By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Killing Me Softly with His Song’ is a well-known song that has most famously been recorded by Roberta Flack and (under the shorter title ‘Killing Me Softly’) by the Fugees, who gave the song a hip-hop twist and, in doing so, brought the track to the attention of a new generation.
But the story of this song is a curious one, as is its meaning. What connects ‘American Pie’, another iconic song to come out of the early 1970s, with ‘Killing Me Softly with His Song’? Let’s take a closer look at the origins of the track.
‘Killing Me Softly’: song origin
The music for ‘Killing Me Softly with His Song’ was composed by Charles Fox, with Norman Gimbel providing the lyrics. Well, to be strictly accurate, Gimbel wrote the lyrics in collaboration with Lori Lieberman, and Lieberman’s involvement in the song’s genesis is not only important, but absolutely vital.
Why? Because it was Lieberman who suggested not only the germ of the song but also its memorable and striking title. She used the phrase ‘killing me softly with his song’, or words very close to it, after she had attended a Don McLean performance in November 1971.
McLean, of course, is best-known for writing ‘American Pie’ (about the history of rock ‘n’ roll and ‘the day the music died’) and ‘Vincent’, his tribute to the nineteenth-century tortured Dutch genius, the painter Vincent Van Gogh. His singing – and song-writing – clearly left their mark on Lieberman.
However, it wasn’t either of these songs, but another track of McLean’s, ‘Empty Chairs’, which really had an effect on the 20-year-old young singer and song-writer that night. Lieberman was so taken by his song that she was moved to write poetic notes on a paper napkin during the performance.
‘Killing Me Softly’: song meaning
When we bear in mind the genesis to the song, the meaning of the lyrics quickly becomes clear. The singer recalls how she heard about a singer who had his own style, so she went to see him perform his songs.
And she was taken aback that a ‘stranger’, someone she had never seen before, could so eloquently take her emotions, the things she was privately feeling inside, and turn them into great music. His songs seemed to be about her pain and her life.
In other words, ‘Killing Me Softly’ gives voice to something we have often felt when listening to music: that it was somehow written about ourselves, and describes perfectly how we are feeling. The violence of the verb ‘killing’ is counteracted by the tenderness of ‘softly’ (if you listen to McLean’s ‘Empty Chairs’, which we link to above), you can hear just how slow and soothing a composition it is).
Or to put it another way, he is flooring her with how softly and beautifully he is giving voice to the feelings she thought only she was feeling. As she says in the second verse of the song, it’s as if he’d found her personal correspondence, her love letters, say, and was reading them aloud in front of the crowd.
‘Killing Me Softly’: analysis
We might describe ‘Killing Me Softly’ as a bittersweet song about a number of opposites: the softness of Don McLean’s vocal delivery versus the power of what he is singing; and the way he appears to ‘get’ the woman, to understand her pain and her experiences, and yet he doesn’t even know she exists.
After all, towards the end of the song, he appears to look right through her, because to him, she’s just another face in the crowd. He appears to understand her, personally, but the singer of ‘Killing Me Softly’ has mistaken a universal emotion for a private feeling.
This is, of course, exactly what great music should do – and great poetry, too, as T. S. Eliot understood all too well. In his celebrated 1919 essay ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’, Eliot argued that the poet should not simply put down their emotions onto the page in the hope that the reader will be moved by them; instead, the poet should make use of ‘feelings which are not in actual emotions at all’.
Indeed, the poet might even draw on ‘emotions which he has never experienced’, because the idea is not to put raw emotion down on the page but to transform it into great poetry which will contain universal emotions that will resonate with the reader.
So, although it may seem like an odd detour from ‘Killing Me Softly’ to T. S. Eliot, this song brings home something which Eliot recognised: great poetry is something which takes the universal and makes it feel personal, even though it is really universal. It makes us feel special even while we must know, deep down, that we are but one of many people being moved by it.
‘Killing Me Softly with His Song’ became a huge hit for Roberta Flack in 1973, after Flack heard Lieberman’s recording of the track while Flack was on a TWA flight from Los Angeles to New York in 1972. Denied writing credit by Fox and Gimbel, Lieberman had released her version of the song in 1972, but it did not chart. Meanwhile, Flack’s version won Record of the Year and Song of the Year at the Grammy Awards, and Flack won the Best Pop Vocal (Female) award, as Michael Heatley and Spencer Leigh note in their Behind the Song.
And yet there could have been no song without her input, and she ultimately had Don McLean and those paper napkins to thank for the genesis of the song, on that fateful November night back in 1971.