Intertextuality: There’s a reason it’s so ubiquitous in postmodern popular culture. By citing existing works, artists—whether they’re writers, musicians, or something else entirely—can add another layer of meaning to their work. Musicians being inspired by books certainly isn’t a new phenomenon, and it’s a trend that can be seen across multiple genres. Here, we take a look at some of our favorite indie bands and artists who’ve found their muse in literature. From Greek mythology to contemporary speculative fiction, these musicians have definitely done their reading.
1. The Bell Jar
“Sylvia,” The Antlers
In their early days as a band, the Antlers appeared more than a little preoccupied with death (for proof of this, one need look no further than the title of their 2009 LP Hospice). The record revolves around the presumably autobiographical narrative of vocalist Peter Silberman, who spins a circular tale about death, guilt, and resentment. On the third track, “Sylvia,” Silberman wails during the chorus, “Sylvia, get your head out of the oven” in a clear reference to the way Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Sylvia Plathcommitted suicide. Silberman said in an interview, “Sylvia Plath is strange. I’m not sure how I feel about her. I think she’s worshipped by a lot of girls who find that darkness in her life and writing comforting, and I spend a lot of time trying to decide if that’s a good thing or not.”
“It’s Never Over (Oh Orpheus),” Arcade Fire
When Arcade Fire announced that they were writing a concept album about the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, no one was quite sure what to expect. But when the record was finally available for streaming online, matched with scenes from the award-winning 1959 film Black Orpheus set at Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro, the allegory started to make sense. Take, for example, “It’s Never Over (Oh Orpheus).” Breno Mello’s Orpheus, spends the film trying to save Eurydice (Marpessa Dawn) from Death, who is also attending the festival. As the song plays, Orpheus is seen looking for Eurydice at the Bureau of Missing Persons, to no avail. Death has already gotten to her, and Orpheus is unable to do what he must to get her back. The careful layering of texts dealing with the same myth in a different place and time only serves to deepen the profundity of the song.
“Four Winds,” Bright Eyes
The lyric “It’s the sum of man slouching towards Bethlehem,” in the Bright Eyes song “Four Winds” references two literary works at once. Bright Eyes vocalist and songwriter Conor Oberst is quoting both the famous poem “The Second Coming” by W.B Yeats, and the Joan Didion collection of essays that borrows the phrase for its title. Yeats writes, “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?” Oberst’s lyrics in “Four Winds” are similarly apocalyptic and paint a more modern, but equally distressing and nihilistic, view of the world. Similarly, they echo the tone of Didion’s collection of essays which emphasize the emptiness and transience of the 1960s.
“Ultraviolence,” Lana Del Rey
If you’ve read A Clockwork Orange, the title of the new Lana Del Rey LP,Ultraviolence, probably sounds pretty familiar. In Anthony Burgess‘ tough-to-read classic about gang violence in the not-so-distant future, the phrase “ultra-violence” is used to describe the various atrocities committed by the book’s characters, including rape and murder. On the title track, Del Rey croons, “Ultraviolence. I can hear sirens, sirens. He hit me and it felt like a kiss.” (It’s worth noting that she’s also quoting the controversial song “He Hit Me” by the Crystals.) This certainly isn’t Del Rey’s first literary reference in one of her songs: Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita has had a tremendous influence on both Del Rey’s aesthetics and her lyrics as well.
“Samson,” Regina Spektor
There’s some debate over what, exactly, Regina Spektor’s song “Samson” is about, particularly when she sings, “The history books forgot about us and the Bible didn’t mention us.” First of all, the Bible does mention Samson and Delilah, so some have argued that the song is an allegory written from the perspective of the servant who cut Samson’s hair (Delilah didn’t do it herself). Alternately, listeners have speculated that it’s about caring for a cancer patient, or that Spektor is merely taking artistic license with a well-known story and altering it to fit her own vision. Either way, it’s impossible to deny that the lyrics line up with a well-known biblical story where Samson loses his God-given strength after his hair is cut.
“A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” Sufjan Stevens
Flannery O’Connor is seen as one of the major figures in Southern Gothic writing: Her short story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” is considered an exemplary piece within the genre, and even served as inspiration for the Sufjan Stevens song by the same name. Here, Sufjan writes from the perspective of the Misfit, O’Connor’s antihero who adheres to a consistent moral code even though he ends up killing an entire family. Sufjan sings, “Twice when I killed them, they were once at peace. They were once like me.” This isn’t Sufjan’s first foray into writing about killers: One of his best-known songs concerns the life of serial killer John Wayne Gacy, Jr.
Indie rock darlings Radiohead are no strangers to literary references: First there was the OK Computer track “Paranoid Android,” which is essentially one long reference to Marvin from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. But several years later came “2 + 2 = 5” on 2003’s Hail to the Thief, which is a direct reference to George Orwell’s genre-defining dystopian novel 1984. Plus, each Hail to the Thief track has a parenthetical subtitle; this one is “The Lukewarm.” This is a veiled reference to Dante’s Inferno—Hail to the Thief is a record about humanity circling the drain on its way to Hell and/or the apocalypse, and so the barely pre-apocalyptic humans in the song are already “lukewarm.”
“Oryx” and “Crake,” The Knife
“Oryx” and “Crake” from high-concept electro-pop phenom The Knife’s latest LP, Shaking the Habitual, reference the unsettling Margaret Atwood novel by the same name. Neither song has lyrics, and both consist of sounds that are probably best described as “screeching.” Yet both manage to evoke the same horror as Atwood’s dark, futuristic novel, and do so within the context of a record that is inescapably political. Atwood has said, “The what if of Oryx and Crake is simply, What if we continue down the road we’re already on? How slippery is the slope? What are our saving graces? Who’s got the will to stop us?” Similarly, the Dreijer siblings (who, together, form The Knife) said in an interview with Pitchfork that Shaking the Habitual was meant to raise questions related to feminism and environmentalism along with a host of other issues that Atwood tackles directly or indirectly in the novel.