It’s an awkward feeling when you overhear your friends talking about you. Sometimes it’s a deliberate barb, a calculated sentence dropped by an ex-lover into the ears of your mutual friends. You might hear someone ranting about you when they think that you’re out of earshot. Or, as in Courtney Love’s case, you receive a notice that your enemy Dave Grohl has asked a court to evaluate your mental condition.
Imagine if that song is a number one hit single– and you’re the famous who inspired that single.
Here are eight songs that are veiled dedications to another famous person. The Beatles air their grievances. Amy Winehouse pines after Nas. Joan Baez reflects on her unsuccessful fling with “the unwashed phenomenon”. And Carrie Fisher advises that if you can have Paul Simon write a song about you, go for it.
As always, we encourage you to add to this list in the comments section.
1. Carly Simon – “You’re So Vain” (1972)
Ever been with someone and you realize that they check themselves out more than they look at you? Carly Simon hears your cries, ignored ladies and gentlemen.
Simon’s catchy, tongue-in-cheek number one hit is the original celebrity burn song. Unfortunately, it’s never been confirmed about who the main inspiration for this song was. Despite the less-than-complimentary lyrics, a slew of famous names have claimed to be the inspiration. The list includes Mick Jagger, Warren Beatty, David Cassidy, James Taylor, and Cat Stevens. The British tabloids speculated that the song was about Simon’s openly gay record producer David Geffen, whose full name contains the letters that Simon has identified as belonging in the subject’s name. The identity of the mystery man has yet to be confirmed by Simon.
2. Foo Fighters – “I’ll Stick Around” (1995)
The Foo Fighters’ self-titled debut album contained a zinger marked straight for tow-headed hot mess Courtney Love. “How could it be that I’m the only one who sees your insanity?” asks Dave Grohl, seven years before filing a court request for Love to undergo a psychiatric evaluation.
Cobain’s widow Love and his Nirvana bandmate Grohl spent years duking it out in the legal system, soundwaves, and Twitterverse. The decades-long feud shows no signs of dissipating: in 2012, Love accused Grohl of shacking up with her teenage daughter Frances Bean. That incident resulted in the hilarious quote from Frances Bean: “I’m in a monogamous relationship and very happy. Twitter should ban my mother.”
3. Leonard Cohen – “Chelsea Hotel #2” (1974)
It’s not very often that a tribute song contains a description of getting a blowjob from the deceased. Cue Cohen’s bittersweet tribute to Janis Joplin. “I wrote this song for a great singer who died at the end of the ’60s,” Leonard Cohen said in a 1974 interview.
“But you got away, didn’t you, baby? / You just threw it all to the crowd / You got away, they can’t pay you now / For making your sweet little song.”
Cohen has since expressed regret for exposing Joplin as the subject of the song. While we can’t speak for Joplin, the depiction of her as a courageous, loving singer captures her independent spirit. Maybe she would have even liked the fellatio line.
4. Paul Simon – “Hearts and Bones” (1983)
“If you can get Paul Simon to write a song about you, do it,” Carrie Fisher (Star Wars) writes in her autobiography Wishful Drinking. Fisher and Simon shared a turbulent seven-year relationship, which included a short-lived marriage and many an angry love song. Fisher also commented to David Letterman, “It’s triply… to turn on the radio and hear yourself complained about in song.” According to Fisher, Simon wrote several songs about her including “Hearts and Bones”, “She Moves On”, and “Allergies”. Simon has not publicly identified Fisher as the subject.
“One and one-half wandering Jews / Returned to their natural coasts / To resume old acquaintances / Step out occasionally / And speculate who had been damaged the most.”
5. Joan Baez – “Diamonds and Rust” (1975)
Baez wrote this song about Bob Dylan. In 1961, Baez was an acclaimed folk singer who gave a much-needed boost to young, relatively unknown Bob Dylan’s career. She invited Dylan to play her shows, exposing him to audiences of 10,000 plus during her 1963 tour. Eventually, he didn’t pay back the favor: he reportedly snubbed Baez by inviting her to play on his 1965 tour but never letting her onstage. In 1975, she wrote “Diamonds and Rust”: “You burst on the scene already a legend / The unwashed phenomenon, the original vagabond.”
6. The Beatles – “Hey Jude” (1968)
Paul McCartney wrote this song for Julian Lennon, John Lennon’s five-year-old son. According to McCartney, he wrote the song to comfort Julian about his parents’ divorce. Lennon had recently left his wife and Julian’s mother Cynthia for Yoko Ono. The song was originally conceived as “Hey Jules” but changed to “Hey Jude” because McCartney thought it sounded better. Hilariously enough, John Lennon thought the song was about him, not his son. “I know I’m sounding like one of those fans who reads things into it, but you can hear it as a song to me”, John Lennon is quoted as saying in David Sheff’s work All We Are Saying: The Last Major Interview with John Lennon and Yoko Ono.
7. John Lennon – “How Do You Sleep” (1971)
After years of being pricked in Paul McCartney’s solo songs, Lennon fired back with “How Do You Sleep”. Lennon felt that McCartney’s recent solo album contained a few thinly veiled remarks about him, namely on the track “Too Many People”. McCartney later admitted that the track was indeed about his songwriting partner. While not unprovoked, Lennon’s reply was certainly heavy-handed. Rolling Stone condemned the song. Ringo Starr reportedly visited the studio while the song was being recorded and left after its content upset him. Lennon later back-pedaled and, in hindsight, stated that many of the accusations he makes in this song also applied to himself.
“So Sgt. Pepper took you by surprise / You better see right through that mother’s eyes / Those freaks was right when they said you was dead.”
8. Amy Winehouse – “Me and Mr. Jones” (2006)
Winehouse’s saucy ballad “Me and Mr. Jones” was cryptically dedicated to hip-hop artist Nas. The song references his daughter Destiny and Nas’s birthday, September 14th, which he shared with Winehouse. Winehouse and Nas went on to work together on several projects, including their sultry duet “Cherry Wine”. Both Nas and Winehouse confirmed that the song is about him.
“Mr. Destiny, nine and fourteen / Nobody stands in between me and my man / ‘Cause it’s me and Mr. Jones.”