There are a lot of things musicians write songs about. Love. Partying. Rock Lobsters. However, other times, they write songs about other musicians. These songs take on all sorts of different iterations. Sometimes they are in ode to artists who were mentors or role models. Sometimes they are disparaging. Sometimes they don’t really take a stance one way or another.
There are an abundance of songs on this particular topic. Musicians have a lot of thoughts about music, obviously. We could never collect them all into one place, at least not without years of work. However, for your edification and enjoyment, here are a selected handful of songs about musicians. First, though, a little clarification.
Many songs fall into a gray area. They are only sort of about a band or artist. On many occasions, though, these artists are really more a point of reference than anything else. Take, for example, “Tim McGraw” by Taylor Swift or “Springsteen” by Eric Church. Those aforementioned musicians may get namechecked, but they are about lost loves and stuff. “Brian Wilson” by Barenaked Ladies was a real hard one to parse. It kind of is about him, but also not really. In the end, it felt right to make sure to name it, but not necessarily consider it a true example.
Additionally, we tried to focus on songs that make it explicit that they are about the musician. There are songs that are rumored to be about another musician, or are obliquely about another musician in ways that aren’t obvious upon listening. They technically count, but they weren’t really in the spirit, either, and they aren’t as intuitive. We also didn’t really include much in the way of rap diss tracks. There are a million of them we could include, but that would get repetitive because they are so thematically similar. Also, they are often kind of a bummer, by and large. However, it would have been unreasonable to completely excise them, because otherwise rap as a genre would have been excluded, and that didn’t seem right.
Also, songs talking about a bunch of musicians briefly don’t quite work either, but, before we get to the list, here’s Saw Doctors’ “I’d Love to Kiss The Bangles,” anyway.
Don McLean – “American Pie”
This is pretty much the quintessential song about other musicians. It’s overlong, and got all sorts of obtuse lyrics in it, but we all know the song is about “The Day the Music Died,” and Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper. “Buddy Holly” by Weezer doesn’t count, though. Good song, sure, but it’s not about Buddy Holly any more than it’s about Mary Tyler Moore.
Dead Milkmen – “Going to Graceland”
Yes, you could say this song is more about Graceland, Elvis’ house, but even that is so tied into Elvis as a person, it counts. We hear a lot about Elvis along the way. Elvis is the focal point of a few songs, of course, including “Walking in Memphis” by Marc Cohn. “Going to Graceland” is the best of them all, though. The Milkmen clearly had a better understanding of Elvis than they did the Beach Boys, if nothing else.
Flight of the Conchords – “Bowie”
When Flight of the Conchords had a TV show, they devoted an entire episode to David Bowie, as he appeared in the dreams of Bret to give him life guidance. This culminates in a song that’s about Bowie’s adventures in space, sung in a style pastiche of Bowie songs. It’s one of their better efforts, and that’s saying something, given how good Flight of the Conchords is. A shout out to Veruca Salt, too, for their song “With David Bowie,” which is not about Bowie, really. As for the man himself, Bowie has a few songs that are, spoken or otherwise, about other musicians.
Jay Z – “Takeover” and Nas – “Ether”
Jay Z and Nas had some issues back in the day. In the wake of the death of Biggie Smalls, a man who was no stranger to diss tracks, the two rappers were vying to be the king of the New York rap scene. Jay Z struck first with “Takeover,” which Nas then followed with “Ether.” The feud did not end there, but, eventually, and fortunately, they were able to set their issues aside, and accept the fact the feud both made them richer. This is presumably fine with Jay Z, who has settled into his role as staid businessman and father who would probably prefer people forget songs like “Heart of the City” exist.
The Flaming Lips – “Thank You, Jack White (For the Fiber Optic Jesus That You Gave Me)”
This song is, in truth, equal parts about Jack White and the fiber optic Jesus that he, presumably, gave Wayne Coyne. It’s seems funny now that Coyne and White would have had any congenial interactions, what with Coyne partying with Miley Cyrus these days while White picks fights with other musicians over “authenticity” or whatever nonsense he’s going on about. Helluva musician, though, and apparently a solid gift-giver.
Duran Duran – “Michael, You’ve Got a Lot to Answer For”
This song is from a 1997 album by Duran Duran, so you probably didn’t hear it. It’s about Michael Hutchence, the former lead singer of INXS. Hutchence died a month after the song was released. He’d probably like for you not to remember how.
Falco – “Rock Me Amadeus”
Falco’s sole hit is about one Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the famous composer. Even though the song is primarily in German, it still became a No. 1 hit in the United States. Clearly, people had Amadeus fever. It’s a pretty catchy song, too, even if you don’t know German.
Bob Dylan – “Song to Woody” and “Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie”
Bob Dylan loves Woody Guthrie. This is obvious in his music even when he isn’t singing songs that are explicitly in tribute to Guthrie. However, on multiple occasions, Dylan paid tribute to his hero in song, one folk music legend giving his respect to another.
Ben Folds – “Late”
Elliott Smith was a talented, troubled musician whose 2003 suicide (conspiracy theorists can keep their thoughts to themselves for the moment) rippled through the world of music. Folds, who is no stranger to a somber tune, decided to pen “Late” in tribute to his departed friend, who apparently played basketball like Matt Barnes. It’s a fittingly emotional tribute to an artist who was always very open emotionally in his own music.
Nerf Herder – “Van Halen”
Let’s lift the mood here with a lighter song. “Van Halen” is, as you probably guessed, about Van Halen. More to the point, it’s about how the guys in Nerf Herder loved David Lee Roth, but despised Sammy Hagar. One can only imagine how they feel about Gary Cherone.
Sonic Youth – “Tunic (Song For Karen)”
Feeling better now? Good, because here’s a song about Karen Carpenter, the songstress who died because of anorexia. The song is told from Karen’s point of view, and as clumsy as such a thing could have been in the wrong hands, Sonic Youth handles it well.
Drive-By Truckers – “The Night GG Allin Came to Town”
GG Allin is one of those guys whose awfulness seems fun on the surface when you don’t really think about it, but when you really take a moment to let it all sink in, he was a really f*cked-up and unpleasant dude. Anyway, if he and his crew of perverse cronies were coming to your town, it would be reason for concern, or at least a raised eyebrow. That’s why this song by Drive-By Truckers is about, as framed by a man telling his wife what he read in the paper, and it seems to be based on an actual 1991 show in Memphis. That, or Drive-By Truckers have a great skill with detail.
Uncle Tupelo – “D. Boon”
Uncle Tupelo is the band that would, eventually, spawn Wilco and Son Volt after a breakup. D. Boon is the man who, along with Mike Watt, turned The Minutemen into one of the most influential bands of their time. Then, Boon died in a van accident, and that was that. “D. Boon” meditates on Boon and, more importantly, his influence as a musician on artists such as Jeff Tweedy and Jay Farrar.
The Replacements – “Alex Chilton”
Much as the guys of Uncle Tupelo were inspired by D. Boon and The Minutemen, Paul Westerberg and The Replacements were influenced by Alex Chilton and his power pop band Big Star. While Chilton was still alive, The Replacements recorded “Alex Chilton.” Funnily enough, on the album “Alex Chilton” appears, Pleased to Meet Me, Chilton himself played guitar on their classic hit “Can’t Hardly Wait.” When The Replacements briefly reunited, and appeared on late night television, of all their songs, they chose to play “Alex Chilton,” which says something.
Pavement – “Unseen Power of the Picket Fence”
Pavement, in their style, created the most banal, but great, song about another band. Stephen Malkmus basically just tells us stuff about R.E.M. and their discography up to that point. “Time After Time” was his least favorite song, and all that. The song then devolves/awesomely turns into a Civil War reenactment, but that’s a story for another day.
Wesley Willis – “Alanis Morissette”
Wesley Willis has a song about Alanis Morissette. He also has a song about Radiohead, apparently. He’s Wesley Willis, though, so the differences are negligible.