There are those of us who grow up to be music nerds and those of us who grow up to be nerds of the bookish variety. Then, there are those who do both – and they’re not always who you think. Here to attest to this fact are 24 musicians who slipped in literary salutes to those about to read – and rock.
1. Panic! At the Disco’s “Time to Dance” (2005)
“Boys will be boys,
Hiding in estrogen and wearing Aubergine Dreams”
As huge Chuck Palahniuk fans, Panic! At the Disco has written several songs alluding to his novels.
This one references the transvestite protagonists in Invisible Monsters, one of whose favorite eye shadow is “Aubergine Dreams.” Which, lucky for Panic!, just sounds a lot better than “eggplant.”
2. Fatboy Slim’s “Weapon of Choice” (2001)
“Walk without rhythm
And it won’t attract the worm.”
In addition to getting Christopher Walken to dance in the “Weapon of Choice” music video, Fatboy Slim gets major kudos for including this allusion to Frank Herbert’s Dune.
For the uninitiated, the lines refer to giant desert-dwelling sandworms, which are drawn to rhythmic noises, such as the shuffling of human footsteps and/or the blasting of electric dance music.
3. Deltron 3030’s “3030” (2000)
“Neuromancer, perfect blend of technology and magic.
Use my rappin,’ so you all could see the hazards,
Plus entertainment, where many are brainless.
We cultivated the lost art of study and I brought a buddy.”
For all the hardcore nerds out there, here’s a song that uses the words “Neuromancer” and “perfect” in rapid succession.
As soon as Deltron 3030 figures out a way to work in “William Gibson,” “cyberpunk,” and “Sprawl trilogy,” we’ll let you know.
4. Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android” (1997)
“When I am king, you will be first against the wall
With your opinion, which is of no consequence at all.
What’s there? (I may be paranoid, but no android.)”
Brains, moodiness, and electronics: the only thing this verbal trifecta describes better than Radiohead’s musical flavor is Marvin the Paranoid Android from Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
Naturally, Radiohead was way ahead of us on putting this together.
5. Insane Clown Posse’s “Ol’ Evil Eye” (1995)
“I loved the old man. He had never wronged me. He had never given me insult. For his gold I had no desire. I think it was his eye. Yes, it was this.”
In addition to reciting several lines from “The Tell-Tale Heart” throughout the song, ICP wrote its gruesome lyrics from the perspective of the story’s antagonist.
Note to self: even Insane Clown Posse thinks Edgar Allan Poe is creepy.
6. Alanis Morissette’s “All I Really Want” (1995)
“I’m like Estella –
I like to reel it in and then spit it out.
I’m frustrated by your apathy.”
Comparing yourself to Estella Havisham from Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations is not a kind act; somewhere between all that jerk-marrying and nice-guy-tormenting, Estella goes so far as to admit that she is heartless.
We can only hope Morissette is using the allusion for effect.
7. Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise” (1995)
“As I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I take a look at my life and realize there’s nothing left.
Cause I’ve been blastin’ and laughin’ so long that
Even my mama thinks my mind is gone.”
Let’s face it: setting a rap chorus to choir music in a way that makes both your kid sister and your grandpa bob their heads requires a special kind of awesome.
Opening with a line from Psalm 23, “Gangsta’s Paradise” is so epic that it even helped make Michelle Pfeiffer appear capable of reaching bad-assness of Chuck Norris proportions.
8. Crash Test Dummies’ “Afternoons and Coffeespoons” (1994)
“Someday I’ll have a disappearing hairline.
Someday I’ll wear pajamas in the daytime.
Oh, afternoons will be measured out –
Measured out, measured with –
Coffeespoons and T. S. Eliot.”
PJs, coffee, afternoons, and male-pattern baldness: these are not themes from your typical rock song. Then again, T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is not your typical poem: in the antithesis of a climactic finish, Prufrock resigns himself to a life of slow, languishing loneliness.
Only true nerds could pull off incorporating this into a fan favorite.
9. Nirvana’s “Scentless Apprentice” (1993)
“Like most babies smell like butter
His smell smelled like no other.
He was born scentless and senseless
He was born a scentless apprentice.”
Even those of us who’ve actually read Patrick Süskind’s Perfume might not understand Cobain’s references to the novel through all that snarling and slurring.
However, given that the book is about a perfumer’s apprentice with a super-powerful sense of smell – and the blood of two dozen women on his hands – we feel that the snarling is appropriate.
10. They Might Be Giants’ “Birdhouse in Your Soul” (1989)
“There’s a picture opposite me
Of my primitive ancestry,
Which stood on rocky shores and kept the beaches shipwreck-free.
Though I respect that a lot
I’d be fired if that were my job
After killing Jason off and countless screaming Argonauts.”
It’s not every day that a song told from the perspective of a nightlight references a classic figure of Greek mythology, appearing in the likes of Homer’s Odyssey. But, the law of large numbers says it was bound to happen.
In this instance, a blue, canary-shaped nightlight informs us that it would make for a poor lighthouse. Which, we admit, is hard to argue with.
11. The Beastie Boys’ “Shadrach” (1989)
“And the man upstairs, I hope that he cares.
If I had a penny for my thoughts I’d be a millionaire.
We’re just 3 M.C.’s and we’re on the go –
Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego!”
In addition to giving shout-outs to everyone from J.D. Salinger to Charles Dickens to Alfred E. Neuman of Mad magazine, this song rocks Old-Testament-style by referencing Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.
According to the Book of Daniel, the trio undergoes trial by fire, entering and exiting a red-hot oven unscathed. This is actually a great metaphor in the rap world, where getting burned is the fastest way to lose face.
12. Metallica’s “The Thing that Should Not Be” (1986)
“Hybrid children watch the sea
Pray for father, roaming free.
Lurking beneath the sea.”
It’s no secret that metal music has had a long and nerdy love affair with the horror stories of H.P. Lovecraft. This ode to his short story “The Call of Cthulhu” is one of several Metallica songs referencing the Great Old One – a horrid thing which, true to Lovecraft’s style, simply “can’t be described.”
Supposedly, Metallica’s instrumental song “The Call of Ktulu” is intentionally misspelled because “Cthulhu” can’t be pronounced, either.
13. The Smiths’ “How Soon Is Now?” (1985)
“I am the son
And the heir
Of a shyness that is criminally vulgar.
I am the son and heir
Of nothing in particular.”
This 80’s classic, which has since become synonymous with the TV series Charmed, is a staggering testament to the loneliness of the human condition. It owes its chorus to a line from George Eliot’s Middlemarch, a famously massive novel about the social conventions surrounding love.
The novel describes one of the minor characters as “the son of a Middlemarch manufacturer, and inevitable heir to nothing in particular.” Here’s to referencing nineteenth-century realism while shredding on the guitar.
14. The Police’s “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” (1980)
“Loose talk in the classroom –
To hurt they try and try.
Strong words in the staffroom –
The accusations fly
It’s no use. He sees her.
He starts to shake and cough
Just like the old man in
That book by Nabokov.”
A song about a man tempted by the advances of a much younger female student is not your typical radio fare. So when it goes on to reference Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, a novel narrated by a pedophile, it gets our attention quickly.
Sting’s songwriting career is peppered with high-brow literary allusions because of his background as an English teacher; however, this one is of particular interest because of, well, his background as an English teacher.
15. The Cure’s “Killing an Arab” (1978)
“I can turn
And walk away
Or I can fire the gun.
Staring at the sky.
Staring at the sun.
Whichever I chose,
It amounts to the same:
If these lines offend you, keep in mind that they reference Albert Camus’s existential masterpiece The Stranger, about a white Algerian who shoots an Arab because, well, the sun is awful hot that day. Though annoyed at being deemed sadistic instead of merely apathetic, the killer quickly comes to terms with his sentence – public decapitation – because nothing really matters anyway.
16. Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights” (1978)
“Heathcliff, it’s me, I’m Cathy, I’ve come home!
I’m so cold! Let me in your window.”
Ranking high on the list of Most Epic Literary Shout-Outs is Kate Bush’s retelling of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. Taking on the role of Catherine Earnshaw’s ghost, Bush sings the song in some of the craziest falsetto you’ve ever heard – which just goes to show what twenty years of wandering on the moors can do to a gal.
17. Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” (1975)
“I see a little silhouetto of a man.
Scaramouche, Scaramouche, will you do the Fandango?”
In addition to giving “Bohemian Rhapsody” the overall feel of an Italian opera, Freddie Mercury references Scaramuccia, a buffoonish seventeenth-century stock character from Italian farce.
The name Scaramuccia literally translates to “skirmish,” which is appropriate for someone who is regularly punched in the head.
18. David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World” (1970)
“We passed upon the stair.
We spoke of was and when.
Although I wasn’t there,
He said I was his friend.”
When Nirvana performed this song on their Unplugged album, many fans didn’t realize that they were hearing a David Bowie song. Even fewer recognized the creepy Hughes Mearns poem, “Antigonish,” that inspired Bowie in the first place.
The poem’s first stanza reads: “Yesterday upon the stair / I met a man who wasn’t there / He wasn’t there again today / Oh, how I wish he’d go away.” Nothing says unnerving like David Bowie and an invisible prowler.
19. Led Zeppelin’s “Ramble On” (1969)
“‘Twas in the darkest steps of Mordor
I met a girl so fair.
But Gollum and the Evil One
Crept up and slipped away with her.”
The literary reference in “Ramble On” needs no introduction; in addition to “World-Class Rockers” and “Unabashed Music Thieves,” feel free to add “Tolkien Nerds” to Zeppelin’s musical resume.
Allusions to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings can also be found in “Misty Mountain Hop,” “The Battle of Evermore,” “No Quarter,” and even some live performances of “Bron-Yr-Aur Stomp” – which, by the way, was written in honor of Robert Plant’s English sheepdog, Strider.
20. Procol Harum’s “Whiter Shade of Pale” (1967)
“And so it was that later,
As the miller told his tale,
That her face, at first just ghostly,
Turned a whiter shade of pale.”
This reference to Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales may seem out of place in a love song.
On the one hand, “The Miller’s Tale” is about both adultery and unrequited love; on the other, it’s also about flatulence, literal ass-kissing, and a well-aimed red-hot poker. No wonder hearing the story turns her a whiter shade of pale.
21. The Beatles’ “I Am the Walrus” (1967)
“If ever thou wilt thrive, bury my body; and give the letters which thou find’st about me to Edmund Earl of Gloucester. Seek him out upon the British party: O, untimely death!”
Although most of us jump to the line “kicking Edgar Allan Poe” when we think of literary allusions in “I Am the Walrus,” the song also contains a large passage from Act 4, Scene 6 of Shakespeare’s King Lear.
Ring any bells? If not, that’s probably because the lines are competing with a rousing round of “Oompa! Oompa! Stick it up your jumper!” According to legend, King Lear was being performed on the radio at the time of the recording and was later mixed in for effect / to screw with future Paul Is Dead conspiracy theorists.
22. The Doors’ “End of the Night” (1967)
“Some are born to sweet delight.
Some are born to the endless night.”
Some of you may recognize these lines from William Blake’s poem “Auguries of Innocence” (or from its partial recitation in Jim Jarmusch’s film Dead Man).
Jim Morrison and Co. were huge fans of Blake’s mystical style; in fact, they even named the band after a line in “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” that reads, “If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite.” (So that’s why the Lizard King can do anything!)
23. Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” (1967)
“When men on the chessboard
Get up and tell you where to go
And you’ve just had some kind of mushroom
And your mind is moving slow
Go ask Alice.
I think she’ll know.”
Thanks in part to Jefferson Airplane’s take on the novel, your interpretation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass now seconds as a litmus test on how much of the ol’ childlike innocence you have left.
Those of us who are familiar with the White Rabbit scene in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas can confidently rate this at zero.
24. The Velvet Underground’s “Venus in Furs” (1967)
“Kiss the boot of shiny, shiny leather,
Shiny leather in the dark.
Tongue of thongs, the belt that does await you.
Strike, dear mistress, and cure his heart.”
The cryptic imagery in these lines refers to Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s 1870 novella Venus in Furs.
We won’t get into the gritty details, but suffice it to say that Sacher-Masoch is the guy we can thank for the word “masochism” – not to mention, probably the first guy to high-five the Marquis de Sade in the afterlife.