The quality of songwriting is something of a Catch-22*. As record-store owner Rob muses in High Fidelity (the movie version): “Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?”
You could say the same thing of allusions to famous works of literature in pop music: are they bad because the song itself is dumb, or is the song dumb because it’s got a hamfisted reference to Nabokov wedged in there? You be the judge. Here are six of the best/worst songs written by people who have clearly read at least one book and want you to know about it, dammit.
*I mean, I assume. I haven’t actually read it, but I wanted to make a book reference in the lede for this post about people throwing around casual literary namechecks, so IPSO FACTO
The song: “Weight of Living, Pt. I” by Bastille
The lyrics: “Your albatross / Let it go / Let it go-o-o-o”
The reference: “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Grudging props to this one: “albatross” is far from the easiest bird to cram into a lyric, and not just metrically. Swans, doves, any kind of songbird—those are expected and understandable. But the mighty albatross is heavy—especially when employed in its metaphorical sense as that thing that’s dragging you down, man. Listeners who haven’t hearkened to Coleridge’s tale of avian woe will probably be left mystified.
The song: “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” by the Police
The lyrics: “Just like the old man / in that famous book by Nabokov”
The reference: Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov
Sting is a very serious fellow! He has even read some works by great authors—great authors with foreign names, to boot! And he vaguely recalls that one of them involves an older man’s sexual obsession with a young girl! So of course that makes for a neat little mise en abyme in a jangly pop song about a teacher’s sexual obsession with a high school student!
But the real travesty is misinforming a generation of young people on how to pronounce the author’s name (it’s Na-BO-kov, you fools.)
Song: “Love Story” by Taylor Swift
The lyrics: “'Cause you were Romeo / I was a scarlet letter, / And my daddy said, ‘Stay away from Juliet’”
The reference: A mangled mashup of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter
In a related story, Taylor Swift has definitely completed at least tenth-grade English (Polite applause! Go Tay!) but utterly missed the point of both works of literature. (Hawthorne’s symbolism is lightyears from subtle, but Hester Prynne was not LITERALLY a big red A.) Yet I hesitate to be too hard on Taylor. (We love her!)
Who doesn’t remember being a starry-eyed 16-year-old moron and whipping up an awkward HesterxDimmesdale headcanon in class? Or secretly writing R&J fanfic that ends with a happy ending? It’s not highfalutin literary incisiveness, but WE’VE ALL BEEN THERE, okay? (Well, everyone except Jonathan Keefe of Slant Magazine, who cast aspersions on the “awkwardness, inexplicable nature, and pointless conceit” of T. Swizz’s allusions.)
The song: “Billy S.” by Skye Sweetnam
The lyric: “I don't need to read Billy Shakespeare / Meet Juliet or Mavolio / Feel for once what it's like to rebel now / I wanna break out, let's go!”
The reference: Romeo and Juliet and Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare
On the opposite end of the Shakespeare-related-teen-music spectrum, we have erstwhile Canadian popstar Skye Sweetnam. If it’s possible to be less rebellious than an early Avril Lavigne B-side, that’s this song’s whole aesthetic, right down to the Hot Topic armwarmers (because the only thing worse than reading Early Modern drama is cold elbows, amirite gurlz?!)
Which is why this song totally mystifies me with its Shakespearean interpolations. For all its sass about not wanting to read “Billy’s” plays, the lyrics pair the obligatory R&J shoutout with a medium-to-obscure character in Twelfth Night. The evidence doesn’t add up: Malvolio is far from a household name (though it does rhyme pretty nicely with “let’s go!”) and would imply some knowledge of the Bard on Sweetnam’s part. In the interest of being the world’s sole “Billy S.” truther, I will not rest until I hunt down a copy of Skye Sweetnam’s report card.
The Song: “White Rabbit” by Jefferson Airplane
The lyric: Basically all of them; just listen to the song
The reference: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll
Remember in middle school when that one kid starting pointing out how every song is totally actually about drugs?? Well…not always wrong. It seems cliché at this point to pair up Carroll’s fantasyland with psychedelics, but someone had to do it first, so kudos to the flight crew of Jefferson Airplane. That said, it’s still damn obvious what this song is about.
The song: “Summer Girls” by LFO
The lyric: “When you take a sip you buzz like a hornet / Billy Shakespeare wrote a whole bunch of sonnets”
The reference: The entirety of Shakespeare’s poetic corpus?
It’s no secret that I think LFO is one of the most lyrically brilliantly bands of the 90s. Case in point: this masterful couplet. Not only is Shakespeare’s appearance a complete non sequitur, it doesn’t even really rhyme. Frontman Rich Cronin attempts to mitigate with a Bahstahn-esque pronunciation (i.e., “sawrnets”) but it still doesn’t fly. That said: factually, it’s spot-on. William Shakespeare (Billy to his friends) did, in fact, write 154 sonnets, which certainly qualifies as “a whole bunch.”