The 10 Most Mentioned Songs in Books

Gabe Habash -- October 4th, 2012

There are a lot of cool things you can discover on Small Demons, a website that acts as a book content web, connecting what artists write about. For example, you can look at The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and see all the people, places, music, movies, TV/radio, books, food/drink, magazines, events, vehicles, and weapons mentioned in the book. Click on any of those things, say…Planet of the Apes (mentioned on page 301), and see that that movie was also mentioned in Trainspotting and The Rules of Attraction, among other books.

You can also use the site to find the most commonly referenced songs in literature. Here’s the top 10, with some choice quotes for each song.

 

10. “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen

 

“If there are any members of the American Parents Against English Gay Men with Mustaches who are offended by the inclusion of Freddie Mercurial on my show, you are welcome to lodge your complaints up Lord Rupert’s hole. Looking on the positive side for a moment, if a big one gets through SkyWeb and pulps the Big Apple into quarks and gluons, I can ask the great Saint Freddie in person what the bejesus ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ is about. The track before was dedicated to my ex-wife: The Smiths’ ‘Bigmouth Strikes Again’.”

-Ghostwritten by David Mitchell


On the radio, an eager voice encouraged everyone to “Wang Chung” tonight, which was one of the many confusing songs I figured I’d understand when I knew more of the world. Sort of like the lyrics to “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the comprehension of which I assumed required a familiarity with European arts and music. An educated person would know precisely what a scaramouch was and why he ought to do the fandango.

-The Ethical Assassin by David Liss

9. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana

 

The first present is going to be a mix tape. I just know that it should. I already have the songs picked and a theme. It’s called “One Winter.” But I’ve decided not to hand-color the cover. The first side has a lot of songs by the Village People and Blondie because Patrick likes that type of music a lot. It also has Smells Like Teen Spirit by Nirvana, which Sam and Patrick love. But the second side is the one I like the most. It has winter kind of songs.

-The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

 

We’re messing around at work, the three of us, getting ready to go home and rubbishing each other’s five best side one track ones of all time (mine: ‘Janie Jones,’ The Clash from The Clash; ‘Thunder Road,’ Bruce Springsteen, from Born to Run; ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit,’ Nirvana, from Nevermind; ‘Let’s Get It On,’ Marvin Gaye, from Let’s Get It On; ‘Return of the Grievous Angel,’ Gram Parsons, from Grievous Angel.)

-High Fidelity by Nick Hornby

 

8. “Billie Jean” by Michael Jackson

 

Aomame took in a long, deep breath, and slowly let it out. Then, to the tune of “Billie Jean,” she swung her leg over the metal barrier. Her miniskirt rode up to her hips. Who gives a damn? Let them look all they want. Seeing what’s under my skirt doesn’t let them really see me as a person. Besides, her legs were the part of her body of which Aomame was the most proud.

-1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

 

Dad had just discovered the Internet. He pulled up a clip that set the ardent mating displays of birds of paradise in New Guinea to Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.”

-Birds of a Lesser Paradise by Megan Mayhew Bergman

 

7. “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” by The Beatles

 

Granny removes her teeth and lies back, her bones grinding. Her chest heaves with exhaustion. Nancy sits down in the rocking chair, and as she rocks back and forth she searches the photograph, exploring the features of the young woman, who is wearing an embroidered white dress, and the young man, in a curly beard that starts below his chin, framing his face like a ruffle. The woman looks frightened—of the camera perhaps—but nevertheless her deep-set eyes sparkle like shards of glass. This young woman would be glad to dance to “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” on her wedding day, Nancy thinks. The man seems bewildered, as if he did not know what to expect, marrying a woman who has her eyes fixed on something so far away.

-Shiloh and Other Stories by Bobbie Ann Mason

 

On a crystalline blue day, we set off on a path behind our house. I carry a backpack with food, water, and sweaters—it gets chilly at the top—and Lachlann, for whom the ascent is a dawdle, carries a second pack. He also annoys us all by blasting “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” on his tape player and screeching along nonstop.

-Immortal Birds by Doron Weber

 

6. “Stairway to Heaven” by Led Zeppelin

 

Uncle Joley, who has brought a ukulele, is trying to play the beginning bars of “Stairway to Heaven.” He has almost got the notes right, but it sounds like sick luau music. To me it is not soothing, but it lulls Hadley to sleep. His head rests in my lap. The entire trip, Uncle Joley strums unlikely songs: “Happy Birthday,” the Mickey Mouse Club theme song, “Blue Velvet,” “Twist and Shout.”

-Songs of the Humpback Whale by Jodi Picoult

 

The colossus brayed. “No. It’s called and that’s what it is. In prison you discover some surprising things about your body, and some of us noticed a variance in fart pitch. And we had one guy was a real star. Nothing he couldn’t do—basso profundo to coloratura, whistles and quavers, tremolo. The Louis Armstrong of the asshole. It was simple after that. I just recorded samples—I had this little Casio digital sampler that looks like a wristwatch—and when I got out I spliced them together. People love it. We got ‘Jailhouse Rock’ and ‘Freebird’ on there, but ‘Stairway to Heaven’ plays for eight minutes and it is dynamite. A lot of studio work, but worth it. It wasn’t like we all got together in the Tabernacle Fart Choir—technology made it happen. And I had a couple hits after that, not farting, but in the same mode.”

-That Old Ace in the Hole by Annie Proulx

 

5. “Blue Suede Shoes” by Elvis Presley

 

The back door opens, and I feel my heart in my throat. It’s only Maddie coming in from the yard, breezing into the kitchen, singing “Blue Suede Shoes.” “The Pope has given me his blessing,” she says, and she goes on to explain that she and Arthur are starting to see eye to eye. “Zippity doo-dah,” she says. She stands with her hands on her hips, a smile on her face. “Look at that sunshine, gents. What a glorious day, and here you stand, both of you looking like you’ve seen a ghost.”

-River of Heaven by Lee Martin

 

2. In fact, about 1 percent of the static that sometimes appears on your television set is a relic of the Big Bang and, if your eyes were sensitive to microwave light instead of just visible light, then the sky at night would appear white instead of black, because it continues to glow from the heat of the Big Bang. Oh, and because atoms are so small, and are constantly recycled, every breath you take contains atoms that were once breathed by Julius Caesar and Elvis Presley. So a little bit of you formerly ruled Rome, and sang “Blue Suede Shoes.”

-The Gates by John Connolly

 

4. “Dancing Queen” by ABBA

 

“Yes, indeed, we do some ABBA. ‘Dancing Queen.’ That one always goes down well. In fact, it is on ‘Dancing Queen’ I actually do a little singing myself, a little harmony part. Sonja will tell you I have the most terrible voice. So we must make sure to perform this song only when our customers are right in the middle of their meal, when there is for them no chance of escape!”

-Nocturnes by Kazuo Ishiguro

 

The reason it was Walt Comeau’s fault was that Janine, Tick’s mother, played “Mama Mia” and “Dancing Queen” in her beginning and intermediate aerobics classes at Walt’s fitness club, then hummed these same songs at home. Only her advanced steppers were deemed ready for the rigors of Barry Manilow and the Copa Cabana.

-Empire Falls by Richard Russo

 

3. “We Are the World”

 

Brad laughed at his wife, his green eyes sparkling with amusement. “I want to see if you’re still this excited three months into it, when the shit’s hitting the fan and the tablecloths aren’t ready and you still don’t have anybody to sing the ‘We Are the World’ party song to guests who paid a small fortune to come to the shindig.”

-Substitute Me by Lori Tharps

 

Kimberly, who spent her free time carefully ripping holes in her brand-new Guess jeans, told me that I’d be better off being her assistant, because she was either going to be the president of Greenpeace or she would direct music videos for a living, but only ones with social messages, like “We Are the World.”

-Dixieland Sushi by Cara Lockwood

 

2. “Heartbreak Hotel” by Elvis Presley

 

I intended to go into the hall, then up the stairs with a sasquatch-like, banister-shaking tread, and along the hall to my room, where I was going to put on an Elvis Presley record and turn the volume up just loud enough so she would repress the desire to complain. She was beginning to worry about her ability to communicate with me. I didn’t have any intentional plans, I was merely acting according to a dimly felt, sluggish instinct. I was aware only of a wish to hear “Heartbreak Hotel” at the maximum volume possible without reprisals.

-Lady Oracle by Margaret Atwood

 

Outside, the candles have been lit. A torch flames from a metal holder—one of the silliest things I have ever seen—and blue lanterns have been lit in the trees. Someone has turned on a radio, and Elizabeth and some man, not recognizable, dance to “Heartbreak Hotel.”

-The New Yorker Stories by Ann Beattie

 

1. “Hey Jude” by The Beatles

 

Paul said, “Mr. Maple, we’ll be moving Jude”—he called Judith “Jude,” as in “Hey Jude,” rather than Jude the Obscure—”in here, but if you wanted to finish watching the Super Bowl I bet it’s on in the lobby downstairs. I don’t think they want you to stay on this floor.” Already, he seemed more mature, and slightly stooped.

-The Afterlife and Other Stories by John Updike

 

The late afternoon light was pouring in like a visitor from space, which after all it was. She absorbed the burgundy atmosphere of plant fronds and crystal paperweights. In the waiting room she had been listening to “Hey Jude” on the intercom, and she felt wrapped in its residue. She looked at the pictures of dreamy long-haired girls on the walls and thought with mild astonishment, “This is what a therapist is for.”

-Two Girls, Fat and Thin by Mary Gaitskill

8 thoughts on “The 10 Most Mentioned Songs in Books

  1. Thad McIlroy

    With hundreds of years of literature produced in English, French, Spanish, Italian, Russian & more do you really think that Hey Jude and Heartbreak Hotel have been mentioned more than Star-Spangled Banner, God Save the Queen, La Marseillaise, Beethoven’s Ninth and many others?

  2. buddy66

    The “Hey Jude” origin is clear to those of us who recall that The Beatles (especially John) were beatnik/hipster hip and familiar with the comedy of Lord Buckley:

    “There was a little ol’ boy on board, I think his name was Jude, say ‘Hey, Naz, can I make it out there witcha?’

    “The Naz say, ‘Make it, Jude!’

    “Ol’ Jude take about three steps, dropped his hole card and–viiip!–Naz had to stash that cat back on board.”

    –Lord Buckley. “The Naz”, circa 1955

  3. davidjameskeaton

    I wonder if such hugely popular hits are chosen because it’s so sticky getting rights to use lyrics. This way you can be pretty sure the song is playing in the reader’s head without typing out the chorus. If so, it’s too bad because saying, “‘Song Title’ was playing in the background” doesn’t quite capture the same vibe as a string of italicized lyrics where the reader has to work to figure out what song that was, just like you’d do in real life and/or a movie.

    In a recent collection, me and some other writers used YouTube to sidestep this dilemma and put out some fake soundtracks so the entire tune would go with our in-text titles:

    http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLZ24OuP_aYoqce5eYxOj3qd5QhJKpCTtL

  4. Keri Peardon

    I feel so hipster; none of my songs are on the list, LOL.

    My vampires listen to “Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon” album in my first book. In the second, U2′s “With or Without You” and Santana’s “Black Magic Woman” play in the background in two different scenes. In the third, I quote Dire Straight’s “Brothers in Arms” in the preface. One of my prequels will have Linda Ronstadt’s “Long Long Time” in the preface.

    Although, given the “Princess Bride,” “Star Trek,” and “Star Wars” quotes scattered throughout the series, I may not be hipster so much as geeky.

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