Allusions in Songs
Allusions have been present in music since the beginning of the industry – creating connections between music, movies, literature, history, and the bible. In the 1990s, music took a turn toward honesty and rawness that few other eras can fully comprehend. From that era also came some of the most unforgettable allusions we know. Here are just 10 that still leave us breathless.
The List of Allusions
• We Didn’t Start the Fire – Billy Joel
Birth control, Ho Chi Minh, Richard Nixon back again
Moonshot, Woodstock, Watergate, punk rock
Begin, Reagan, Palestine, Terror on the airline
Ayatollah’s in Iran, Russians in Afghanistan
Wheel of Fortune, Sally Ride, heavy metal suicide
Foreign debts, homeless Vets, AIDS, Crack, Bernie Goetz
Even though this song was released in 1989, it was still famous in the 90s. This song has over 115 allusions to different events that had happened in the 15 years prior. This is just a selection of the song that references
• My Heart Will Go On – Celine Dion
Once more you open the door
And you’re here in my heart
And my heart will go on and on
This song is one of the defining songs of the 90s and a classic movie song that will go down in history. You have to have seen the movie Titanic to fully understand the allusion she is making here: to the door that Jack and Rose laid on while the boat sank.
• All I Really Want – Alanis Morissette
“I’m like Estella –
I like to reel it in and then spit it out.
I’m frustrated by your apathy.”
This allusion is to Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. This is also a simile, but the allusion comes because the song references the whole book and the overlying themes instead of just the character.
• I Don’t Wanna Miss a Thing – Aerosmith
Don’t want to close my eyes
I don’t want to fall asleep
‘Cause I’d miss you baby
And I don’t want to miss a thing
Aerosmith’s song is actually about death, though it is only alluded to. Many think that it is about falling asleep at night, but in reality, once you decipher the lyrics, it’s all about passing on. This allusion is perhaps only really discovered when you watch the movie that made it popular, Armageddon.
• Candle in the Wind – Elton John
And it seems to me you lived your life
Like a candle in the wind
Never fading with the sunset
When the rain set in
And your footsteps will always fall here
Along England’s greenest hills
Your candle’s burned out long before
Your legend ever will
Most allusions don’t specifically state what they are alluding to, and this is just an example of that. The song is clearly about the death of Princess Diana and the impact it had on England and the world, but Elton John never says her name.
• Paranoid Android – Radiohead
When I am king, you will be first against the wall
With your opinion, which is of no consequence at all.
What’s there? (I may be paranoid, but no android.)
The entire song is an allusion to Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The Paranoid Android mentioned in the title harkens back to his character Marvin.
• Gangsta’ Paradise – Coolio
As I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I take a look at my life and realize there’s nothing left.
Cause I’ve been blastin’ and laughin’ so long that
Even my mama thinks my mind is gone.
The allusion here is quite easy to spot: the shadow of death alludes to Psalm 23 or the Psalm traditionally read at funerals.
• Afternoons and Coffee Spoons – Crash Test Dummies
Someday I’ll have a disappearing hairline.
Someday I’ll wear pajamas in the daytime.
Oh, afternoons will be measured out –
Measured out, measured with –
Coffeespoons and T. S. Eliot.
The allusion to Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock in one of the most famous from alternative music. It alludes to the Eliot quote: “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.”
• Scentless Apprentice – Nirvana
Like most babies smell like butter
His smell smelled like no other.
He was born scentless and senseless
He was born a scentless apprentice.
Nirvana always seems to come off with the peculiar reference, and this allusion to Patrick Süskind’s Perfume is no different. That scent they are alluding to is actually the blood of his twenty killing victims.
• Shadrach – Beastie Boys
“And the man upstairs, I hope that he cares.
If I had a penny for my thoughts I’d be a millionaire.
We’re just 3 M.C.’s and we’re on the go –
Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego!”
This song is another that is chock-full of allusions. This is one of the more obvious ones – to the Old Testament by referencing Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.