Songs that reference literature are nothing new. Even if you’re not a fan (as I am) of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” or didn’t realize that David Bowie’s Diamond Dogs was intended to be a 1984 musical, you’ve probably heard some type of music that drew inspiration from books. (And yes, Taylor Swift’s “Love Story”—grudgingly—counts.)
But when musicians go one step further and reference these works in their music videos, that’s when things get really interesting. So here are ten videos that are among the most thought-provoking, spot-on, or just very wacky.
[Not included were music videos that reference the Bible (because hoo boy is that a whole other can of worms) or, despite our deep and abiding love for all things Harry Potter, any wizard wrock.]
The song: “What You Waiting For,” Gwen Stefani
The reference: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll
Suffering from writer’s block, Stefani signs up for a mysterious service that jumpstarts her creativity while sending her off into a decidedly literary dreamscape. Stefani plays around with being Alice, the Queen of Hearts, and Tweedles both Dee and Dum before rejoining the real world and performing for her culturally insensitive Japanese entourage.
The song: “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
The reference: Alice, again
It’s a testament to Alice’s originality and immediately recognizable aesthetic that so many videos have borrowed liberally from the children’s story. (For the sake of variety we’ll limit the number to two here.) Tom Petty plays a delightful Mad Hatter in this 1985 video, and bonus points go to the actress playing Alice who just looks so over her ever-changing teacup.
The song: “Wuthering Heights,” Kate Bush
The reference: Wuthering Heights (obviously), Charlotte Brontë
Just try getting this song out of your head. Doing her best Cathy impression in a gauzy dress and foggy landscape, a nineteen year-old Kate Bush evokes all the melodrama and out of control emotion of the novel. It’s something that only a teenager can really pull off, and Bush charmingly makes it work in a way that the original characters sometimes couldn’t.
The song: “All Caps,” Madvillain
The reference: Golden age superhero comics
Hip hop duo Madvillain (known separately as MF DOOM and Madlib) took inspiration from classic comics of the 40s for their “All Caps” video, with word bubbles, chemical accidents, and some very Lichtenstein-looking art. They’ve even got cutout coupons for sea monkeys included, for added historical accuracy, and the story they’ve written is just as compelling as what Marvel’s been bringing to the big screen.
The song: “Romeo and Juliet,” Dire Straits
The reference: Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare
Bask in all the early 1980s glory of the Dire Straits, who clearly decided there wasn’t much to Romeo and Juliet beyond cute young people dying dramatically. (Real talk, they’re not that wrong.) There’s a lot of moody lounging on raised platforms and leaping dramatically to your doom happening here, and the band made sure to include an updated version of the balcony scene, just in case the reference wasn’t hitting us over the head yet.
The song: “Walking on Broken Glass,” Annie Lennox
The reference: Dangerous Liaisons, Choderlos de Laclos
Grade-A villainess the Marquise de Montreuil (who we’ve heaped praise upon before) gets her due in Annie Lennox’s video, with the opulence of the Marquise’s pre-French Revolution era acting as the perfect backdrop for the intrigue, jealousy, plotting, and romance of the video. If you’re going to sing about heartbreak and rejection, you might as well do it in fabulous costumes.
The song: “Wild Boys,” Duran Duran
The reference: The Wild Boys, William S. Burroughs
Originally intended as a number in a never-produced musical based on William S. Burroughs’ The Wild Boys, Duran Duran’s video—with all the fire, fog, aerial stunts, and scruffy, mohawked dancers—resembles nothing so much as Peter Pan’s lost boys stuck in a Mad Max fever dream (which, incidentally, is not such a bad way to describe the novel).
The song: “Look Back in Anger,” David Bowie
The reference: The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde
David Bowie as Dorian Gray is one of the better music/literature pairings available, as this video definitively shows. Bowie’s angular stylishness is perfect for Gray, and the song’s driving crescendo mirrors the novel’s rising horror and depravity beautifully.
The song: “Please Don’t Leave Me,” P!nk
The reference: Misery, Stephen King
P!nk references a several classic horror films (The Shining and Cujo among them) but the overarching story line is owed to Stephen King’s thriller Misery (adapted into a movie in 1990 with the incomparable Kathy Bates). Pop songs can get pretty creepy pretty fast (there’s a fine line between romance and obsession, folks) and this video doesn’t so much toe the line so much as leap gleefully across it.
The song: “Bangarang,” Skrillex
The reference: Peter Pan, J.M. Barrie
The battle cry “Bangarang” may have more to do with the 1991 Peter Pan sequel Hook, but the Skrillex music video still features the classic villain of the Barrie play. With his mustache and crocodile tattoo, it doesn’t matter if he’s a pirate or an ice cream vendor, the good old captain is immediately recognizable.
The song: “The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins,” Leonard Nimoy
The reference: The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien
We don’t know what Leonard Nimoy was thinking, but we’re glad he thought it.