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Welcome to the Pop Song Professor! My name's Clifford, and I explain song lyrics so that you can know what your artists are saying and can enjoy your music more. 

What does "Three Empty Words" by Shawn Mendes mean?

What does "Three Empty Words" by Shawn Mendes mean?

What does "Three Empty Words" by Shawn Mendes mean?

Shawn Mendes is releasing his new album Illuminate on September 23rd, but in the meantime we get to listen to all of the great singles he's been releasing. We've already heard "Ruin" and "Treat You Better," and now it's time for another one: "Three Empty Words."

Meaning of the Lyrics

Verse 1

In the first verse of "Three Empty Words," Mendes sings about how his and his girlfriend's relationship is trying to recover from some brutal catastrophe. He sings about how they're trying to pretend that nothing happened: "I'll pick you up at the same time / At the same place, the same old drive." They "talk about [their] day" like nothing has happened as they "try to fill the awkward space" where a strong emotional connection used to be.

In the second stanza of the first verse, Mendes sings, "We'll play the songs we used to love" as they try to rekindle their feelings and "try to fall in love again." They want desperately for things to be like they used to be and don't even "know who's wrong or right" or "care enough to fight." They try to rekindle the feelings and avoid the issue, and still they struggle to feel "in love" again.

Chorus

Here, Mendes sings, "We're going through the motions / 'Cause we can't fix what's broken." This speaks to the hopelessness of their situation and how, while they would like to be strong together again, they can't really.

Next, he offers to be the one to do the difficult thing of ending the relationship officially when he sings, "And I know it's gonna' hurt / But, Darling, I'll go first," showing that he does still care for her on some level.

The reason he's ready to be the one to end the relationship? He doesn't feel sincere "saying those three empty words": "I love you." He refuses to keep pretending to be in love when the difficult event seems to have clearly killed the relationship.

Verse 2

In the second verse, Mendes focuses on how they need to end the relationship soon and how difficult it's going to be. Mendes sings, "We're still talking everyday / I'm running out of things to say to ya'." They're trying to keep the relationship going, but Mendes's mind is stuck thinking about "[w]hat's really gonna break my heart," which is having "to tell your little brother."

Mendes continues "Three Empty Words" by singing, "It might be easier to stay / But it'll never be the same, no" because the relationship feels ruined and insincere. And he knows that it needs to end because "if something doesn't change / Then we'll keep on sinking further."

Bridge

In the bridge of "Three Empty Words," Mendes focuses on "[t]hose three empty words" and how they'll "only make it worse." He sings, "I'm tried. I can't take it anymore," and "We tired, we can't take it anymore." Both of them can't keep pretending to be in love. The relationship needs to end even if it will be difficult to end it.

Deeper thoughts on the meaning of "Three Empty Words" by Shawn Mendes

I usually try to stay very objective in my song explanations, but it's difficult with "Three Empty Words." So let me take this opportunity, as a one-year-married person and English instructor, to give a little bit of a more mature perspective on "Three Empty Words."

First, this relationship is kind of stupid. But not in a way that makes a person angry--in a way that makes us laugh. People, we can't take every situation like this seriously. We need to be able to laugh at ourselves and others (to some extent). Listen to the excess of drama in this song over a dating relationship. There are few things that a person can do to a relationship to make it completely unfixable (cheating included), and since this relationship isn't a marriage of forty years or probably even a relationship of five years since Mendes (and presumably the narrator) is 17 years old, it makes it all the more crazy that he's taking it so incredibly seriously. He needs to realize that life will go on and that he hasn't put much time into the relationship anyway, which, I know, sounds heartless. But I'm not saying that the relationship isn't important at all. I'm just saying that the only people who listen to this who will agree that it has the right amount of drama will be those who haven't experienced a stronger relationship and have more perspective.

It sounds to me more like these two actually do want to move on. Otherwise, if they did want to stay but didn't "feel" good about it, they'd make it work until the feelings came back. Mendes seems to operate on the assumption that the only good thing about a relationship is "feeling in love," which (believe me) isn't half of what's good about a relationship.

Thus, I think what makes me chuckle over this song is that Mendes wants us to take deathly seriously (see: acoustic guitar and bluesy, slow singing) something that's here today and gone tomorrow--it sounds like they've barely put up a fight. He's asking too much of me and of anyone else who's actually been in love, then not felt "in love," and still made it through.

Now, I don't know what's wrong with their relationship, and maybe it's something that legitimately should end the relationship, but then why are they still hanging out? Why is this so difficult? If they want to be together, then they should just be together. Mendes puts so much emotion into a describing a relationship without giving us any details (a sales tactic designed to allow more listeners identify with a song and want to buy it). If it's difficult, then move on and stop straining out every drop of emotion.

Speaking of straining out every drop of emotion, let me move to my second point and put on my English instructor hat. The lines about the little brother are particularly rough. They go, "What's really going to break my heart / Is to have to tell your little brother."

In the English profession, we call this kitsch--making up scenarios and infusing them with artificial emotion to get a quick tear from the audience. Bad writers often use babies, children, puppies with broken legs, homeless persons, "cripples," and unloved grandparents to engage the audience's sympathies immediately. It's because we humans are wired to immediately respond sympathetically to people we all have pity for, so instead of describing their own situation, artists will sometimes just use people or animals we already feel sorry for and say, "Hey, ummm, that thing that makes you cry? Yeah, I've got one of those too." It's lazy writing and cheapens what an artist has to say.

Shawn Mendes does that here. He provides no context for why the little brother would care and doesn't mention him ever again; he just throws us a quick snapshot of a cute kid with big tears welling up in his eyes and then moves back to his story. And that's a perfect picture of kitsch and lazy emotional manipulation. I know because I sometimes stare at April sadly with fake tears in my eyes when I want her to play a board game with me. Of course, we can't tell Shawn Mendes to knock it off and then punch him in the arm like April does to me, but maybe he's got enough going on right now?

The best response to kitsch is to ask, "Wait, wasn't your story powerful enough without throwing in a lazy picture?" And in the case of "Three Empty Words," it's not. Since we're not sure that it's really worth crying over or what exactly ended the relationship. If we don't know that, how do we know where to put our sympathies? His side or her side? Instead, Mendes uses a few quick emotional pictures to just make us feel sorry for the death of a relationship that's supposed to be super important but that still no one seems to want to fight for.

Helpful Resources

  1. Lyrics
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