Cycles of Influence - Music, Faith & Literature
Just as classic rap lines are repeated decade after decade, so are classic pieces of literature. Literary references show up in other pieces of writing, of course, but they also pop up in other, more unlikely places. In fact, there are countless musical projects across multiple genres that re-tell classic works of literature, that reference specific lines, images, and scenes - even some that attempt to mirror the structure. What distinguishes a point of inspiration from a re-telling? An homage from a musical cover?
Sometimes the inspiration can lie in a single line. A few of Amiri Baraka’s lines in “In Memory of Radio” inspired Nas’ famous line, “Never play with love, love is evil spelled backwards” in AZ’s “Everything is Everything”.
Sometimes even one image can make it into a song. Fleet Foxes reference Innisfree (a fictional island created by William Butler Yeats in his famous "Lake Isle of Innisfree") in “The Shrine” and “Bedouin Dress.” Verse 4 in “The Shrine” plays,
And the waves break ever closer, ever near to me
I will lay down in the sand and let the ocean lead
Carry me to Innisfree like pollen on the breeze
The Cure were big into singing about books: “Charlotte Sometimes” is based off Penelope Farmer’s novel of the same name, “How Beautiful You Are” is based off Charles Baudelaire’s “Les Yeaux du Pauvre”, “Killing an Arab” demonstrates striking similarity to Albert Camus’ The Stranger, “The Drowning Man” is based on Mervyn Peake’s Goermenghast.
Sometimes the inspiration can be taken to a level of creation so large - or perhaps, so skewed - that the author himself cannot tolerate it. Take David Bowie for example, who attempted to write and design a never-produced stage musical based on George Orwell’s novel 1984. The concept album of music for the play, Diamond Dogs, was released but never made it to a theatrical production. The never-made play - David Bowie’s own vision of a post-apocalyptic and Orwell’s 1984 society - is unique in this discussion because its source of inspiration was the very foil to his production. Orwell’s estate denied the rights. Many other bands have taken on Orwell’s version of future society - and it’s downfall - including The Offspring’s “The Future is Now”, Muse’s “Resistance”, and The Eurhythmics’ “Sex Crime 1984”.
But it’s not just books, poems, short stories. The book most taken on in musical re-tellings is the book, the Bible. I would even go as far as to say you could treat biblical references as literary references because that’s how many musicians engage with the text - capitalizing on its storytelling aspect, engaging with larger religious themes through re-creating and re-telling.
Aerosmith’s “Adam’s Apple” is a rock retelling of the biblical story of Adam and Eve, with lines like:
Back when Cain was able
Way before the stable
MC Lars’ “Ahab” is essentially the rap version of the story of Captain Ahab, told from Ahab’s perspective. It begins with the epic opening lines,
Call me Ahab, what, monomaniac
Obsessed with success unlike Steve Wozniak
On the hunt for this mammal that once took my leg
With my worn-down crew and my man Queequeg
'You’re never going to find him!' He’s a big sperm whale
'The ocean is enormous!' Shut up, we’re setting sail
This scar that you see that runs down my face
Has scarred my soul and inspired this chase
And when the literary, musical, and biblical all intersect? New York indie act Slow Dakota’s Bürstner and the Baby sees the intersection of literary and biblical references, utilizing the structure, characters, and major themes of Franz Kafka’s The Trial, which in part is a retelling of the book of Job. The songs and the structure of alternating dialogue in the book - The Baby Speaks, Bürstner Speaks, etc. - echo the Book of Job’s chapters: The Lord Speaks, Job Speaks, etc. I find this especially interesting because of its distance from being a personal interaction with faith - instead, it's one that touches on origins, structure, and symbolism.
What musical covers speak to you? Why does each medium of human expression end up in a tangled web of connection? With the rise of interdisciplinary explorations such as Rap Genius itself, we can begin to see each connection with more and more clarity. As the old saying goes, “No idea, no matter how good, is unique.” Now we can trace across which media a single idea, line, theme, image, or tone trips.
Edit the description to add:
- Historical context: the work's place in history, how it was received
- A summary of the work's overall themes (example: "Here, Byron evokes the classic struggle between virtue and temptation...")
- A description of the work's overall style and tone