Neil Tennant of Pet Shop Boys

Words and music

The bookish thrill of recognising the literary references of the pop artists you love


This article is taken from the April 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Music, we know, is all about passion: and I don’t mean Handel’s Messiah. I’m talking about the contemporary currency of passion. I’m talking about the last half-dozen decades of popular music: rock, pop and dance, where a four-to-the-floor beat drives the body and frees the mind so that — as Funkadelic so memorably put it half a century ago — your ass will follow.

It is, in short, a visceral thing. (Viscera: the bodily organs, the pumping heart, the squirming guts.) It is instinctive and intuitive — babies can respond to music in the womb — not cerebral or rational. It is the driver of involuntary toe-tapping, head-nodding and booty-twerking. 

What more is there to say, or think, about pop music than the immortal words of Janice Nicholls on Thank Your Lucky Stars ? “It’s got a good beat and you can dance to it,” she would declare, adding, for the avoidance of doubt, “I’ll give it five.” 

There is a long and ignoble history of writing fiction about popular music

Naturally, I have said all this only so that I can continue with: I beg to differ. Great pop music, for me, is no less intellectually stimulating than a good book. It is not literature: sorry, Nobel committee, who dropped a beat by giving the laurels to Bob Dylan in the infamous year of 2016. 

Sorry, Faber, who continue to do good business with handsome volumes of the collected lyrics of our more inspired songwriters. But done right, music is poetry enhanced, literature with bells on, intellectual and cerebral. And it all comes down to the words. Words, to adopt the vernacular, is all I know. 

What I am interested in is the fertile territory where literature and music merge, the loam that results when music’s sand meets literature’s clay. Curiously, this interface works only in one direction. There is a long and ignoble history of writing fiction about popular music. Many fine writers have tried, but the likes of Don DeLillo’s Great Jones Street (1973), Iain Banks’s Espedair Street (1987) and David Mitchell’s Utopia Avenue (2020) all failed to hit the mark, largely because they — understandably — focused on the big personalities among the musicians rather than the music itself. (Not for no reason is “they’re so rock’n’roll” a phrase applied to telly-chucking, guitar-smashing, drug-ingesting bands in any genre, rock or not.)

There are more successful attempts. Jacqueline Crooks’s Fire Rush, reviewed elsewhere in this issue, works because it focuses on the effect of the music on the listener (as did Zadie Smith’s Swing Time (2016); or Willa Cather’s Song of the Lark (1915), which used music as a springboard to write about ambition and the individual.

No, the books-and-music diode operates only in the other direction: and what has always delighted me more even than a clever lyric is a lyric derived from an impeccably literary source. It doesn’t just chime nicely in the brain — receiving by ear a line or phrase you’ve only previously consumed with your eyes — but also marks the singer out as a fellow reader. One of us!

Lloyd Cole Performs at the Union Chapel

The great bookish singers of my younger and more vulnerable years were those who drew on literary sources and added their own sprig of wit. So, while it was nice to hear — and be introduced to — Sylvia Plath’s poem “The Applicant” via The Blue Aeroplanes (a semi-underground outfit popular among students in the 1990s, whose website currently advertises them as “Bristol’s longest-running band” — and how on earth did they get the nod from the notoriously fussy Plath estate?), I was happier to pick up the seeded references myself. It added to the sense of the singer and me — technically the lyricist, though that was usually the same person — being in a secret club.

Who were the leading literary lyricists of my youth? Lloyd Cole (above) is a strong contender, whether with his band The Commotions (name-dropping Simone de Beauvoir and Norman Mailer) or in his later solo output, citing Nabokov’s antic masterpiece Pale Fire, riffing on literary ephemera (“It’s a Penguin Classics scene/Broken spine and faded green”) or even naming a whole album (Don’t Get Weird on Me, Babe) after a phrase used by Raymond Carver. (An aside: Norman Mailer was popular among literary pop stars less for his writing than for the rock-and-roll writer type he represented. The Manic Street Preachers in “Faster”, with typical smarty-pants arrogance, named him and others only in order to diminish them: “I am/stronger than Mensa/Miller and Mailer/I spat out Plath and Pinter”.)


Then there was Britain’s leading bedwetter-in-a-bedsitter, Morrissey (right), who married the literary-nerd look (NHS specs, scrawny shanks) with literary sources in his lyrics. In The Smiths, we had Keats, Yeats and Wilde namechecked in “Cemetry [sic] Gates”, How Soon is Now (“I am the son and heir/Of nothing in particular”) paraphrasing Middlemarch (“To be born the son of a Middlemarch manufacturer, and inevitable heir to nothing in particular”), and nicking Woolf’s concept of Shakespeare’s Sister in A Room of One’s Own as the title of a B-side. In Morrissey’s solo career, his appetite for closeted gay references and/or gangster chic gave us, in his 1994 album Vauxhall & I, a song named after Herman Melville’s homoerotic masterpiece Billy Budd, and the introduction of Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock gangsters Dallow, Spicer, Pinkie and Cubitt as “loafing oafs in all-night chemists” in the album opener “Now My Heart is Full”.

But for me the biggest cheeses of bookish pop were always and forever the Pet Shop Boys. Singer Neil Tennant had been in the word trade (deputy editor of Smash Hits magazine) and his literary lyrics were a treasure hunt for the geeky teen (and synth-pop was the realm where the geeks inherited the earth), even without the direct quotes.

Tennant gave us songs named after the closing words of Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin (“What have I done to deserve this?”), or one of Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels (Can You Forgive Her?), or inspired by Zelda Fitzgerald’s dictum that “She refused to be bored chiefly because she wasn’t boring” (“Being Boring”). 

I’ve tried other wordy music

He quoted Greene’s The Power and the Glory (“Feast days and fast days and days of abstinence”) and paraphrased Oscar Wilde (“And I, my lord, may I say nothing?”) in one song (“DJ Culture”). He has borrowed from John Betjeman, William Blake, David Lodge, Alfred Tennyson, Noel Coward, Samuel Beckett, Julian Barnes and more. One website which lists literary allusions in Pet Shop Boys songs currently runs to 68 entries (excluding the biblical).

The joy of finding a meeting of minds, when an artist you love references a book you know, is clear enough. Yet it was somehow even more special when the song came before the book. Lyrics are sticky, so when we have the line rattling around in our head already, then encounter it by chance in the book we didn’t previously know was the source — it’s a combustible combination. 

My example is Stephen Duffy’s 1993 song “She Wants to Share Her Magic”, which contains the lovely line “Her starry head drooped in despair”. Having already listened to the song until the pits on the CD metaphorically wore out, not long after I read Brideshead Revisited for the first time and saw the same phrase used by Waugh of Lady Julia Flyte — and my pop epiphany was complete.

These literary pop bagatelles became not just the soundtrack (on double tape deck, then Walkman, then Discman with ineffectual anti-skip control) to my teenage life but part of my identity. In the evergreen battles of music tribes, I was the team in the quiet, supercilious, gently mocking corner. Listening to The Divine Comedy — even the name bespeaks its founder Neil Hannon’s literary credentials — intone their way through a list of authors in “The Booklovers”, I knew I had come home.

It may be no surprise then to know that when Covid came calling and the future became unattractive to contemplate, I retreated to what we would now call my happy place. During my permitted daily exercise, I compiled playlists of my favourite literary pop, and walked and walked to the safe but still thrilling sounds of the late 80s and early 90s. 

In all honesty, I have remained stuck there — if stuck is the word for where you at heart want to be. I would, I suppose, like to move on to less shamelessly cerebral music, the sort that moves by feeling rather than meaning. But my tastes were made in those malleable years, though I feel occasionally the acute awareness that talking about 1990s music in the 2020s is just like talking about 1960s music during the 1990s.

I’ve tried other wordy music — rap and hip-hop, for example — but, however sharp and witty, there’s too much of a cultural gulf for a pallid fop like me to take it to my heart, even as I acknowledge the technical brilliance of Kendrick Lamar. Well, there is one rap song that speaks to me fully, which was in fact the first rap song to reach number 1 in the official UK charts. It even contains a literary reference: to Edmund Wilson’s history of revolutionary thought, To the Finland Station. It is “West End Girls” by Pet Shop Boys.

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