I love when songwriters reference pop culture. For some reason, songwriters tend to be more comfortable making reference to literature, history, and art than they are to the basic pop culture stuff we all consume every day. It’s like they want us to think they’re high-minded or something. I love, for instance, that Yo La Tengo named the song “Let’s Save Tony Orlando’s House” after a Simpsons reference.
Anyway, I was thinking about how much I enjoy a good pop culture reference in a song and thought it might be a bit of a lark to gather here some favorite and interesting songs about actors. I’d love to see you all expand on this with your favourite songs about actors in the comments.
The Whitlams – “Woody” (1993)
You didn’t do it, did you?
We love your movies.
Mia, Mamma Mia,
He didn’t do it, did he?
We loved his movies.
A fairly immediate response to the child molestation allegations against Woody Allen, this is an ironic mockery of the “art before the artist” debate. The Whitlams would go on to great things in the Australian indie scene but here, on their first album, they are already masters of combining frivolity with hard truth.
Roxy Music – “2HB” (1972)
Oh, I was moved by your screen dream,
Celluloid pictures of living.
Your death could not kill our love for you.
Take two people, romantic,
Smoky nightclub situation.
Your cigarette traces a ladder.
A lovely tribute to Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca.
You know, I’ve never really gotten into Roxy Music as much as I should given my penchant for glam rock, but this song is undeniable. The woozy melodies that build and slow over the tight, shuffling beat — it’s a beautiful song. And when Bryan Ferry hits the chorus, “Here’s looking at you, kid,” it’s with this perfect tone of nostalgia for a kind of romantic masculinity that was out of style.
(Sidenote: A good band member stage-name is always fun and my absolute favourite is the drummer for Machine Gun Fellatio who took for himself the name “Bryan Ferrysexual.”)
JAMES CAGNEY (+ LON CHANEY)
Kate Bush – “Hammer Horror” (1978)
In your things,
I feel guilty.
All the scenes
Of your big hit,
Oh, God, you needed the leading role.
It wasn’t me who made you go, though.
I always wanted to love Kate Bush more than I do. Here’s my Kate Bush story: I was fifteen and an older friend who had recently gotten a tattoo wanted to visit his tattoo artist, who had been laid off from the parlor, about a follow-up tattoo. So a few of us went to visit him at his home in the Hills (the deeply forested outskirts of Perth). We went, were introduced to his dogs, and to his lady-friend, who quickly made herself scarce, before we gathered in his makeshift parlour. My older friend showed this guy his drawings for a new tattoo concept and the guy said, “Yep. Yep yep. It’s like the cover of a Kate Bush album.” Then we all smoked a bunch of pot and the tattoo artist said, “I wanna show you my favorite place.” He took us to a small waterhole that had makeshift bonfire pits and dismantled car seats at its edge. I was never as worried about imminent death as I was at that moment… And that’s why I still have an instinctual aversion to Kate Bush’s music.
Anyway, Kate Bush and her song “Hammer Horror.” This song is Bush’s reaction to seeing James Cagney playing Lon Chaney playing the Hunchback of Notre Dame in Man of a Thousand Faces.
R.E.M. – “Monty Got a Raw Deal” (1992)
Monty, this seems strange to me,
The movies had that movie thing,
But nonsense has a welcome ring
And heroes don’t come easy.
That nonsense doesn’t mean a thing.
They tried to bust you in a sting,
But virtue isn’t everything,
So don’t waste time.
I’ve always taken this song, like “Losing My Religion,” as an interrogation of the closet. At the time, there was so much pressure on Michael Stipe to out himself to the public. That had to be rough, no matter how out he was in his personal life. Little wonder Stipe was so given to cryptic, nonsense lyrics. This song is a tribute of sorts to Montgomery Clift, the iconic, closeted, square-jawed movie star. It’s a beautiful song. The chorus of “You don’t owe me anything/You don’t want my sympathy.” stands with Stipe’s other star-focused lyrics around that same time in expressing pure empathy for a celebrity’s humanity.
Suede – “Daddy’s Speeding” (1994)
Whiplash caught the silver son,
Took the film to Number 1,
Crashed the car and left us
Broken glass for teenage boys
Trapped in steel and celluloid.
The glorious boys of Suede were never averse to claiming their place in the pop culture pantheon. It’s that audacity that made them so charming. Here they claim that eternal icon of youth James Dean as “Daddy.”
Daddy of what? Youthful charm, bisexuality, celebrity, the dreams of young manhood? Who knows? The point is, Suede are young, sexy and self-destructive and will be so forever.
Patti Smith – “Nine” (2012)
Darkness as his brother,
Mischief as his moon.
With his gypsy moves.
Yearnin’ as the foal,
So shy and beautiful.
Johnny Depp must be charming as hell in person. You don’t get Hunter S. Thompson, Patti Smith and Terry Gilliam singing your praises at every turn without something to offer the world. But why Depp’s chosen to publicly cloak himself in ridiculousness over the past two decades is a mystery. Maybe it’s not a cloak; maybe Depp’s addiction took a turn twenty years ago and what was once beautiful has now become sad and upsetting, particularly with regard to his history of abusing women. Patti Smith has always held a lot of room in her heart for sensitive, troubled young men, from her early love for Rimbaud onwards. (Listen to her tribute to Kurt Cobain, “About a Boy,” the song that inspired a novel that inspired a film that inspired a TV show, and that still stands fresh and clean as a beautiful expression of love.)
This song perhaps relies a bit much on Smith’s tendencies to mystical lyricism but that’s part of her thing. She’s serious about this and that shows in the song, which is a deep-blues dirge by way of Velvet Underground. From Patti Smith, you can always expect an expression of empathy for the broken, and hope, too.
Suzanne Vega – “Marlene on the Wall” (1985)
Marlene watches from the wall.
Her mocking smile says it all
As she records the rise and fall
Of every man who’s been here.
Here’s the tale of Suzanne Vega and her romantic relationship being watched over by a poster of Marlene Dietrich on the wall of a New York apartment. The relationship is likely abusive and Vega knows she should end it. She is in the natural flux and confusion of a twenty-something – the figure of Dietrich hangs above, not in judgement, but as a figure of hope and change and, yes, a little amusement at Vega’s inability to get her shit together.
And so Vega looks to the figure of Dietrich and announces, by song’s end, “I am changing, changing, changing.” It’s a damn good song.
Gladys Knight and the Pips – “Midnight Train to Georgia” (1973)
He kept dreamin’
That someday he’d be a star.
But he sure found out the hard way
That dreams don’t always come true.
So he pawned all his hopes
And he even sold his old car,
Bought a one way ticket back
To the life he once knew.
One of the greatest songs of the 20th century, and we have Farrah Fawcett to thank for it. Fawcett was dating football player Lee Majors and ended up on the phone with Major’s friend, the songwriter Jim Weatherly. When Weatherly asked what she was up to, she said she’s “taking a midnight plane to Houston to see my folks.” And so he quickly wrote the song “Midnight Plane to Houston.”
Says Weatherly; “I got off the phone, I sat down and wrote the song probably in about 30 to 45 minutes. Something like that. Didn’t take me long at all, ’cause I actually used Farrah and Lee as kind of like characters I guess. A girl that comes to L.A. to make it and doesn’t make it and leaves to go back home. The guy goes back with her. Pretty simple little story, but it felt real to me. It felt honest to me. I played it for them and they loved it. I cut it on my first album as ‘Midnight Plane To Houston.’”
He sold the song and the producers changed Houston to Georgia. Per Weatherly: “So they asked if they could change the title to ‘Midnight Train to Georgia.’ I said they could change anything except the writer and publisher.”
Aimee Mann – “Patient Zero” (2017)
Go west, young man,
Take a real screen test,
Doesn’t count as a job well done.
Aimee Mann met Andrew Garfield and wrote a song about how he wouldn’t make it in Hollywood, which to this date remains to be seen.
Mann told Billboard, “It was before Spider-Man, and he had just come to Los Angeles and it was clear he did not feel like he fit in. I just had a moment of feeling like, ‘You know, I kind of worry about this guy!’ Because I felt like he is a real artist and very sincere, and I think to be a real artist the way he is, you have to be a very vulnerable person. And I just worry about vulnerable people. It’s not necessarily just this town, but in the world of big business, whatever that business is. I mean, he obviously did fine. But I think being famous is very difficult. It’s a weird kind of trauma and I think it makes people crazy. If everybody around you is saying you’re amazing and all your choices are great, there are no touchstones.
The life of the super-famous has special requirements. It’s a very rare person who can withstand it. My guess is that [Garfield] tried to have a career that’s a little more artistic and not focused on franchises. But somehow I was inspired to write this story about someone who comes to Hollywood with the promise of being in this big movie, and he’s maneuvered out of it.”
Kristeen Young – “Pictures of Sasha Gray” (2014)
I’ve had enough
Of the periphery,
I’m coming for the life you mislead.
I’m such a slut,
Will not cripple-up.
Your quotes are gross with hopes to rope like whipping posts
The pictures of Sasha Grey.
I like how this song deals not just with the career of a porn actor but with the attitude an actor gets from internet commenters when they try to perform normalcy. Kristeen Young said to Billboard magazine, “One day, I happened upon Sasha Grey’s Facebook page. It was update after update of the most everyday pics and posts: ‘Here I am making dinner. Here I am gardening.’ She was not presenting herself in a sexy way at all. This was Sasha trying to move on or really just be human. But, every comment – from males – in the threads underneath were the most vile-spewing…. I thought the contrast was remarkable.”
Siouxsie and the Banshees – “Kiss Them for Me” (1991)
Oh it’s serene.
In the fountains,
In the heart-shaped pool of fame.
This was Siouxsie and the Banshees’ closest thing to a hit, a full 15 years after the band started. It’s a totally loving ode to Jayne Mansfield, the star who personified stardom for stardom’s sake (and sex for sex’s sake) in the ‘50s. Mansfield would use the word “divoon” to connote her love of Hollywood glamour, and it’s a lovely word, at once evocative and confusingly obtuse. Kiss Them for Me is the title of one of Mansfield’s better movies and the song imagines Mansfield at her best – heart-shaped swimming pools and parties and boundless fame.
Prince – “Partyman” (1989)
The new king in town.
Young and old,
Black and white,
Red and green,
The funkiest man
You’ve ever seen.
“Gentlemen, let’s broaden our minds!”
This is the song i that soundtracks Jack Nicholson’s Joker on a vandalism spree through the Gotham City Art Museum in Batman. It’s one of the few songs from Prince’s Batman soundtrack that actually features prominently in the movie.
Jack Nicholson was apparently a bit of a Prince fan, and the one who recommended him to Tim Burton for the soundtrack to Batman. Nicholson met Prince on the set of Prince’s movie Graffiti Bridge, and that meeting inspired Prince to write “Partyman.” Prince told Rolling Stone about the meeting: “He just walked over, sat down and put his foot up on a table, real cool. He had this attitude that reminded me of Morris [Day] —and there was that song.”
GWYNETH PALTROW (+ SOUPY SALES + SKIP STEPHENSON)
Lemonheads – “6ix” (1996)
Here comes Gwyneth’s head in a box,
Gwyneth’s head in a box.
Are the Lemonheads the most beautiful band of the ’90s? Yes, yes they are. (One time I saw Evan Dando live, and he was introduced by Australian music legend Tim Rogers as the best living country-soul singer. They were both high as fuck but the statement was not wrong.) But does this song present the Lemonheads at their best? Resoundingly no.
“6ix” is a piece of doggerel that involves Gwyneth Paltrow and other celebrities flitting through songwriter Evan Dando’s head. But it’s a fun piece of doggerel and I find myself singing the Gwyneth refrain whenever David Fincher’s name comes up.
R.E.M. – “Bang and Blame” (1994)
If you could see yourself now, baby.
The tables have turned.
The whole world hinges on your swings,
Your secret life of indiscreet discretions.
I’d turn the screw and leave the screen.
R.E.M.’s album Monster is largely about celebrity, that newfound monster that R.E.M. had been dealing with for a few years and which had taken down various friends. R.E.M. had been anointed in the early ’90s as some kind of indie culture godfathers because of their staunch approach to authenticity (as in roots and realness), a key value of ’90s pop culture. Monster feels like the band’s reckoning with the weight of that expectation, particularly among the younglings that followed in their wake.
And we have this song, “Bang and Blame,” a song to River Phoenix. It’s a messy song about attraction and repulsion and lashing out with feeling. Rumors were that Phoenix and Stipe had a thing going for a time, but Phoenix was publicly straight, and so it couldn’t work. And then, of course, Phoenix died. I love that the lyrics here, even through Stipe’s usual cryptic filter, are so clear-eyed about why this relationship can’t work as it is. It’s an empathetic acknowledgement of why the person you’re with can’t be with you, but why they still need to stop acting out on you like this.
Natalie Merchant – “River” (1995)
The loss and pain of it,
Crime and the shame of it,
You were gone.
It was such a nightmare raving,
“How can we save him from himself?”
Oh, Natalie Merchant. You were the friend I always wished for. Earnest and somewhat disapproving of my choices but full of empathy. Always so clear-eyed about the right and wrong of things.
Here, Merchant is lamenting the loss of River Phoenix at his young age while also disdaining the celebrity media’s obsession with Phoenix’s death. It was a sick situation involving sick people, but the ideal is not to give in to the ghoulish media fascination with death. There’s a desperation in the performance: Merchant can’t understand why we can’t just let the celebrity myth go and mourn the dead human being instead. Merchant is all about ideals in a compromised world, and here she offers a way to deal with displaced grief for a famous person.
The Front Lawn – “Claude Rains” (1989)
Remember at the end, out on the airstrip,
He could have tried
To stop them,
Ingrid Bergman and her friend from the French Resistance.
But he pretended not to see.
It was a small act
As the storm broke in the distance.
He was on their side after all.
Claude Rains gave the order
To collect the usual suspects,
And the camera came in close up on his face.
He watched as the plane left the airstrip
Like hope leaves a dying man,
But he hung on to the choice he’d made.
I recently saw Don McGlashan, of legendary New Zealand bands the Front Lawn and the Mutton Birds, playing solo in the dilapidated hall of a local estate. It was one of those weird nights where somebody whose plans have changed hands you their unwanted tickets to a gig and you can’t find anybody to go with, but you decide to go anyway. Also, you’re recently sober and going to a licensed gig alone is probably a bad idea, but you steel yourself and end up watching the show from a solitary kitchen chair at the back of the room. You know, those nights?
So I’m watching the show and it’s good, as you’d expect from a revered songwriting career of 35+ years, but I’m feeling a bit awkward in the crowd. And then McGlashan sings this song, “Claude Rains,” about the actor and his performance in Casablanca, and about the choices a person can make, and the world breaks open and I’m weeping like a fool.
King Missile – “Martin Scorcese” (1992)
He makes the best fuckin’ films.
He makes the best fuckin’ films.
If I ever meet him
I’m gonna grab his fuckin’ neck
And just shake him
And say thank you
Thank you for makin’
Such excellent fuckin’ movies.
Enjoy the “official” clip here that edits out every swear word to hilarious effect:
Scorsese is included here as an actor because of his fine work in Shark Tale…
In the early ’90s, King Missile were lumped in with bands like Primus and Ween as those silly, almost novelty, indie acts because of their tongue-in-cheek approach to music, which was fair to a point. (Ask me and I’ll say these bands have mostly aged better than their earnest indie cohort.) But King Missile had an element of New York performance poetry to them that was important as a bridge for me from Rolling Stone-certified music toward Laurie Anderson and Yoko Ono and even Phillip Glass.
“Martin Scorcese” is a revelry in the profane language of Scorsese’s films. The singer professes his love for the filmmaker in the most appropriately violent, sweary language he can muster: “I want to chew his fuckin’ lips off and grab his head and suck out one of his/Eyes and chew on it and spit it out in his face.”
In 2015, King Missile songwriter John S. Hall told NZ music site Under the Radar, “Goodfellas was on the hotel TV — that ‘how the fuck am I funny?’ scene that Joe Pesci nails, and we get into the van and I say to Roger Murdock, (our drummer at the time), ‘He makes the best fucking films.’ And Roger says, ‘I just want to shake him,’ and made a shaking motion with his arms and I wrote ‘Martin Scorcese’ right there in the van.”
The Vaselines – “Molly’s Lips” (1988)
Kiss kiss Molly’s lips.
Kiss kiss Molly’s lips.
Like most people, I suppose, I first knew this song by way of Nirvana’s cover. But like any good teenage Nirvana fan, I soon tracked down the Vaselines, and I was glad I did. “Molly’s Lips” is about Scottish actress Molly Weir, who most famously starred as Hazel the McWitch in a BBC children’s comedy series called Rentaghost, literally about an agency that rented out ghosts to perform tasks for the living. In that show, her witchiness was emphasized with very white make-up and vivid red lips. But Weir was just generally a bit of a Scottish pop culture fixture, with memoirs and TV shows and films on her resume. In a 2010 NME interview, the Vaselines’ Eugene Kelly said, “Molly used to have this programme before the news on Scottish TV [Teatime Tales] where she’d tell all these stories from her childhood. She always struck us as a great character, so we just wanted to sing a song about kissing her.” I honestly think they were just thinking about her lips in Rentaghost.