4 Songs from the 90s that Totally Rip Off Ancient Poetry

Posted by Blair Thornburgh



It doesn’t take a music snob to get that a lot of 90’s music is unoriginal and derivative. But some songs aren’t derived from just other bands. Yes, some of your favorite car-dancing, toe-tapping anthems are straight-up swiped from dead Roman poets, Old English manuscripts, and ancient books of the Bible. Here are four of our favorite cases of lit-to-lite-rock plagiarism.

“Westside Story” by LFO and the carmina of Gaius Valerius Catullus

After their non-sequitur-heavy ode to boardwalk life “Summer Girls” propelled them to the boy-band big leagues, three-man-outfit LFO were looking to ride their success into the new millennium. They needed a new song, but they didn’t have new material: lead singer Rich Cronin had already penned an anthem to his lady of the moment, Jennifer Love Hewitt, aka the “Girl on TV.” Steadfast guy that he was, his affections hadn’t waned a year later. But since heartfelt fidelity doesn’t exactly sell records, Cronin decided to disguise Hewitt’s identity in his new track, giving her an alias to keep the love story sounding fresh.

At the time, Hewitt was tentatively cast as Veronica in a (sadly!) never-filmed movie adaption of the Archie comic books. Ever the sly wordsmith, Cronin just swapped her character’s name for her own, threw in some awkward allusions to Romeo and Juliet and boom: “West Side Story” hit the airwaves. Cronin didn’t show too much poetic genius with lyrics like “Playin’ with Veronica, she’s got me now / But her brother got a biscuit and it might go pow,” but he at least deserves credit for coming up with novel way to keep his sweetheart secret.

Except that two millennia earlier, a Roman poet had done the exact same thing.

Gaius Valerius Catullus was born around 84 BC and authored an anthology of 116 poems in his lifetime. Like an ur-Rich Cronin, Catullus had an intense love for two things: “colorful” language (to put it lightly), and a beautiful yet unattainable woman. Throughout his love poems, Catullus bemoans and praises a certain “Lesbia”…without ever saying who she really is. And yes: while the literary pseudonym “Lesbia” does allude to the learned lady poets of Lesbos, Catullus’s poems include a bitter jealousy of Lesbia’s love for men…lots of men. Today, it’s generally agreed that Catullus was crushing on one Clodia Metellis Celer, a Roman noblewoman whose name just so happens to be a perfect metrical match for “Lesbia.”

So who knows? In another 2000 years, scholars might be scrambling for the woman behind “Veronica’s the song that’s in my head, Veronica’s the name I’ve often said.”


“Where Have All The Cowboys Gone?” by Paula Cole and “The Wanderer” from the Exeter Book

Credit where credit’s due: before Paula Cole breathlessly wondered where her John Wayne had vanished, it had easily been forty years since a song with lyrics like “yippee yo, yippee yeah” had cracked the Billboard Top Ten. But crack it she did, with a wailing and earnest entreaty to yesteryear that mused on the disappearance of the once-classic American hero (and with it, presumably, Paula Cole’s main squeeze).

Still, the song poses some fair questions: what happened to yesterday? Why were things so much better in the past? Where have all the cowboys gone, after all?

Unfortunately, the answer isn’t exactly reassuring. Human nostalgia for “the good old days” dates back to…well, the good old days. We’re talking Old English old.

One of the most famous—and characteristically bleak— works of medieval English literature is a poem so depressing it makes Paula Cole’s frantic “yippee yeahs” seem downright cheerful. “The Wanderer” as it is called (the title, like the author, is lost to the ages) paints a grim and mournful picture of a lone figure recalling the happier days of his life (i.e., the days before all his friends met the business end of a battleaxe). When he’s not getting besieged by frost or watching storms beat chilly cliffs, the narrator wonders aloud:

Hwær cwom mearg? Hwær cwom mago?
(Where is the horse gone? Where is the rider?)

Bad news, Wanderer: eleven centuries later and we still can’t answer that question. Just ask Paula Cole.

“It’s All Been Done” by the Barenaked Ladies and the Book of Ecclesiastes

Steve Page, frontman of Barenaked Ladies and composer of some of the most notorious earworms of the 90’s, supposedly wrote “It’s All Been Done” as an answer to the band’s earlier, wordier work (cf. “Like Kurosawa I make mad films / ’Kay, I don’t make films / But if I did they’d have a samurai”). Even if he wasn’t looking for something simpler and catchier, that’s what he got: the “woo hoo hoos” of the chorus are probably stuck in your head right now just from reading the title. “It’s All Been Done” is a cute little ditty that spans from the “fall of Rome” to when “the West was won” and on to “the thirtieth century” with a basic message: the more things change, the more things stay the same.

Ain’t that the truth, though?

The Book of Ecclesiastes—an autobiographical text of the story of an ancient mystic named Koheleth—was written sometime between 450 and 180 BC. But for a book that old, it’s gotten a decent amount of modern airtime. Its famous assurance of the temporal inevitability of each side of every possible pair of opposite situations hit the #1 spot on the Billboard 100 in 1965 when the Byrds’ “Turn! Turn! Turn!” set it to an irresistible melodic hook.

But it’s an earlier chunk of the biblical book that everyone’s favorite Canadian alt-pop band borrowed in 1998 for their second single. Reading Chapter 1, Verse 9 of Ecclesiastes with the Barenaked Ladies in mind makes it sound eerily prescient:

“ What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”

If that’s not ironic, I don’t know what is.

And that reminds me…

“Ironic” by Alanis Morissette and catachresis

Rare is the high school English teacher who doesn’t take gleeful delight in pointing out how all the situations Ms. Morissette enumerates in her hit single are not ironic. It’s true, though: “a death row pardon two minutes too late” and “ten thousand spoons when all you need is a knife” aren’t, strictly speaking, ironic, just an especially poetic form of suck. If only there were a word for “using ironic to describe occurrences that aren’t ironic,” amirite?

English teachers, take note: there is.

Catachresis is the Greek term for “the misapplication of a word or phrase to create a deliberately strained figure or mixed metaphor.” Think of it as irony’s underappreciated cousin. It’s a figure of speech used by wordsmiths as deliberate and skilled as Shakespeare (“’Tis deepest winter in Lord Timon’s Purse”), Milton (“Blind mouths!”), and…Morissette.

Catachresis works because its abuse of the typical meaning of a word draws attention to itself by virtue of being so damn wrong. So, as our angry Canadienne songstress incorrectly calls her musical manifesto of misfortune ironic, she’s pulling a slick linguistic trick (perhaps without realizing it) to get us to pay attention.  The resulting rhetorical effect can range from comic to alarming, but it always demands notice…even from your English teacher.

Now isn’t that ironic, doncha think?

Blair Thornburgh

Blair Thornburgh

BLAIR THORNBURGH is a graduate of the University of Chicago, where she earned a B.A. in medieval studies and delivered a pretty good commencement speech. She lives in Philadelphia.