How to Act Pop Songs

audition songs auditioning inspiration repertoire Feb 21, 2023


Written By: Chelsea & Cynthia 

When it comes to working on a pop/rock song, especially for auditions, there are some common questions we hear all the time:

"How do I act this song?"

"Should I move and groove or... stand there and sing?"

"I just feel so...awkward!!"

As trained, classical performers, it can feel uncomfortable to step into the world of rock and pop. There can be many identifiable differences between a pop-rock song and a musical theatre piece. But the greatest of those is that there's no show context. Pop-rock songs aren't often tied to a greater plot or storyline - there's no character, so you get to make up your own. There's more room for improvisation and more room to make it personal, and sometimes it's more emotionally driven than it is lyrically driven. All of which can make performing a pop-rock song liberating or terrifying.

But as the industry leans more towards styles such as these, it can bode well for you to become acquainted. Allow us to provide you with some tangible tools that you can use to help you act out your pop-rock song with confidence.

Step 1: Go To The Original Source Material

By that we mean not only have the piece of music that you're learning, but go to the music video of the original artist or the artist who made it famous, or even covers that you enjoy. Or take some time to Google the artist and the song to see if there's something you can find out about why they wrote it or what the greater context of the song is.

These resources provide you with specific stories that you might also use in your own storytelling, or at least get your imagination working to think about what would be a really high-stakes, super-powerful story that you can create around the song.

Step 2: Look At Your Lyrics

Analyze them to recognize if they are more literal or poetic. Lyrics in pop-rock songs can really run the gamut between being really literal. For example, you could say those lyrics to your scene partner, and they would sound fairly natural. In comparison, poetic lyrics are not going to sound natural in a conversation (This includes anything super repetitive) 

These different styles of lyrics are going to need a different approach. The literal can lean towards musical theater storytelling, and you can do a lyric analysis just like you might with your regular musical theater songs - what just happened? Who are you talking to? What do you want? What is standing in the way of what you want? What are you willing to do to get what you want, etc. 

Whereas, a pop-rock song that has more poetic lyrics will need to be more emotionally rooted and more physically engaged. There might be more movement, you might have more opportunity for embellishment, some riffing, and some off-roading in terms of your vocal stylization.

Step 3:  Do You Want Your Performance To Be More Intimate or Performative?

No two poetic songs are the same - in fact, they can be very, very different. This is why we like to imagine a scale of 1 to 10. 

One sale is the comparison between intimate versus performative.1 being very intimate and a 10 being very performative - and your song could be anywhere in between. Intimate might mean your song has less movement and a simple delivery. It might have small and tasty riffs versus a whole lot of vocal gymnastics. You can also think about whether it's intimate to one person or whether are you speaking to yourself.

Performative on the other hand generally means a lot more movement and you're taking up more space on the stage. You're purposefully engaging your audience. This style also tends to have more options vocally. You can have a lot more fun kind of off-roading from the melody, having a little more fun with improvisation, riffs, and vocal stylization.

Think intentionally about whether you want your song to be more intimate or whether you want it to be more performative. If you think of this analysis similar to the way you might have analyzed a musical theater song, it'll start to make a little bit more sense and you'll feel more in control of your song and your performance. 

It's not uncommon that some songs might incorporate a little bit of both. There are plenty of songs where the verse might be more intimate and then the chorus swells, so musically, it demands a more performative interpretation. Don't be afraid to put your unique spin on it so that it doesn't feel so much like a cover of the song, but rather your personal interpretation and storytelling. 

Step 4: Map Your Emotional Arc

Rather than having a plot line like you might have in musical theater, where you know your character starts and the journey they have to take in order to get to the finish line by the end of the song, which propels us to the next part of the story... you instead have to create that for yourself.

One way we like to do that, (especially if your song is poetic) is: Break your song into sections and assign an emotion to each section. Tap into the unspoken subtext. The key to this is to make your beginning emotion and your ending emotion as far apart as you can, so that then through the rest of the song, you can think of what emotions you need to now journey through in order to get from point A to point B.

The other things that can help you as you do this is to listen to the orchestration, the band, what's happening in the music, and what's brewing and stirring underneath the vocal line because the lyrics can only give you so much in a poetic pop song. 

The best part about effectively using pop and rock songs in your audition book, is that you don't have to go searching for a new song every time you have another audition. You can create very specific, different interpretations of the songs that you've already got, tailored towards the role you aspiring for. You can go as far as asking the audition pianist to play the piece at a faster or slightly slower tempo. Or if you're making a self-tape, get your accompanist to make you two tracks - one that's at a slightly faster tempo, and the other slightly slower, so you have tapes of the same song but interpreted completely differently.

When it comes to performing, how much is too much? 

It depends so heavily on the show that you're auditioning for and why we like to think of it in terms of the scales because you can also analyze the show that you're about to go in for in the same way. So if you're going in for Rock of Ages, is that a more intimate show or a more performative show? Is the character you're going in for more intimate or more performative? You can analyze it in that way, and that helps you know what to do with your song, which is why it's so great if you have a couple of songs that work well for you in many different ways. Use the same song, but simply tilt it in the direction of the vibe of the show that you're about to go in for.  

The truth of the matter is this: there are so many choices to be made and the only mistake is not making one. Don't live in the middle at a four or five on the scale. Give yourself permission to make some creative choices and be confident in your storytelling.

If you're interested in diving deeper into this topic or exploring other interesting musical theatre conversations - check out the Broadway Vocal Coach podcast! Or check us out on Instagram, and get involved in the conversation! 

Are you a musical theatre performer and wondering what your next step should be? Take our Quiz - we can’t wait to hear your story and help you take the next step in your career. 

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