10 Popular Songs With Literary Roots

Books, movies, music… the media. They influence and mimic (and steal from) one another, resulting in a rich network of ideas and entertainment.

At eNotes, we are unabashedly biased toward the written word (#BookNerdPride), and become giddy when books are the source of motion pictures or other modern cultural benchmarks. While bopping my head to some Lana Del Rey last week, “hey, Lolita, heyyyy” blasted through my headphones; I became curious about other modern songs with bookish Easter eggs. A bit of Wikipedia studious research later, and I was pleasantly surprised with all the hit songs with literary inspirations.

1. “Off to the Races” by Lana Del Rey

I’ll start with another Lana Del Rey single because I’ve already spoiled her inclusion in this club. The lyrics of “Off to the Races” include the famous opening line in Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita: “Light of my life, fire of my loins.” The aforementioned song “Lolita” also pays homage to Nabokov’s controversial, romantic narrative.


2. “Poet” by Bastille

Bastille has publicly stated this song is based on Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18. “Poet” is about eternalizing a lover by writing her into the pages of the song. One can speculate the crooner’s inspiration came directly from the sonnet’s closing lines:

When in eternal lines to Time thou grow’st.
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.


 3. “Holland 1945” by Neutral Milk Hotel

A hybrid of literature and historical influence, “Holland 1945” includes several references to Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young GirlThe opening lines of the song reference Frank’s and her sister’s deaths:

The only girl I’ve ever loved
Was born with roses in her eyes
But then they buried her alive
One evening, 1945
With just her sister at her side


4. “Jocasta” by Noah and the Whale

UK-based indie band Noah and the Whale pays homage to the Greek tragedy Oedipus Rex by Sophocles with this tune. Jocasta is Oedipus’s mother and… well… we won’t spoil anything if you haven’t read it yet (but try not to hit your head on the rock you’re living under). The song follows her narrative and her subsequent unavoidable doom.


5. “Romeo and Juliet” by Dire Straits / The Killers

An oldie but a goodie, and a relatively recent reworkie by The Killers, this ballad was originally introduced in the 80s by the rock band Dire Straits and directly references Shakespeare’s infamous star-crossed lovers in Romeo and Juliet.


6. “Who Wrote Holden Caulfield?” by Green Day

…I think the answer you’re looking for is “J.D. Salinger,” Green Day, and the book is actually The Catcher in the Rye. Green Day’s song is named after Salinger’s phony-hating main character Holden Caulfield, and expresses the novel’s themes:

There’s a boy who fogs his world and now he’s getting lazy
There’s no motivation and frustration makes him crazy
He makes a plan to take a stand but always ends up sitting
Someone help him up or he’s gonna end up quitting


7. “Sigh No More” by Mumford and Sons

“Sigh No More” by Mumford and Sons has direct quotes from Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothingsuch as the song’s opening line: “Serve God, love me, and mend” (spoken by Benedick in Act 5, Scene 2).


8. “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen

One of the greatest songs of all time, in my humblest opinion, is “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen. This ballad is biblically rooted, specifically intertwining the stories of David/Bathsheba and Samson/Delilah in one verse:

Well your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew ya
She tied you to her kitchen chair
And she broke your throne and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah

This song also has dozens of covers (Rufus Wainwright‘s and Jeff Buckley‘s are probably the most popular ones) and even has a book written about it.


9. “The Resistance” by Muse

George Orwell’s 1984 influenced this song as well as the entire album. While the theme of totalitarian government is blatant in the lyrics, the band was particularly influenced by the love story between Julia and Winston, as is evident in this verse:

Love is our resistance
They keep us apart and they won’t stop breaking us down
And hold me, our lips must always be sealed


10. “Samson” by Regina Spektor

Another biblically influenced song, “Samson” is about a lover lamenting and musing over the ol’ what could have been? thought that plagues so many experiencing unrequited love. The song mimics Delilah’s love for Samson, which at times is unreturned, and the loss of Samson’s power with losing his hair, possibly representing vulnerability in a relationship.

Check out the full list on Wikipedia, and let us know your favorites in the comments!