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Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024
The Observer

A literary playlist

Keri O'Mara
Keri O'Mara

We are inundated with films adapted from books, from bestsellers like “Gone Girl” and “50 Shades of Grey” to the more literary end of the spectrum with new releases of Philip Roth adaptations and P.T. Anderson’s wild take on Thomas Pynchon’s “Inherent Vice.”

Perhaps less noticeably, literature leaks into other kinds of media, sometimes unbeknownst to us entirely. I became curious about song adaptations of books for this very reason — after listening to a beautiful track from rock band Camper Van Beethoven for years, I realized recently that I had no idea what the song was about.

Its lyrics were strange and specific, but went entirely over of my head. After dismissing singer David Lowery’s verses as nothing but word salad, I finally delved into some research to understand the song. It was only then that I learned the song was based off of Thomas Pynchon’s famous novel “Gravity’s Rainbow.”

Being both an audiophile and a bit of a bookworm, I instantly started to wonder what other songs were literarily inspired, unnoticed by me. Some of the songs on this literary playlist are obvious retellings of classic novels (it’s no wonder what Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights” is about), but others revealed themselves only through reading, research and sometimes nothing but very careful listening.

I’ve always been one to associate books and music. With each book I read, I have a song or artist permanently associated. The folky Americana of the band Horse Feathers will always bring to mind Willa Cather’s fantastic novel “My Antonia,” and The Doobie Brothers’ “Black Water” will summon memories of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” years after 10th-grade English class.

But there’s something about an explicitly literary song that makes that’s even more satisfying, especially when you’ve read the book (though I will admit, I haven’t embarked upon “Gravity’s Rainbow” quite yet). Artists can retell a 600-word novel in a four-minute song, explore new perspectives of characters or appropriate a book’s theme for a whole new purpose. What’s best, these songs can stand alone, serve as a little literary vacation or even be inspiration to pick up that novel you’ve always been meaning to read. They may not quite be musical Sparknotes, but if you don’t have time for Pynchon or Orwell today, check out these songs and expand your reading list.


“Wuthering Heights” – Kate Bush

Based on Emily Brontë’s first (and only) published novel, Kate Bush’s song is also a first: it was the singer’s first single.

“All Her Favorite Fruit” – Camper van Beethoven

Though Thomas Pynchon’s novel “Gravity’s Rainbow” is never explicitly mentioned in the song, “All Her Favorite Fruit” explores the relationship between characters Jessica and Roger in the book, according to an interview with songwriter David Lowery in Popgurls.

“2 + 2 = 5” – Radiohead George Orwell has inspired several songwriters, especially through his powerful novel “1984.” The book served as an inspiration for artists like David Bowie and Eurhythmics. Radiohead was also inspired by Orwell’s dystopian tale, citing the book as an inspiration in several interviews.

“Pet Sematary” - Ramones Sometimes adaptations come in pairs. That was the case for “Pet Sematary,” a Ramones song written specifically for the film adaptation of Stephen King’s 1983 novel.

“Tom Joad” – Woody Guthrie Like Orwell, John Steinbeck’s influence can be seen in music for years after his 1939 masterpiece. Guthrie used his expert folk storytelling to sing his version the American classic.

“Lolita” – Throw Me The Statue Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita” is such an essential piece of literature, its name has become iconic. Indie band Throw Me The Statue’s version of the story, however, is an interesting and oddly upbeat take on the novel.

“Whip It” – Devo Pynchon’s legacy lives on in an unpredictable way in the classic 80s hit “Whip It.” Band members Mark Mothersbaugh and Jerry Casale told an interviewer at music website Songfacts that “Gravity’s Rainbow” was the main inspiration for the band’s most famous single.


Check out the full playlist below, and follow Scene on Spotify at ObserverScene