10 Famous People Who Inspired Hit Songs

Even Lou Reed took inspiration from a noted muse (or two).
Edie Sedgwick, seen here with Andy Warhol, was one such muse.
Edie Sedgwick, seen here with Andy Warhol, was one such muse. / John Springer Collection/GettyImages

If there’s one thing famous people like to write about, it’s other famous people. Makes sense—you write what you know! But when the medium is music, the subject isn't always obvious. Here are some lesser-known examples of songs about celebrities, proving that while Taylor Swift may be one of the more prolific artists in the category, she doesn’t have the market totally cornered.

1. Danae Stratou // “Common People”

Jarvis Cocker, frontman of English rock band Pulp, has always been vague about who he’s been singing to in 1995’s “Common People.” After decades of speculation, it’s recently been conjectured that the subject of his hit is Greek artist Danae Stratou, married to Yanis Varoufakis, Greece’s former finance minister and controversial radical-left politician.

Stratou certainly fits the description of someone who “came from Greece and had a thirst for knowledge” and “studied sculpture at St. Martins College.” Cocker hasn’t yet confirmed or denied it, nor has Stratou. Varoufakis, however, when asked to weigh in, only coquettishly replied that his wife was “the only Greek student of sculpture at St. Martins College at that time.”

2. Edie Sedgwick // “Femme Fatale”

One of the sweeter, softer cuts off the Velvet Underground’s 1967 debut album, “Femme Fatale” is what happened when Andy Warhol suggested that Lou Reed should write a tune about model/actress/heiress/It Girl Edie Sedgwick, one of Warhol’s favorite leading ladies in his films. (Warhol managed the Velvet Underground for a while.) The lyrics aren’t especially descriptive of Sedgwick in particular, although you’d think the line “You're put down in her book / You're number thirty-seven, have a look” would have applied.

3. Salma Hayek’s Daughter // “Valentina”

“Valentina” by Prince, which appears on his 2009 album, MPLSoUND, is a plea addressed to Salma Hayek’s daughter, instructing the toddler to tell her mama that “she should give me a call / When she get tired of runnin' after you down the hall.” Hayek and Prince were good friends, and Hayek directed the video for his song “Te Amo Corazon” in 2005; four years later, neither the movie star (nor her kiddo) had apparently left his mind.

4. Nas // “Me and Mr. Jones”

While it can be safely assumed that Amy Winehouse’s 2006 hit “Me and Mr. Jones” was inspired by the Billy Paul classic “Me and Mrs. Jones,” the stories differ slightly: Rather than a loving ode sung by a man who’s having an affair with a married woman, Amy’s song is the first-person account of a woman who’s not too pleased with her lover. That part’s made clear in the lyrics, but what might not be is that the lover’s identity is American rapper Nas (whose real name is Nasir Jones). The lyric “Mr. Destiny, 9 and 14” refers to the name of Nas’s daughter and his and Amy’s shared birthdate, September 14.

5. Franz Ferdinand // “Take Me Out”

Scottish band Franz Ferdinand’s best-known hit, 2004’s “Take Me Out,” is believed to be about Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, the band’s namesake. (Or more specifically about his assassination, when he was, ahem, “taken out” by Gavrilo Princip.) The lyric “I'm just a cross hair / I'm just a shot away from you” is a bit of a giveaway. In addition, “All for You, Sophia (Bang Bang),” the B-side of the "Take Me Out single," is dedicated to Ferdinand’s wife, Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg, who was also killed in the 1914 shooting.

6. Vince Neil // “Dude (Looks Like a Lady)”

Aerosmith’s “Dude (Looks Like a Lady)” was, according to Mötley Crüe drummer Nikki Sixx, specifically inspired by his band’s vocalist, Vince Neil. The co-writer of the song, Desmond Child, has said Steven Tyler admitted to him that it was inspired by Vince Neil. Tyler himself has only said that "One day we met Mötley Crüe, and they're all going, 'Dude!' ‘Dude’ this and ‘dude’ that, everything was ‘dude.’ 'Dude (Looks Like a Lady)' came out of that session.” But all three seem to agree that when the song was conceived of by Tyler, Vince Neil was definitely there.

7. Jeff Buckley // “Teardrop”

Many, many artists have written songs about gone-too-soon singer/songwriter Jeff Buckley—a list that includes PJ Harvey, Lana Del Rey, Coldplay, and Rufus Wainwright—but the one that got the most play was possibly Massive Attack’s 1998 single, “Teardrop.” The lyrics were written and sung by Buckley’s close friend Elizabeth Fraser, who fronted ethereal rock band Cocteau Twins and who was working on the piece on the day she heard Buckley had drowned in the Mississippi River. "That was so weird,” said Fraser. “I'd got letters out and I was thinking about him. That song's kind of about [Buckley]—that's how it feels to me anyway.”

8. Jerry Cantrell Sr. // “Rooster”

Over the years, plenty have opined on the backstory behind Alice in Chains’ 1992 grunge hit “Rooster”—a song written in the first person as an American soldier fighting in the Vietnam War—and especially about the identity of the Rooster himself. Some say it’s a reference to the muzzle flash of the M60 machine gun, which supposedly makes an outline similar to a rooster's tail. The song is also often connected to the 101st Airborne Division, whose troops wore a bald eagle insignia on their shoulder sleeves, resulting in the pejorative "chicken men” epithet being slung at them by the Vietnamese. The truth, though, turned out to be a little less convoluted: Alice in Chains singer Jerry Cantrell wrote the song about his veteran dad, Jerry Sr., whose childhood nickname was Rooster—a reference to his cowlicky hairdo as a kid.

9. Courtney Love // “Let It Die”

Speaking of Seattle bands: Dave Grohl’s never really bothered hiding his distaste for his former Nirvana bandmate’s widow Courtney Love, calling her some pretty candid names during live shows  (although Love has said they’ve since made up). As such, it’s long been rumored that the Foo Fighters’ 1995 hit, "I’ll Stick Around," off their self-titled debut album, concerned her. (Released only a year after Kurt Cobain’s death, the song’s unforgettable refrain “I don’t owe you anything” takes on a new meaning in that context, eh?) 

And in 2007, another song emerged that was interpreted as a diss track about Mrs. Cobain. Containing the lyrics "A simple man and his blushing bride / Intravenous, intertwined,” the song “Let It Die” on the FF’s 2007 album, Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace, seemed to obviously be about Love. According to an interview Grohl did with The Guardian in the same year, he admitted that “there are a lot of people that I've been angry with in my life, but the one that's most noted is Courtney. So it's pretty obvious to me that those correlations are gonna pop up every now and again." But in regards to whether this particular song is in reference to Love, Grohl said coyly, “I still remain a little secretive about it all."

10. Billy Corgan // “Violet”

And lastly, perhaps as revenge for so many people writing songs about her, Courtney Love herself wrote “Violet,” a major radio hit for her band Hole, about her pre-Kurt paramour Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins. Unlike Grohl, Love has made no bones about the subject of the song, stating several times that the lyrics discuss her anger following their 1990 breakup. In 1995, on Later... with Jools Holland, she explained the track as "a song about a jerk. I hexed him, and now he's losing his hair."