It donned on me when enjoying my hoard of music in the car recently that I tend to listen to quite a few songs with names that directly reference something from pop culture – whether it’s in the script of a television show or the name of a famous singer. But the references don’t stop at mere mentions; they’re woven into the fabric of the songs as if the artist set out to claim the reference as something of their own. These aren’t simply nods to the artist’s favorite whatever it is from pop culture, but really a new exploration of said whatever it is, bringing them into the musical realm for our own geeky fandom to soak up.
So I thought I’d share my top five songs that directly reference things from pop culture, in one way or another. Let’s start with…
5. Black Lips – “Spidey’s Curse”
It’s your friendly neighborhood garage rock band creating an ode to their beloved comic book hero. Stan Lee’s Peter Parker — aka Spider-Man — has had enough influence on just about everybody, spawning a slew of television series, action figures, movies, and other kinds of collectibles.
But Black Lips don’t simply name drop — the track from Arabia Mountain is an undoubtedly lovely lyrical capture of the Lips’ knowledge of Parker and his alter ego, so much so that their incorporation of his life into their music brings the character closer to our hearts as much as to theirs. It’s strangely the most moving piece the Lip’s have produced, and the fact that it wasn’t used in the latest Spider-Man film is quite brow-raising.
4. James Blake – “The Wilhelm Scream”
Never heard of “The Wilhelm Scream”? Well, I bet you have. It’s found in hundreds of popular films if you really take a closer look (or listen for that matter). It’s actually a screaming sound effect coined after the character Private Wilhelm is shot with an arrow in the 1953 film western The Charge at Feather River. It became popular, however, once it was used rather jokingly in the Star Wars and Indiana Jones films, and to hear it now signifies just flat-out lazy sound design. Watch:
But now for the James Blake song. While it is a cover of Jamie Litherland’s “Where To Turn,” Blake fittingly retitled the track, considering he repeats that he’s “falling” into love, as if struck in the heart…with an arrow. It would border on absolute hilarity if he had actually implemented the famous scream into the track, though thankfully he only retrofits the concept to mean something completely prophetic and defining, which is a feat only an artist like Blake could achieve.
3. Weezer – “Buddy Holly”
“Ooo wee ooo I look just like Buddy Holly.” The late singer Buddy Holly signified a specific moment in music history just as much as this one Rivers Cuomo lyric does. And that’s the point.
“Buddy Holly” is a song of anthemic proportions that aimed to change the way music was popularized (at least at the time of its release). Cuomo’s lyrics are dastardly in their attempts to regain that teenage youthfulness and angst that Buddy Holly himself once brought to the rapidly changing music scene, and Cuomo is smart enough to make him the star of the song. It’s a simple rock song made to look epic, and it’s the right way to reference this icon (instead of focusing on his even-more-famous demise).
2. Gorillaz – “Clint Eastwood”
Clint Eastwood is one of cinema’s greatest actors, and his most notable role in The Man With No Name trilogy marks him as an actor whose tough demeanor knows no bounds.
Well, Damon Albarn’s animated hip-hoppers don’t mention Eastwood by name in this track, but the sounds do everything to instill that sense of Clint’s character. The Ennio Morricone-like qualities abound as Albarn’s 2D sings “I’ve got sunshine in a bag,” a direct quote from Eastwood’s The Good The Bad And The Ugly, and then he releases Russell’s soul for a dose of hip-hop that makes for an entertaining track. The reference perfectly transcends its roots, and we can thank Albarn for that one.
1. Yo La Tengo – “Let’s Save Tony Orlando’s House”
Who is Tony Orlando? That’s actually not important here. What is important is that Yo La Tengo managed to create a song right out of a line from The Simpsons, the most popular animated sitcom of them all. Whenever the character of famous movie actor Troy McClure appeared (voiced by the late and great Phil Hartman), he would mention all of the B-movie titles viewers might remember him from, one of them being “Let’s Save Tony Orlando’s House.”
It’s not something that you’d instantly think would be perfect material for a song’s genesis, but it makes so much more sense when Yo La Tengo lays it down. The catchy beat and the rhythmic electric organ make the track a stunner on its own, but really, the lyrics talk about saving Tony Orlando’s house and how it won’t survive. It’s oddly silly yet wonderfully subtextual in Yo La Tengo’s way, and what more could you ask for from such a reference?
Pop culture references are fun, especially if you get them. The fact that these five artists can actually churn out songs based on these references just goes to show how talented the artists really are…or how much time they have on their hands. Either way, I’m loving them.