At one stage, I was a really big fan of The Streets. For those unfamiliar, ‘The Streets’ was the stage name of British cockney rapper Mike Skinner. Skinner became known on the back of his excellent debut album ‘Original Pirate Material’ and the single ‘Weak Become Heroes’.
There was nothing technically amazing about The Streets’ music – the beats are somewhat generic, the almost spoken word vocal delivery is not immediately stand-out. What Skinner was able to do better than most was capture a moment in time. Every song on Original Pirate Material had a feel to it, a vivid sense of time and place. You could smell the rain soaked concrete, feel the breeze pushing past along the London streets. Skinner was more storyteller than rapper, and no one could tell a story in quite the same way.
He reinforced this with his second, and by far most popular, album, ‘A Grand Don’t Come for Free’. If you’ve not heard this album, I highly recommend you go check it out, particularly if you’re a writer. A Grand Don’t Come for Free is a concept album – Skinner documents his entire relationship with his ex-girlfriend from start to finish, stretching from track to track. We share the elation and excitement of the beginning, the complacent beauty of normality, then the sadness of the eventual end. Every element is so familiar, so real, and each track carries an emotional depth and resonance, made all the better by Skinner’s knack for capturing the moment. There’s a section in one track, when his girlfriend is breaking up with him, that just hurts so much:
I can change and I can grow or we could adjust
The wicked thing about us is we always have trust
We can even have an open relationship, if you must
I look at her she stares almost straight back at me
But her eyes glaze over like she’s lookin’ straight through me
Then her eyes must have closed for what seems an eternity
When they open up she’s lookin’ down at her feet
There’s the desperation – we can have an open relationship if that will keep you with me – then the realisation that it’s all over, told in Skinner’s unique, simple style. A Grand Don’t Come for Free is more akin to reading a novel than listening to an album, it needs to be experienced from beginning to end to fully appreciate it’s excellence.
Things changed by the third album. While his clear strength was in telling stories to which we could all relate, the success of A Grand Don’t Come for Free meant his life totally changed. He’d become a full fledged celebrity, regularly appearing in tabloids and gossip mags, holding hands with this or that pop starlet, hanging out at VIP events. His success ultimately turned his strength into weakness – he was still writing about his life like always, we could just no longer relate. The album ‘The Hardest Way to Make an Easy Living’ had some classic Streets moments, but it wasn’t the same. The title track had Skinner lamenting the many downsides of fame, like the costs of making music videos and complications of putting on stage shows. These were real things, real issues that he was experiencing, but it was pretty hard for listeners to align with the view that his career, which had granted him massive amounts of cash and seen him invited to perform all over the world – all while doing what he loved – that the downsides to that lifestyle could be all that bad. Another track looks at the difficulties of picking up famous women – again, something he’d experienced, but the difference between his reality and the listener’s created a gap, a distance from the material. It once again highlighted that The Streets’s appeal was more in story than in music, and Skinner experienced a significant drop-off in fan support as a result.
He was never able to fully recover after that – Skinner released two more albums under The Streets’ moniker, ‘Everything is Borrowed’ (on which, Skinner pledged not to reference modern life on any of the tracks, a response to criticism of the previous album) and ‘Computers and Blues’. As with The Hardest Way to Make and Easy Living, there are some great moments on both of these albums (and Skinner’s musical ability increases markedly through each), but he’d lost that edge, that storytelling dynamic that made his work so great. A mixture of life changes and criticism seemed to pretty much kill off The Streets as a project, which Skinner acknowledged by retiring the name after his fifth full-length release.
The story of The Streets highlights one of the inherent dangers of fame – the more successful you are, the higher the risk you can lose touch with your audience. But above that, Skinner’s story highlights one very important element for writers that can often be overlooked. The strength of The Streets was that it told Skinner’s story, from his perspective. And that was perfect, it was real, something with which we could all relate. The rise of Mike Skinner highlights the fact that you don’t need explosions or car chases to gain an audience. Your experience, your viewpoint on life, no one has that but you – that unique insight is interesting. A story doesn’t have to be exciting or amazing to be resonant. A key strength of storytelling is honesty, capturing the feeling of the moment in an honest and real way. In Skinner’s case, those common life experiences were far more resonant than the fast-paced world of being a rock star – that’s not to say his experiences with fame were any less honest, but his story was so much stronger when we could be part of it, when we could all relate and share in the familiarity of those moments.
People relate to what they know and understand, they need a way into the narrative. Even if your story is sci-fi or fantasy, we still need to be able to connect with the stakes, understand the emotion of each scene. The development of flesh and bone characters is critical, and those characters are borne from your knowledge of real people, real situations. Writing is about exposing yourself, sharing what you’ve felt in similar circumstance, creating the experience of being there, in the moment. You need real relationships with your characters, real emotions, those are the details that fuel the connections in the reader’s mind – the more readers can relate, the more they’ll be drawn in. Keeping it real, keeping it familiar, capturing experiences based on your unique perspective, this is how you develop fully rounded characters. This is how you share not just words with your readers, but experiences and create real life within the confines of the fictional page.