Photograph taken in 1882 by Napoleon Sarony via Wikipedia
The frontmen for English band the Libertines have been vocal about their literary inspirations in interviews. Oscar Wilde is just one of many writers Pete Doherty and Carl Barât, singers and guitarist for the band, have looked up to.
“[I]t was always my dream to study literature and to write. It fell by the wayside a little bit, but yeah, an amazing writer and amazing inspiration,” Doherty said according to music magazine NME.
His bandmate, Barât, an cofounder of the band, has also echoed Doherty’s sentiment on Wilde. In fact, he would would “like to spend [Christmas] with Oscar Wilde in the Dordogne,” Barât said, according to a Q&A with NME in 200 reposted on a blog.
Among some of the songs inspired by Wilde includes “Narcissist,” from the self-titled 2004 album, which alludes to the Picture of Dorian Gray.
In the song Barât sings: “Well wouldn’t it be nice to be Dorian Gray just for a day? They’re just narcissists! Oh, what’s so great to be Dorian Gray every day?”
Shakira and Gabo in Mexico in April 2011. Photo via Shakira’s Twitter.
Gabriel García Márquez, one of the most celebrated Latin American writers, has inspired many authors with his books including a fashion designer.
Márquez’s 1985 novel, Love in Time of Cholera, which inspired Honduran-born Carlos Campos men’s fashion designer, also inspired Colombian pop star Shakira.
It’s been well documented in media interviews that both Colombians have mutual respect for each other. Márquez showed his respect for his countrywoman in a profile published in the Guardian in 2002. In it, he wrote: “Shakira’s music doesn’t sound like anybody else’s, and she has invented her own brand of innocent sensuality.”
Shakira got the opportunity to reciprocate the respect she has for Gabo’s literature when she wrote two songs for the soundtrack for the movie based on Love in Time of Cholera. Márquez asked the pop star to write some music to accompany the film, according to a news article.
One of the two songs written for the movie, “Despedida,” was nominated for Best Original Song at the 65th Golden Globe Awards.
The Cure’s singer Robert Smith titled the song Bananafishbones with Salinger’s short story in mind. The song was released in the album The Top in 1984. The New Yorker originally published the story in 1948, but later collected in Salinger’s 1953 book Nine Stories.
“The title (for the song), for some no-reason, from ‘a perfect day for bananafish’ – a short story by j d salinger .. again me hating myself,” Smith said according to the Cure News, a 1990 fan-produced newsletter.
As incoherent as that respond is, Smith had great respect for Salinger, who was a recluse. In an interview with French magazine Rock and Folk, the singer said he was impressed by Salinger’s lifestyle and writings.
“He’s a character that I admire and that intrigues me also; isolating himself from the world, living as a recluse in a monastery, giving up writing and refusing any contact with the outside, it’s fascinating,” Smith said of Salinger in 2003.
Smith continues: “Sometimes as I look back at myself as a teenager, reading Salinger…it makes me want to laugh. But it would be a pathetic reaction, typical of a mocking father facing his child’s first emotions. The amazement is too pure to be laughed at. Authors for teenagers are considered as caricatures.”
This isn’t the only literature-inspired tune that Smith has written. In fact, many of his songs allude to classic literature. For example, Killing an Arab’s lyrics retell french author Albert Camus’ story the Stranger.
The Jay-Z-produced soundtrack to the new Great Gatsby film gave the opportunity to contemporary artists to pay tribute to one of the most acclaimed novels in literature.
But before the Great Gatsby was cool, singer-songwriter Elliott Murphy had already lionized the book by writing a song titled “Like a Great Gatsby.” The tune was released in his debut album Aquashow, in 1973.
The reason why he idolizes the book’s author F. Scott Fitzgerald so much he says, according to the culture site Critical Mob: “On one level there was just the tragedy of his life – he is really the Van Gogh of authors, in that when he died he was so unknown there were still copies of the first edition of The Great Gatsby in Scribner’s [the book-publishing company] warehouse, it wasn’t very successful. And that he kept at it, I think I found that inspiring.”
Front cover of Las batallas en el desierto, published in 1981.
Artists who make literary references in his or her lyrics do it to pay homage to great writers. Others do it to drive a theme through the song. But at times those references go unnoticed by music listeners.
But José Emilio Pacheco, one of Mexico’s most celebrated poets, has great gratitude for the rock band Café Tacvba for bringing new readers to his short story Las batallas en el desierto.
The band is one of Mexico’s most successful rock groups, and in its 1992 freshman self-titled album included the track “Las batallas,” which retells Pacheco’s story in the lyrics.
Café Tacvba’s 1992 self-titled album.
When asked by Peru’s newspaper El Peruano in 2010 what Pacheco thought about Café Tacvba’s song he had this to say jokingly: “A really young Peruvian writer, Santiago Roncagliolo, had told me he found out about the book thanks to Café Tacuba. He asked me how much [money] I have made. I responded not a single cent.”
The story is about Carlos a grade-school boy who falls in love with his friend’s attractive mother. When he confesses his love to her, his young life starts to unravel. His parents call him crazy and his friends start picking on him.
The book was published in 1981, but it is still one of Mexico’s most read books. Part of its success is the winsome story, but the book has been hailed because of it’s reminiscence of the country’s pop culture of the 1940s and United States’ cultural influence on Mexicans.
José Emilio Pacheco tells an anecdote of Café Tacvba, inviting him for dinner after a concert, at the National Autonomous University of Mexico with Mexican novelist Ignacio Solares in 2010.
George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four has inspired our political-science lexicon by popularizing terms such as “big brother,” “doublespeak” or “thought police” to describe our governments and its policies. His novel, which was published in 1949, has also inspired dozens of musical artists’ lyrics.
For example, in 2009 the English band Muse wrote the album the Resistance based on Orwell’s book.
“The lyrics of the song Resistance are very influenced by this love story.” (This song did not make the list.)
Before Muse’s Orwellian-inspired album, the glam-rock singer David Bowie paid his respects to the dystopian novel. Bowie’s album Diamond Dogs, released in 1974, was originally suppose to be a Broadway musical based on the classic book. But Orwell’s widow Sonia Orwell denied the singer the book rights for his project; halting Bowie’s ambition to conduct an 1984-inspired musical. The album does include songs directly referencing the apocalyptical book such as Big Brother, though.
“Mrs Orwell refused to let us have the rights, point blank,” Bowie complained, according to the Man Who Sold the World a book by Peter Doggett.”For a person who married a socialist with communist leanings, she was the biggest upper-class snob I’ve ever met in my life. ‘Good heavens, put it to music?’ It really was like that.”
But between Bowie’s and Muse’s Orwell-influenced albums, rock bands such as Incubus, the Clash and the Dead Kennedys also borrowed passages from Orwell’s nightmarish novel.
Here’s the top-10 Orwellian-influenced songs.
10. Irresponsible Hate Anthem – Marilyn Manson
9. Spies – Coldplay
8. Citizen Erased – Muse
7. Talk Shows on Mute – Incubus
6. California Uber Alles - Dead Kennedys
5. 1977 – The Clash
4. Boot Stamping on a Human Face Forever – Bad Religion
A first edition cover of A Good Man Is Hard to Find, by Flannery O’Connor. The short story the River appears in this book.
In Harvey’s song “The River,” released in her fourth studio album Is This Desire?, the singer cribbed lyrics from O’Connor’s short story of the same name.
The short story focuses on a boy named Harry, but claims to be named Bavel, who is ignored by his parents. While he was babysat, the sitter takes him to a Christian meeting at a river where people are being baptized. The preacher is led to believe his mother is seriously sick and the boy agrees to be baptized hoping his parents would pay attention to him then.
“If I Baptize you,” the preacher said, “you’ll be able to go to the Kingdom of Christ. You’ll be washed in the river of suffering, son, and you’ll go by the deep river of life. Do you want that?”
“Yes,” the child said, and thought, I won’t go back to the apartment then, I’ll go under the river.
“You won’t be the same again,” the preacher said. “You’ll count.” Then he turned his face to the people and began to preach and Bevel looked over his shoulder at the pieces of the white sun scattered in the river.
Even though Harvey doesn’t mention the story’s characters, she does paint the setting by lifting part of the phrase “the white sun scattered in the river.”
Harvey also uses the preacher’s message to pen her lyrics:
“All the rivers come from that one River and go back to it like it was the ocean sea and if you believe, you can lay your pain in that River and get rid of it because that’s the River that was made to carry sin. It’s a River full of pain itself, pain itself, moving toward the Kingdom of Christ, to be washed away, slow, you people, slow as this here old red water river round my feet.”
This excerpt is what makes the song’s second verse:
Throw your pain in the river
Throw your pain in the river
Leave your pain in the river
To be washed away slow
As the book describes, “While he preached, Bevel’s eyes followed drowsily the slow circles of two silent birds revolving high in the air.”
Harvey too makes mention of this passage in the second verse as she sings, “And we walked without words/And we walked with our lives/Two silent birds circled by.”
Incubus’ single “Talk Shows on Mute,” released in the album A Crow Left of the Murder.
English writer George Orwell’s 1984 has inspired many artists; from David Bowie to Radiohead.
But Incubus’ 2004 single “Talk Shows on Mute” stands out, not just for the lyrics’ homage to the book but also because the song’s music video’ takes a similar theme to the dystopian 1949 novel.
“The book scared me, but in a good way,” Incubus’ singer Brandon Boyd said, according to an MTV.com article. “It scares you into vigilance. A lot of people don’t get it. They’re like, ‘That’s so passé, 1984. I mean, it’s 2004.’ But I think that right now, it has a poignancy that it otherwise wouldn’t have because it definitely seems like Big Brother is watching closer than he ever has. And television culture is at an all-time high or low, depending how you look at it.”
Even though Boyd sings in the ballad “Come one, come all, into 1984,” it was his own dystopian thoughts that reminded him of Orwell’s most famous novel. The singer was mocking a talk show on a plane ride and as the TV was on mute he “decided to start narrating for the people.”
“I realized a time will probably come when television will watch us if we’re watching it,” Boyd told MTV.com. “If that hasn’t already happened, figuratively or literally. It sounded like some sort of pseudo-Big Brother nightmare, so I wrote it down.”
A 2013 Penguin Books edition of George Orwell’s classic novel 1984.
Of course 1984 takes a place in a society where the government known as Big Brother is watching its citizen through televisions.
To continue the Orwellian theme, the single’s music video has an animal-operated TV show where humans are used as pets. This reversed role also exists in Orwell’s short novel Animal Farm.
“Floria Sigismondi did this video. And she gave the song her interpretation, and she created this Orwellian kind of scene,” the band’s bass player Ben Kenny told a Netherlands music journalist. “It is in a world of animals, the world is controlled by animals and the humans are the pets.
“We are doing a performance shot on one of the animals’ talk shows. It is just like a human talk show, just a disgusting way for people to look down at other people that are worse of than them. And in the story, the host turns into a human and that is one of the worst things that could happen in that world: you turning into human. It is a little abstract.”
Another factoid is that Boyd made a reference to Philip K. Dick’s science fiction novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Boyd penned similar lyrics as he sings, “the electric sheep are dreaming of your face,” and “the electric sheep are dreaming up your fate,” in the second and fourth verse respectively.
Kudos to Canadian music journalist Erica Ehm for asking grunge pioneer Kurt Cobain if his music was inspired by literature.
Indeed, it was. In a 1993 interview with Ehm, Nirvana’s singer-songwriter Cobain stated that his favorite book was Patrick Suskind’s Perfume and “as a matter a fact…used that very story in ‘Scentless Apprentice.’”
“I read Perfume by Patrick Suskind about 10 times in my life, and I can’t stop reading it. It’s like something that’s just stationary in my pocket all the time. It just doesn’t leave me,” Cobain told Ehm at the time. “Cause I’m a hypochondriac (and) it just affects me–makes me want to cut off my nose.”
Suskind’s Perfume, originally written in German, was published in 1985. Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, the historical novel’s protagonist, is a perfume apprentice with hysperosmia, which gives a person a strong sense of smell, but ironically was born without a body scent.
Patrick Suskind’s novel originally published in German in 1985.
Jean was abandoned at birth and raised by wet nurses. At one point a wet nurse explains that most babies “smell like fresh butter.” But because Jean was scentless it became an issue for a wet nurse. That same wet nurse even claims baby Jean is possessed by the devil because of the lack of body odor.
“I want this bastard out of my house.”
“But why, my good woman?” said Terrier, poking his finger in the basket again. “He really is an adorable child. He’s rosy pink, he doesn’t cry, and he’s been baptized.”
“He’s possessed by the devil.”
“He doesn’t smell at all,” said the wet nurse.
“And there you have it! That is a clear sign. If he were possessed by the devil, then he would have to stink.”
It’s in the first two verse of the song that Cobain hoarsely yells about babies smelling like butter and Jean being passed around from wet nurse to wet nurse.
Like most babies smell like butter
His smell smelled like no other He was born scentless and senseless He was born a scentless apprentice Every wet nurse refused to feed him
The interview with Canada’s TV channel Much Musicwas done nine months before Cobain committed suicide. In remembrance of his birthday, which he would have been 46 today, watch the complete 23-minute clip of a tranquil Cobain.
A New Yorker 1948 cover were J.D. Salinger’s story was published.
Like PJ Harvey’s “Angelene” the 1998 single “A Perfect Day, Elise” is loosely based on a J.D. Salinger New Yorker story.
Released in the album Is This Desire? the song alludes to Salinger’s short story “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” which was originally published in 1948, but later collected in the author’s 1953 book Nine Stories.
The short story is about Seymour who just returned from World War II and his socialite comely wife Muriel vacationing at a resort. But his spouse seems to be oblivious to the vetaran’s mental health. Coming back from the war you can see that it has affected his personality negatively as a pale-faced Seymour has a hard time getting along with adults around him. But he gets along just fine with children as he befriends Sybil a 3-year-old blond-haired girl he meets at the resort.
PJ Harvey’s 1998 single “A Perfect Day, Elise.”
Harvey mentions Sybil in the song’s second verse as she sings “the water soaked her blonde hair black.” But it’s the last two paragraphs of the story that PJ Harvey gets her muse from:
He got off at the fifth floor, walked down the hall, and let himself into 507. The room smelled on new calfskin luggage and nail-lacquer remover.
He glanced at the girl lying asleep on one of the twin beds. Then he went over to one of the pieces of luggage, opened it, and from under a pile of shorts and undershirts he took out an Ortgies caliber 7.65 automatic. He released the magazine, looked at it, then reinserted it. He cocked the piece. Then he went over and sat down on the unoccupied twin bed, looked at the girl, aimed the pistol, and fired a bullet through his right temple.
Harvey adjusts her lyrics changing the room number from 507 to 509.
He got burned by the sun.
His face so pale and his hands so worn
Let himself in room 509,
Said a prayer pulled the trigger and cried,
‘It’s a perfect day, Elise’