11 Hit Songs That Reference Great Works of Literature

Anastasia Rose Hyden
Taylor Swift, BTS, and The Roots are among the artists who have made literary references in their songs.
Taylor Swift, BTS, and The Roots are among the artists who have made literary references in their songs. / Kevin Kane/Getty Images for The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (Swift), Kevin Winter/Getty Images for dcp (BTS), Gie Knaeps/Getty Images (Black Thought), Tawan Chaisom/EyeEm /Getty Images (book), Justin Dodd/Mental Floss (background)
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Artists have been taking inspiration from each other since time immemorial, and musicians are no different. Here are a few of the many songs that reference literature in genres from hip hop to classic rock.

1. “100% Dundee”// The Roots

The Roots named their fourth studio album after the novel Things Fall Apart by legendary Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe, and the song “100% Dundee” refers to both the novel and Achebe by name. The band was introduced to Things Fall Apart by Rich Nichols, their late manager and producer, who said that Tariq Trotter (a.k.a. Black Thought) reminded him of one of the book’s characters. “I went out to get the book,” Questlove explained in 2019, “and Rich explained to me that Tariq was basically a very skilled warrior lost on his own homeland.”

2. “Happiness” // Taylor Swift

Taylor Swift, who frequently references books in her songs, seems to have adapted a famous line from F. Scott’s Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby in evermore’s “happiness”: “I hope she’ll be a beautiful fool / Who takes my spot next to you.” This echoes Daisy Buchanan’s hopes for her daughter Pammy in The Great Gatsby: “I hope she’ll be a fool—that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.”

Swift also references a “green light,” in “happiness,” recalling the green light on Daisy and Tom’s dock in Gatsby. Swift previously referenced the novel in Reputation’s “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things” when she sang, “Feeling so Gatsby for that whole year.”

3.  “How Soon is Now” // The Smiths

The Smiths’ work contains multitudes of literary references; perhaps their most overt homage is within the 1984 B-side “How Soon Is Now.” The opening—“I am the son / And the heir / Of a shyness that is criminally vulgar / I am the son and heir / Of nothing in particular”—is an adaptation of part of a line from George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch: “To be born the son of a Middlemarch manufacturer, and inevitable heir to nothing in particular.”

The song’s title is also a literary reference; it was taken from a line in Marjorie Rosen’s feminist film history book, Popcorn Venus: Women, Movies & the American Dream, in which she writes, “How immediately can we be gratified? How soon is now?”

4. “Killing An Arab” // The Cure

“Killing an Arab”—which has unsurprisingly courted controversy over the years due to people taking its title literally—tells a condescended version of the plot of L’Étranger (The Stranger) by philosopher Albert Camus, in which the main character kills a man on a beach. The Cure frontman Robert Smith has expressed regret about the song’s title, telling Chart Attack in 2001 that “One of the themes of the song is that everyone’s existence is pretty much the same. Everyone lives, everyone dies, our existences are the same. It’s as far from a racist song as you can write. It seems though that no one can get past the title and that’s incredibly frustrating. The fact is it’s based on a book that’s set in France and deals with the problems of the Algerians, so it was only geographical reasons why it was an Arab and not anyone else.”

5. “L.A. Woman” // The Doors

Considered a classic of both gay and Chicano literature, John Rechy’s semiautobiographical 1963 novel City of Night—about a unnamed gay hustler traveling across 1950s America—has been cited as an influence by many artists, including Gus van Sant (who said it helped shape his film My Own Private Idaho) and David Bowie (who wrote a cover blurb for the book’s 50th anniversary edition). The Doors can also be counted among the book’s many fans: The band—whose name was derived from the title of Aldous Huxley’s book The Doors of Perception, which was itself taken from William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hellused the title of Rechy’s book in the 1971 hit “L.A. Woman.” The band’s drummer, John Densmore, was also part of a panel at UCLA discussing the book’s legacy for its 50th anniversary in 2013.

6. “Make Love Stay”// Dan Fogelberg

In the liner notes for “Make Love Stay,” Fogelberg wrote that the song is “a musical question that, unfortunately, eludes me still.” Tom Robbins’s 1980 novel Still Life With Woodpecker—about the romance between an anarchist and a princess—is also about finding an answer to that question, which is asked repeatedly in the book.

7. “Off to the Races” // Lana Del Rey

From The Police to The Veronicas, many musical artists have made allusions to Vladimir Nabokov’s infamous 1955 novel Lolita in their songs, but none expressed as much obsession with the book as Lana Del Rey. Rolling Stone noted that her 2012 album Born to Die contained “loads of Lolita references.” Among them are the songs “Lolita” and “Off to the Races,” which uses the novel’s famous lines, “Light of my life / Fire of my loins” in its chorus.

8. “Testify” // Rage Against the Machine

George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 is another book popular with musicians, showing up in songs by everyone from Stevie Wonder to the Dead Kennedys. “Testify,” from Rage Against the Machine’s 1999 album The Battle of Los Angeles, is one of the most explicit examples. The song features a version of one of the party slogans of 1984’s government: “Who controls the past now controls the future / Who controls the present now controls the past.” In both the book and the song, the phrase indicates that the government and the media control the narrative by controlling which events are talked about.

9. “Venus In Furs” // The Velvet Underground

The Velvet Underground (whose members took its name from a nonfiction book by journalist Michael Leigh) found inspiration for “Venus in Furs” in Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s classic novel about sadomasochism. The title refers to the book’s framing story, in which a man tells a friend about a dream where he meets the goddess Venus draped in fur.

10. “Wuthering Heights” // Kate Bush

In her popular tribute to Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, Kate Bush tells the story from the point of view of Cathy as she stands at the window of Heathcliff’s house begging to be let in, even echoing some of Cathy’s lines from the novel. “Really what sparked that off was a TV thing I saw as a young child,” Bush later said. “I just walked into the room and caught the end of [Wuthering Heights]. And I am sure one of the reasons it stuck so heavily in my mind was because of the spirit of Cathy and as a child I was called Cathy, it later changed to Kate. It was just a matter of exaggerating all my bad areas, because she's a really vile person, she's just so headstrong and passionate and ... crazy, you know?”

This isn’t the only song that Wuthering Heights has inspired: Jim Steinman wrote his iconic song “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now”—which was first recorded in 1989 by Pandora’s Box and then in 1996 by Celine Dion, whose version reached No. 2 on Billboard’s Hot 100 and went two times platinum— “while under the influence of Wuthering Heights, which is one of my favorite books,” he wrote on his website. He strove to have the song capture the book’s themes of obsessive love, comparing the end result to “an erotic motorcycle.”

11. “Blood Sweat & Tears” // BTS

The music video version of BTS’s song “Blood Sweat & Tears” was directly inspired by Hermann Hesse’s 1919 novel Demian: The Story of Emil Sinclair's Youth. Like the book, the video is filled with surrealist imagery and themes of duality; it also features an interlude where BTS member RM (formerly Rap Monster) recites a passage from the novel (“He, too, was a tempter. He, too, was a link to the second. The evil world with which I no longer wanted to have anything to do”). “We felt that there were a lot of similarities between parts of ‘Demian’ and the things we wanted to say,” RM said in an interview. “So we used a lot of objects and elements from ‘Demian’ in our jacket photos and music video.”

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