My favorite things in life are music and books. The only thing I love more is when they cross over.
1) First prize goes to Neutral Milk Hotel. Their counter-culture classic and magnum opus In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is a giant love letter to Anne Frank. In an interview with Pitchfork, frontman Jeff Mangum explained the huge effect the book had on his life: “I spent about three days crying, and just was completely flipped-out…the references to her on the record– like “Ghost” refers to her being born. And I would go to bed every night and have dreams about having a time machine and somehow I’d have the ability to move through time and space freely, and save Anne Frank. Do you think that’s embarrassing?” To which the interviewer Mike McGonigal replied, “If this were talking about wanting to go back in time to save Frodo the Hobbit, that would be embarrassing. Feeling extreme empathy as a result of this enduring writing from the Holocaust, that should be the opposite.”
2) Who gives an “f” about an Oxford Comma? Vampire Weekend, the academics of the indie world. The band members met while attending Columbia, and they were definitely the type to discuss academics on Friday nights. Their songs are littered with obscure literary references – a Vulture article eagerly points out all of them from their latest album, Modern Vampires of the City.
3) Modest Mouse takes their name from a Virginia Woolf story, “The Mark on the Wall,” where she referred to “modest, mouse-coloured people.” The band also has an affection for writer Charles Bukowski, naming a song after him, (“Yeah, I know he’s a pretty good read,” they admit) as well as naming another after one of his works. All of this is fitting, considering the band’s style matches Bukowski’s – both brash, raw, nihilistic but at the same time, overwhelmingly alive. It’s even suspected another one of their songs, “Tiny Cities Made of Ashes,” references “The Valley of Ashes” in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, with its title and the lyrics, “I’m going to punch you in the face/I’m going to punch you in the glasses,” possibly referring to the billboard of T.J. Eckleberg.
4) Sufjan Stevens is one well-read guy, taking on the Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” His song takes on the viewpoint of the character The Misfit. Before writing his hit album, 2005’s Illinoise, Stevens immersed himself in works by Illinois writers Carl Sandburg and Saul Bellow, and references to them appear throughout the album.
5) “If Hans Christian Anderson had his way with me, none of this s— would have ever gone done,” Regina Spektor sings in her song, “Prisoners.” Oh, but he did, because literature is a huge inspiration for songs. Both Hemingway and Fitzgerald pop up in “Poor Little Rich Boy,” she dedicates a whole song to “Oedipus.” The MTVHive column Rock Lit has an absolutely fantastic article where Regina discusses her literary heritage. In it, Regina reveals that she grew up with the bedtime stories by yes, Christian Anderson and the Grimm Brothers, as well as tales of Greek mythology. Literature has become so imbedded in Spektor’s world that references to literature are reflex, not conscious efforts. ” “There’s nothing wrong with them a hundred books won’t fix,” she sings again in “Prisoners.” Nothing could be more reflective of her influences.
6) Songs by The Mountain Goats, aka John Darnielle are rife with literary references. “Then the Letting Go” is the last line of an Emily Dickinson poem, verses in “Handball” are taken directly from Things Fall Apart. “Love Love Love” references Crime and Punishment, and as those experts at Rapgenius point out, provides a great concise summary of the plot.
7) Belle and Sebastian’s Stuart Murdoch may not be “as clever as Mark Twain” but he’s still pretty sharp. The Scottish band Belle and Sebastian take their name from the children’s novel, Belle et Sébastien by Cecile Aubry, and their songs are littered with references to literature. They reference The Catcher in the Rye, Judy Blume, and Jack Kerourac in one song. “Slow Grafitti” (a personal favorite, if I do say so myself, especially the BBC Sessions version) was written for the film adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s The Acid House, and “The Loneliness of The Middle Distance Runner” is an allusion to Alan Sillitoe’s short story “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner.” This great, dedicated post by Jason Diamond on Vol. 1 Brooklyn catches a bunch more.
8) Bright Eyes, or Conor Oberst, is heralded as the modern day Bob Dylan. What this means, in part, is that his songs waver on the line between lyrics and sheer poetry. Oberst himself takes great inspiration from literature, referencing Edgar Allan Poe’s “Annabel Lee” in “Let’s Not S— Ourselves” (To love, and be loved!/Let’s just hope that is enough.) He gives Joan Didion a shout-out in “Four Winds,” singing, “It’s the sum of man/slouching towards Bethlehem.” In an interview on the site Comes With a Smile, Oberst states he wants to be a “sponge” to everything he consumes: “Just soak it all in and when it comes time to push it back out that’s what comes out, what you soaked up.”
9) Of course Radiohead knows what’s up. Their song “2+2=5” recalls 1984, “Banana Co.” references One Hundred Years of Solitude, and “Exit Music for a Film” was written for the 1996 film adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. High brow (Faust and “Faust Arp”) to lowbrow (“Paranoid Android” and the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), Radiohead covers every literary base.
10) Okkervil River’s frontman Will Sheff admits to being a nerd in his interview with Emily Zemler on MtvHive’s Rock Lit. The band’s name comes from a short story by Tatyana Tolstaya that Sheff read in a 20th century Russian literature class. The song “John Allyn Smith Sails” is based on poet John Berryman. When asked if he expects people to pick up on references, Sheff says, “It’s about me keeping the faith with John Berryman and the story of John Berryman. If nobody gets it, it doesn’t matter.”
And then there’s the Smiths… but you can just ask Zooey Deschanel about that.