Top Ten Songs By Artists About Other Artists
t doesn’t happen often, but when musicians tire of singing about themselves, they flail for subject matter. Some turn to politics. Others: concept albums. And some just talk about other rock musicians. Granted, artists often use other artists merely as vessels for their big, silly ideas, but sometimes it happens because they’re bored or angry or figuring out new ways to sing about themselves. Here’s ten of the best.
10. Filter – Hey Man Nice Shot / For Squirrels – The Mighty KC
Artist in Question: Kurt Cobain
Kurt Cobain, as eulogized by a couple of third-rate grunge bands. Years later, Filter would try to re-imagine itself as a third rate alterna-acoustic-schlock band, but their high point remains “Hey Man Nice Shot,” the one time they mustered enough vitriol and swagger to sound like more than a sexually frustrated Alice in Chains cover band. For Squirrels were a one-hit wonder themselves, their career cut short when two members of the band were killed in a van accident. “The Mighty KC” remains the best tribute to Cobain, a callous, burrowing gem that musters sentimentality through alternating bouts of anger and sadness.
09. John Lennon – How Do You Sleep?
Artist in Question: Paul McCartney
Few artists put together better dis tracks than Lennon; few artists deserved a kiss-off more than McCartney. “How Do You Sleep?” is as biting and personal as they come, though no one would’ve complained if Lennon had spent more time harping on Wings. “The sound you make is muzak to my ears” may not pass mustard on Canal Street, but for a couple of pretty boy rich dudes in the 70s, them’s was fightin’ words.
08. Pavement – Unseen Power of the Picket Fence
Artist in Question: R.E.M.
In the late 90s, when such things mattered, rumors flew that Live frontman Ed Kowalczyk had sent a series of fawning, obsessive letters to Michael Stipe. Such adoration was probably below Stephen Malkmus, but snide, smirking adoration…well that was something SM and Spiral could hang their hats on. I’m always surprised just how much of “Unseen Power” is actually about R.E.M., even if things devolve into no-limit piss-taking with the quickness. Endearing, in a queasy way.
07. Local H – All the Kids Are Right
Artist in Question: Local H
Another 90s grunge hangover—no one talked about how bad Local H sucked quite like Local H. Especially poignant: “All the kids they hold a grudge / Their minds are logged on to the net,” “All your cred won’t save you from the kids.” Tough to decide whether this band should be eviscerated for their lukewarm career or given some sort of lifetime achievement award for predicting the rise of Stereogum Nation in 1998.
06. Johnny Cash – The Night Hank Williams Came to Town
Artist in Question: Hank Williams
This song isn’t so remarkable for its subject matter—less about Hank Williams, more about small-town life—but rather Cash’s tone of voice. We all know Cash, the black-clad embodiment of a frowning emoticon; “The Night Hank Williams Came to Town” is the rare song in which the great baritone’d one sounds excited, loose even. That Cash himself has since inspired this brand of maniacal reverence makes this one of his most poignant, likable tunes.
05. Rancid – Journey to the End of the East Bay
Artist in Question: Operation Ivy
I’m going to be an old man one day, and I’m going to opine endlessly about music I listened to in high school. “We carried JanSports to school,” I’ll say, “our ‘Anarchy’ patches would wiggle out of their safety pins twice before lunch!” I’ll say. “And pop-punk…well it meant something too, and bands would sing of younger and better bands, sillier and more idealistic than themselves!” I’ll put on Rancid’s homage to the strangely enduring Operation Ivy, and I’ll tell the grandkids to go bother their grandmum, I will. “Got a garage or an amp we’ll play aaaanytime…”
04. The Fall – I Am Damo Suzuki
Artist in Question: Damo Suzuki
Mark E. Smith is a syllable junkie, and even though CAN looms over nearly every piece of music Smith ever recorded, there’s a pretty good chance that if Suzuki had been born Jeff Smith, this homage never gets written. But dude was born with an evil wizard of a name, and Smith pays penance by chanting “Dammmo Sooszookee” 400 times. Royalty check, please!
03. The Replacements – Alex Chilton
Artist in Question: Alex Chilton
Paul Westerberg wrote some dumbshit lyrics in his day, but by the time Pleased to Meet Me came out, Paulie probably had a publicist, hairstylist, and a mortgage. Yet we’re still treated to “If he was from Mars, wouldn’t that be cool?” Of course the Replacements were in the midst of their “Anything sounds cool, so long as Westerberg is singing”-phase, and they turned dumbshit into gold on a track-by-track basis. This ode to Big Star’s enigmatic frontman sees Westerberg couching Chilton’s bright, childish pop brilliance with a set of verses that depict Chilton as a happy-go-lucky Memphis druggy. When an alcoholic loves an addict…
02. Carly Simon – You’re So Vain
Artist in Question: ???
The smart money is on this song being about Mick Jagger, James Taylor, Kris Kristofferson, or Cat Stevens, among others. And sure, this is really more about some sort of spiteful relationship than a musician, but I like it because I always imagined one of these fellows—I recommend Jimmy Taylor for maximum comedic effect—coked out of their mind in the mid-70s, sitting on their couch and falling for the song’s simple semantic trick all Homer Simpson-like.
Taylor, somewhere in California, “You’re So Vain” playing in background…
Clouds in my coffee / Clouds in my coffee…”
“Hey, this is catchy!”
”You’re so vain…”
“Me? Well I don’t know, I can be a bit self involved sometimes, but ‘vain,’ well, that’s a strong word…”
”You probably think this song is about you”
“Wait a minute…”
“Well, of course…DOH!!!”
01. Chuck Berry – Johnny B. Goode
Artist in Question: Chuck Berry
This selection only cheats a little bit, as Johnny B. was a front for Chuck Berry himself. Ostensibly the first rock ‘n’ roll artist to spend significant amounts of time writing about rock ‘n’ roll (see also: “Roll Over Beethoven”), Chuck also did it best, ringing his bell all staccato-like for sweet two minute bursts. Bonus points for its inclusion in the closing scene of Back to the Future, which is hands down the best movie scene to find while flipping channels on a Sunday afternoon.