5 Cute Without The E (Cut From The Team) – Taking Back Sunday (“Othello” by William Shakespeare)
Just to reassure our faithful readers that the generation of literature lovers continues on into the present, Taking Back Sunday’s 2002 hit Cute Without The E is the archetype power-emo song to come out of the early 2000s. Before screamo came to ruin the genre, Taking Back Sunday was a band for disheartened young teens to flock to – and while said teens may not have been up on their Shakespeare, luckily for them Taking Back Sunday was. Based on William Shakespeare’s “Othello,” Cute Without The E seems on the surface to simply be about someone getting cheated on. Of course the subtle nuance is that, in fact, Desdemona had not cheated on Othello – and his paranoia and jealousy were his undoing. The greater aphorism of the song seems to be a warning; don’t get too wrapped up in the drama in your own head, because who knows how much of it is true. Unwritten words on a discarded napkin (Desdemona’s missing handkerchief) are only as meaningful as you make them.
4 The Sprawl – Sonic Youth (“The Sprawl Trilogy” by William Gibson)
No better band to write a song about a sci-fi cyberpunk dystopia than Sonic Youth. The Sprawl Triology is a series of sci-fi novels by William Gibson that were published between 1984 and 1988. The Sprawl itself is an urban cityscape from Boston to Atlanta that exists within its own technologically controlled climate, day/night cycle, and an expansive grey sky. It is 100% artificial, and the inspiration for Sonic Youth’s song of the same name. The Sprawl (1988) is a classic Sonic Youth number, and Kim Gordon’s unique vocal abilities are highlighted in the repetition of “you can buy some more, more, more, more.” While, if you haven’t read the trilogy, you might not know exactly what they’re referencing, but Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon still do a kick-ass-punk-rock job of creating a bleak, dystopic image for the listener. Tank Girl meets Winston Smith meets William Gibson, The Sprawl is the perfect auditory version of the archetypal futuristic dystopia.
3 Venus in Furs – The Velvet Underground (“Venus in Furs” by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch)
Besides taking the song title directly from the novella, this is another case where a lot of research is required. The novella “Venus in Furs” was written by Austrian author Leopold von Sacher-Masoch and published in 1870. The Velvet Underground’s classic was released over one hundred years later. The exceedingly creepy and gloomy nature of the song is in direct correlation to the subject of the novella (which draws on Leopold’s own life). It is about an unnamed male narrator who dreams of asking Venus (who is wearing furs) for advice. The novella details the story of Severin von Kusiemski who is so infatuated with the female character Wanda that he becomes completely subservient to her. Initially, Wanda refuses to acquiesce – but eventually grows to love her position of domination and power. She treats Severin atrociously until she finds a man to whom she would like to be subservient (wherein she drops Severin like a hot potato). Long story long, the lyrics of Velvet Underground’s Venus in Furs tell the exact same story. I’m sure Leopold would be ecstatic with The Velvet Underground’s take on his novella. It is just as dark, twisted, and all-pervasively-creepy as the story, set to the brilliant and inimitable sound of The Velvet Underground.
2 Scentless Apprentice – Nirvana (“Perfume” by Patrick Suskind)
Mainstream pop culture isn’t familiar with the novel Perfume by Patrick Suskind (a German novel written in 1985). I was fortunate enough to be introduced to the book (in translated form) by my 11th grade English teacher (a woman to whom I owe quite a lot). The novel is fascinating, gruesome, and brilliantly written (the same could be said about Nirvana’s musical canon). The protagonist spends most of the novel trying to find a way to fit in, through crafting the most perfect perfume – one that will make him loved by all. The parallels are pretty clear, and if you had no idea the song was based on the tragic tale of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille you might think it was autobiographical to Cobain himself. Grenouille lacks something basic in himself (a scent), and Cobain seemed to lack something as well (his published journals detail his feelings of alienation and emptiness, after all). The song itself is exceptionally heavy, and the lyrics are sort of indistinguishable. The chorus definitely borders the unlistenable category, as a lot of In Utero’s songs are. But if you can get past the distortion, noise and screaming, then the song is, just like the novel, brilliant.
1 White Rabbit – Jefferson Airplane (“Through The Looking Glass” by Lewis Carroll)
One of the most apparent references on the list, Jefferson Airplane’s brilliant opus White Rabbit is notoriously based on Lewis Carroll’s masterpiece “Through the Looking Glass.” Already recognized as an anthem for the drug culture of the 60s, Jefferson Airplane made concrete what everyone else was already thinking. They made no attempt to hide their inspiration, and the images Grace Slick describes are straight out of the novel: “one pill makes you larger/and one pill makes you small.” The underlying idea that Jefferson Airplane is promoting drug use is sort-of-debatable, at best. Whether or not Carroll was promoting drug use is also debatable. Rebelling against cultural norms, shifting paradigms of what conscious thought is, and using drugs as a vessel for expanding one’s mind are themes that run clearly through both works. It’s no wonder Slick chose this literary achievement as the springboard to create one of the biggest most popular songs of counter culture.
These are only five of the countless songs based on books, and honorable mention must be made for Radiohead’s 2+2=5, Led Zeppelin’s No Quarter, and Sufjan Steven’s A Good Man is Hard to Find. However, the above five are unique for the literature they cover because of the relevancy each work has to the work of the musician. Whether there’s a disconnect (as in between Shakespeare and Taking Back Sunday) or a direct correlation (a cyberpunk universe and Sonic Youth), these five bands take great, sometimes unknown, works and reframe them in the context of music. Expressing the same ideas through a completely different medium allows a whole new conversation to take place about the very issues that the great artists of our era seek to unravel.