Music Inspired by Literature: From Sylvia Plath to Lolita | Part II

 “When something you have written becomes interpreted by music, then sounds and thoughts that perhaps you only half-consciously knew were there become real, are brought out by music and the musician.” – Doris Lessing

We have made it through another surreal week. In an effort to keep my sanity, I have tried to not keep an eye on the increasing numbers of confirmed cases of COVID-19 this week. Has it worked? Not really.

But I digress.

In an effort to keep my sanity – like many around the world- I also continue to find solace in music and fiction.

Last week, I discussed some of my favorite songs that were inspired by literature. Today, in Part II, I continue my foray into the world of music and literature. And at the end, you will find a playlist with over 60 songs inspired by all things literary.

Here are five (more) songs inspired by literature:

1- The Lucksmiths, “Fiction” from Warmer Corners (2005)

Limited Edition Vinyl LP
Limited Edition Vinyl LP

I was introduced to the Australian band The Lucksmiths by one of my friends years ago.

I had met my friend through “Couchsurfing” (back when couch-surfing was cool. Is it still?) when I was traveling solo in Croatia. She and I walked around Zagreb, enjoyed the museums, the sun, and talked about literature. Perfect day.

A few years later, my friend messaged me a link to “Fiction,” saying that “it always reminds [me] of you when it comes on my MP3 player.”

Yes, that was when only the 1% could afford iPhones.

I listened to the song. It was about a time when the narrator meets “a girl in Kansas City” whose upper arm reads “fiction” at a barbecue in the U.S.:

Invited to a barbecue
I found refuge in the kitchen
Discussing post-war US literature
With a girl whose upper arm read “fiction”
Like it might have been typewritten

I asked her its significance
She said she sometimes took reminding
What she wanted to be doing
Whether reading it or writing
I admitted admiration
For both typeface and intent
And said more softly — sotto voce —
I knew too well what she meant
She just smiled
And in a while she went

The references to post-war literature, reading and writing, and to a tattoo that reads “fiction”— need I say more? I was in love.

Marty Donald, the Lucksmiths’ guitarist, discusses the concept of fiction that permeates his song(s) as follows:

“There’s generally a mix of fact and fiction in all my songs; some are closer to the “truth” than others. There’s certainly no element of soul-bearing in my work, but I usually write from a perspective very close to my own, so I’m happy if people can’t tell the difference between what I’ve made up and what I haven’t; I take that to mean I’m doing a good job.

At times I have been surprised by how much this issue matters to people, though; my song “Fiction”, which addresses this directly, was inspired by a telephone interview I once did with a girl who was audibly disappointed to learn that a lot of my writing was invention.”

In addition to addressing the question of fiction vs. reality, the song’s tune is delightful.

Beware, it may or may not make you want a “fiction” tattoo.

2- Ryan Adams, “Sylvia Plath” from Gold (2001)

Loud and Quiet‘s 2011 interview with Ryan Adams

“I wish I had a Sylvia Plath,” Ryan Adams’s song “Sylvia Plath” begins, “busted tooth and a smile, and cigarette ashes in her drink.” This is Adams daydreaming.

There’s some controversy surrounding the song; some say Adams romanticizes Plath’s clinical depression. I, however, find this song beautiful, soft, and dreamy. I don’t get the sense that the song is about Plath herself. Rather, it is inspired by Plath’s multifaceted character:

And maybe she’d take me to France
Or maybe to Spain, she’d ask me to dance
In a mansion on the top of a hill
She’d ash on the carpets
And slip me a pill
Then she’d get me pretty loaded on gin
And maybe she’d give me a bath
How I wish I had a Sylvia Plath

Well, you be the judge! Here’s a live performance of “Sylvia Plath” by Ryan Adams:

3- Emmy Lou Harris, “My Antonia” from Red Dirt Girl (2000)

“A movie without the actual movie,” Emmy Lou Harris calls her song inspired by Willa Cather’s classic novel My Ántonia (1918).

The song is written from Jim’s perspective as he reflects on his friendship with Ántonia, his lost love.

I listened to Emmy Lou Harris’s rendition for the first time sometime around 2009 when I was an exchange student in the Czech Republic. I was taking an American Literature seminar taught by a legendary Czech scholar Josef Jařab, and I came across the song during one of my research sessions on Cather for that class.

I had just finished My Ántonia , and the song took me to the homestead in Nebraska where Jim meets Ántonia. Without a doubt, Harris’s song is one of the best tunes inspired by a book.

Here’s Emmy Lou Harris and Dave Matthews singing “My Antonia”:

4- Lana Del Rey, “Off to the Races” from Born to Die (2012)

Off to the Races by Lana Del Rey

Another controversial literary inspiration! (Is there such a thing?!) But really, Lana Del Ray’s obsession with Nabokov’s Lolita (1955) has already received much attention. Lolita in itself deserves an entire post, but I will say that the complex narrative techniques that Nabokov uses render the novel a must-read despite its disturbing subject-matter. I am actually rereading it this week.

Moving on to Lana Del Rey’s “Off to the Races” whose chorus reads as follows:

Light of my life, fire in my loins
Be a good baby, do what I want
Light of my life, fire in my loins
Gimme them gold coins
Gimme them coins

Sounds familiar?

Yes.

Lana Del Rey overtly incorporates the opening lines of Lolita into the song’s chorus:

“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth.”

Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita (1955)

For those who are interested, here’s a scholarly work that delves deeper into Del Rey’s references to Lolita in “Off to the Races.” Yet, again, you be the judge:

5- Rachel Bloom, “F*** me, Ray Bradbury,” Winner of 2011 Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation

Rachel Bloom Finally Meeting Ray Bradbury After the Song Came Out

I can’t NOT include Bloom’s highly amusing tribute to Ray Bradbury into this list. Just keep in mind that the song is Rated R.

The story behind the song is just as entertaining as the song itself. Comedian and writer Rachel Bloom (any Crazy Ex- Girlfriend fans?!) wrote the song to express her admiration for Bradbury. It was sort of a gift for Bradbury’s 90th birthday.

She explains in an interview:

“I would say very earnestly that I am overwhelmed with how well he combines such mind-blowingly cool ideas with the realism of how humans deal with these ideas […] That’s what struck me especially about Martian Chronicles or The Illustrated Man. I found myself as emotionally engaged as I was mentally. If I really met him, I would be nothing but respectful and probably like the 12-year-old boy I secretly am inside.”

She adds:

“The No. 1 thing I am earnestly attracted to is intelligence. Writers are thus the pinnacle of intelligence. While actors are great and awesome, writers literally create new worlds from scratch. What is sexier than that? Personally, I don’t know why every person out there isn’t dating a writer.”

The music video, which currently has over 5M reviews, is a well-executed parody with a Britney-Spears-hit-me-baby-one-more-time angle.

And rumor has it that Ray Bradbury himself watched the video in 2010. Mark Edward discusses the time when he showed Bradbury the video during his visit:

After watching it a few times, Susan Gerbic and I knew that Ray had to see it. He would be 90 years old the next day and I knew seeing this bit of future shock television would give him a kick that would brighten his day.

He goes on:

We ran the video that we had downloaded on a laptop. Considering the title and content of this video, it was a tense few minutes. Still, we both soon saw that wise old knowing gleam in his eyes and heard a few soft chuckles.

This is a man who has been around the block a few times and we could see that he was charmed by the whole thing. And who wouldn’t be? How many authors of his stature get to see young women frolicking in a girl’s school singing that tune?

Absolute brilliance. Here’s Bloom’s video. And yes, make sure you’re not around kids and/or sharing your screen with your coworkers on Zoom:


There’s a lot more I’d like to discuss, but, alas, this is currently the situation. Joking aside, the list I present in Part I and Part II is by no means comprehensive; there are so many wonderful songs inspired by books, characters, chapters, and writers.

Here’s my Spotify playlist with over 60 songs inspired by all things literary:

Do you have any favorite songs inspired by literature? Drop me a line– I’d love to check them out.

-Neri

11 replies

  1. As a lifelong fan of Ray Bradbury, and lovely energetic slightly crazy ladies, this tribute is by far my song of the week!
    As a writer myself, although many many levels below the great man, I now plan to marry the delectable Ms Bloom.
    Failing that, Ms Neriman, I wonder if you yourself would have any interest in an ancient, decrepit, practically senile scribe?
    Thank you for this post, it has brightened my day, my week and my life.

    Liked by 1 person

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