A Woman, I’m A God” is only a fraction of the incredible lyrics spread across the record. It’s an album worth listening to a few times to really sink in to her immersive emotionality.

The way Halsey compares what she feels she isn’t, alongside what her character thinks she is, is a great device for creating contrast, dynamic shifts, and perspective. She’s not a woman, she’s god. She’s not a legend, she’s a fraud. By the time she tells you to keep her heart because she already has one, you’re locked into the hook, awaiting its resolve. It might sound simple, but it’s a highly functional model.

There you have it: our favorite lyric lines of 2021. Have you listened to all of these songs, yourself yet? Let us know when you do! As always, happy listening.

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Sammy Hakim

Sammy Hakim is an up-and-coming young songwriter based in New York City. In May, 2018 she graduated from Berklee College of Music with a Major in songwriting and a focus in music business. These days she spends most of her time in songwriting sessions with artists all over the country.