There are thousands upon thousands of songs in existence that in some way are inspired by literature. Some of these in a very nebulous way, others in a much more direct sense. However, there are a select few that take the inspiration a step further and near enough transpose a line or passage word for word.
As the filmmaker Jim Jarmusch once told MovieMaker Magazine: “Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul,” his famous quote continues, “If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery – celebrate it if you feel like it.”
It is a notion that French New Wave hero Jean-Luc Godard also celebrated when he said, “It’s not where you take things from – it’s where you take them to.” And Pablo Picasso joined the act when he said: “Good artists copy, great artists steal,” a line which was actually also ironically stolen from T.S. Eliot. In short, what we’re saying is that the below list is not a condemnation, but a celebration of how artists have taken something and made it their own (with one possible exception).
Below, we’re looking at noteworthy examples where songs near enough directly quote literature and the interesting ways that the tracks spins the line.
Six songs that quote literature:
1. ‘Gloria: In Excelsis Deo’ by Patti Smith
The lyric: “Jesus died for somebodies sin but not mine.”
The line: “Maybe Christ died for somebody but not for me.”
You only get one shot at a first impression and Patti Smith absolutely nailed hers. The first line she crooned on her debut LP earmarked her as a repository of visceral profundity. However, as a vivacious lover of literature, she was helped along the way by Albert Camus (taken from his Notebooks 1942-51).
Although she has cited a passion for the late philosophical writer by including his works amongst her 40 favourite books, she has never officially mentioned whether he inspired the opening lyric. Whether it seeped through into her writing inadvertently or she transposed it with rather more intent, it is undoubtedly difficult to see/hear one without thinking of the other.
2. ‘Lover You Should’ve Come Over’ by Jeff Buckley
The lyric: “My kingdom for a kiss upon her shoulder.”
The line: “My Kingdom for a horse!”
Sometimes the lyrical transposition can be done with intent. For Jeff Buckley’s heartfelt poem, he intentionally lifts the dramatic hyperbole of “My kingdom”, a line synonymous with Shakespeare, to imbue his distress with the weight of literary history.
The Richard III line may be contextually very different but the meaning in some ways shares a kinship in that Buckley would do anything for his lover to return, thus he risks bordering on the hysterical go as far as you can go and whip out the old Shakespearian imagery. The song is a poignant piece of poetry befitting of the bard’s tragedies, but as you’ll see from the example below, that isn’t always the case.
3. ‘Firework’ by Katy Perry
The lyric: “You just gotta ignite the light and let it shine / Just own the night like the 4th of July / ‘Cause baby you’re a firework / Come on show ‘em what you’re worth / make ‘em go aah, aah, aah / As you shoot across the sky.”
The line: “The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes, ‘Awww!’”
Despite the introduction to this piece, literary transpositions are not always for the better. Katy Perry’s ubiquitous pop hit took this classic quote from Jack Kerouac’s On The Road and, well, let’s just say changed it up a bit.
As the pop star said on the Grammys red carpet back in 2012, “I got it from a really great book, On The Road, he wrote a paragraph from that book that went “[sic] I want to be around people that are buzzing and fizzing and full of life, and they never say a commonplace thing, and they shoot into the sky like fireworks and make everyone go ‘aah’!” Naturally, we’ll give her the benefit of paraphrasing there. And while it might be easy to scoff at it, we are no gatekeepers of Kerouac’s works and if she inspired a couple of fans to pick up the book then good on her.
4. ‘Floater (Too Much to Ask)’ by Bob Dylan
The lyric(s): “My old man, he’s like some feudal lord.” / “Why don’t you just shove off if it bothers you so much.” / “I’m not quite as cool or forgiving as I sound.”
The line: “My old man would sit there like a feudal lord” / “If it bothers you so much, she’d say, why don’t you just shove off.” / “I’m not as cool or forgiving as I might have sounded.”
Throughout Bob Dylan’s album Love and Theft a smattering of direct references to Junichi Saga’s Confessions of a Yakuza as translated by John Bester can be detected. Near enough every song on the record has at least one line with roots in the literary epic, only marginally adapted to fit into song structure, but none more so than ‘Floater (Too Much to Ask)’.
In a rather comic twist, on this occasion, it turns out Saga had never heard of Dylan. While the folk troubadour has found himself with the shoe on the other foot on countless occasions having inspired generations of wannabes himself, it was an oddity when he became the unknown imitator and Saga had to say that he was flattered.
“I like this album,” Dr Saga said of Love and Theft after fetching it from a record store. “His lines flow from one image to the next and don’t always make sense, but they have a great atmosphere.” When the story first broke back in 2003 the plagiarism angle was pushed hard, but Saga simply said that he thought it would be honourable if he got credit on the liner notes of future pressings. Many have also been quick to ponder whether the title of Dylan’s album was a nod to his treatment of the book. Dylan has never commented on the matter.
5. ‘Mad Girl’s Love Song’ by Carol Anne McGowan
The lyric: “’I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead. I lift my lids and all is born again.”
The lyric: “I shut my eyes and the world drops dead. I life my lids and all is born again.”
For ‘Mad Girls Love Song’ Carol Anne McGowan, simply set Sylvia Plath’s 1953 poem of the same name to words. The lovelorn echoes of Schizophrenia meet their match in McGowan’s melody that perfectly infuses the words with an eerie atmosphere.
The song like the poem is delicate and nakedly vulnerable. While Plath may have influenced and inspired thousands of writers, the wordplay is often too filigreed for the more straightforward realm of song, thus her work is very rarely anything other than an overarching reference point, but McGowan shows it can be directly transposed with great effect.
6. ‘I Wanna Be Yours’ by Arctic Monkeys
The lyric: “I wanna be your vacuum cleaner / Breathing in your dust.”
The line: “I wanna be your vacuum cleaner / Breathing in your dust.”
Arctic Monkeys did just the same as McGowan when they tackled John Cooper Clarke’s iconic poem of the same name and set it to music, but on this rare occasion, the eponymous punk poet was around to comment.
He told Domino Records, which he calls “the home of Arctic Monkeys, Britain’s premier beat combo,” that the poem was his attempt to “reduce himself to the level of a mere commodity for the greater good of the object of [his] desire.” He then goes on to heap praise on his “fellow lyricist” Mr Alex Turner for “spotting the romantic heart of this number which I always played for laughs.” In the end, he concludes, “He’s done such a great job of it, and I couldn’t be more proud about it.” High praise indeed from the master to his apprentice.