Top Ten: Songs about other artists

How do you sleep?
John Lennon and Paul McCartney
Today's Top Ten looks at songs written by artists about other musicians, whether favourably or not. Notable amongst them is the famous 'You're So Vain' by Carly Simon, the subject of which she refuses to disclose (but rumours hint at Warren Beatty or Mick Jagger) and, of course, John Lennon's attack on former songwriting partner Paul McCartney in the vicious 'How Do You Sleep?'.

More recent inclusions come from Hip Hop artists, a genre famed for in fighting, including an attack on Jay-Z by Nas, while bezzy-mate Kanye West bigs him up in his 'Big Brother'.

Read the full top ten below with added value YouTube clips allowing you to listen in and see how the compliment/insult is so expertly delivered.

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John Lennon – How Do You Sleep?



Subject: Paul McCartney
What he had to say: "Those freaks was right when they said you was dead."

“The sound you make is muzak to my ears”. Now them’s fightin’ words. After the Beatles split in 1970, fans were left heartbroken having to stand at the sidelines and watch the two main visionaries of the group take jabs at each other. The reason we picked this one in particular is because it’s just so painful to hear how much resentment Lennon carried towards McCartney. Besides, they just don’t make diss tracks like this anymore.

‘How Do You Sleep?’ is as barbed, biting and personal as they come but not once does Lennon make use of the F- or N-word (the latter wouldn’t make any sense in this case but that’s not the point). The reason Lennon wrote it was because he felt there were lines in some of McCartney’s songs, most notably ‘Too Many People’, that were intended as digs at him, McCartney later confirmed this to be true. If you’re wondering how other Beatles Ringo Starr and George Harrison were feeling while Lennon and McCartney were lyrically duking it out; Harrison actually played slide guitar on ‘How Do You Sleep?’, maybe to indicate whose side he was on or maybe just because he liked playing slide guitar. Starr seemed more intent on restoring the peace and visited Lennon while he was recording to tell him: “That's enough, John”.

Needless to say, the Beatles later reconciled. Since his death, all Lennon’s songs became part of his legacy, and sadly this one reminds us of a time when two of the most successful songwriters of our time weren’t getting along. But it’s just another part of reality, and realistically they are good songs for listening to, but not really for reminiscing.

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Leonard Cohen - Chelsea Hotel #2



Subject: Janis Joplin
What he had to say: "I don't mean to suggest that I loved you the best, I can't keep track of each fallen robin."

We all know Leonard Cohen’s songs have been covered ad nauseam, but that’s just because he’s such a ridiculously good songwriter. This song describes an encounter Cohen had with a certain female at the Chelsea Hotel in New York City. In 2009, pretty much everyone who knows the song knows who it’s about, but if you were to ask Leonard Cohen himself, he’d probably hesitate to tell you anyway. By the way, in case you didn’t know… the song is about
Janis Joplin.

Cohen performed the song for years and confirmed that it was indeed about Joplin but has come to regret those actions present day. In ’94 he released a statement describing the divulgence of who the song was about as: “an indiscretion for which I'm very sorry, and if there is some way of apologising to the ghost, I want to apologise now, for having committed that indiscretion.” We’re sure Janis Joplin’s ghost is just as stunned as we are about the fact that it took Leonard a couple of years of performing the song in front of thousands of people to realize that it’s a pretty dick-esque move to trumpet private sexual encounters with someone publicly. But she probably forgives you. After all, Ms. Joplin was all about the music.

We’re sure she can appreciate the beauty of ‘Chelsea Hotel #2’, despite the fact that she herself is “giving head on an unmade bed” in it. Thanks for that visual by the way, Leonard…

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Nas – Ether



Subject: Jay-Z
What he had to say: "How much of Biggie's rhymes is gonna come out your fat lips?"

We tried to refrain from adding rap beefs to the list because of the sheer vastness of that category, but there’s no denying this one. When one rap legend attacks another rap legend, the rest of hip-hop listens. Jay-Z’s ‘Takeover’ is probably the most famous track aimed at Nas and is considered the only worthy opponent for Ether. On it, Jay-Z goes all out on a Doors-sampling beat, letting Nas know that he sells more albums and at one point fucked Nas’ girlfriend, obviously enough material to drive any man nuts - let alone one of those vainglorious rappers.

Jay appeared to want to get in Nas’ head more than he wanted to get in his face; he didn’t resort to name-calling as much as Nas did and seemed much more comfortable in his position in general, until Nas retaliated with Ether. Considered by many hip-hop aficionados to be the baby mama of all diss tracks, no stone was left unturned and Ether pretty much went at everything Jay-Z consisted of.

All’s well that ends well though, and Nas and Jay ended the feud in 2005, thankfully without either of them getting shot. The only good thing that came from the beef was the spawning of these two classic hip-hop songs, even Jay admitted. When radio host Angie Martinez posed him with the question: "if you weren't you, would you think Ether was a hot joint?” he eloquently replied: “I would listen to the last verse and be like, 'wow . . . like . . . wow.”

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Kanye West – Big Brother



Subject: Jay-Z
What he had to say: "An idol in my eyes, God of the game."

Let’s stay on Jay-Z for a while... No worries though, he’s not gonna get two assholes ripped in one list, and definitely not by Kanye West. This is just to prove that a song about someone doesn’t always have to be scornful. Let’s rewind to the year 2001, where a fresh-faced Kanye was dying to show off his production chops and where Jay-Z was one of the most respected, famous rappers around. Kanye must have crapped his pants when he heard he was getting the chance to produce some tracks for Jay-Z. Four of Kanye’s beats made it to Jay-Z’s 2001 album ‘The Blueprint’, which only 8 years since its release is already considered a hip-hop classic.

Fast-forward to 2007 where Kanye has officially established himself as a espectable rapper after releasing The College Dropout and Late Registration to critical and commercial success. On his third album ‘Gradation’, Kanye finally decided to take the time out to toot Jay-Z’s horn on Big Brother. No gun talk, no boasting, just a token of gratitude and admiration. (“If you admire someone then go ahead and tell 'em, people never get the roses while they can still smell 'em”.) Kanye chronicles his relationship with Jay over the years and refers to him as ‘big brother’ throughout the entire song.

The admiration that Kanye feels for Jay is palpable and genuine and this rare humble side of Kanye hasn’t been seen sighted since Graduation dropped. But Kanye wouldn’t be Kanye if he didn’t remind us of where he himself stands in the rap game, he shows nothing but respect for Jay but, and we quote: “to be number one, imma' beat my brother.” We don’t think that’s going to happen anytime soon, but it’s certainly entertaining watching little brother try.

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Foo Fighters – Friend of a Friend



Subject: Kurt Cobain
What he had to say: "He's never been in love, but he knows just what love is."

The song isn’t quite the revealing view into Cobain’s psyche that we’d hoped for and maybe even expected to hear from Kurt’s close friend and ex-drummer after all these years, but the delivery makes up for that. Grohl sounds as if the tragic news was just broken to him yesterday. He languidly sings over nothing more than acoustic guitar strums: “He needs a quiet room/with a lock to keep him/ he plays an old guitar/ with a coin found by the phone.”…Yeah, that sounds like Kurt Cobain alright. Apparently the song was written not long after the two had met, which explains why the song isn’t all that that revealing; Grohl himself wasn’t all that close with Cobain yet.

He says of the song: “Yes, I'd just moved in with Kurt. I didn't know anybody. Olympia, Washington is fucking depressing enough and I was living with this person that I didn't know.” It was probably a conscious decision made by Grohl to release a song like this after all that time and not write another more obvious tribute to Cobain – he wrote another song entitled ‘My Hero’ that most fans think is about Cobain (‘there goes my hero, watch him as he goes’). But this tune does more than any ‘it-was-great-to-have-known-you’ song ever could, it speaks volumes that Dave would rather relive and share his first memories of Kurt. Yes, he does sound sorrowful but that’s only natural. You’re listening to someone paying his final respects, from a friend to a friend.

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Rufus Wainwright – Dinner at Eight



Subject: Loudon Wainwright
What he had to say: "Daddy, don't be surprised if I wanna see the tears in your eyes."

The risk you run with raising a musically talented family is that instead of exposing deep rooted feelings of rancour by getting drunk and yelling at you during the holidays (like a perfectly normal family), they have the nasty habit of working through their personal issues through song. Loudon Wainwright spawned not one but two singer/songwriters and that accomplishment has bitten him in the ass on multiple occasions. It began when Rufus Wainwright was born, Loudon wrote ‘Rufus Is a Tit Man’, a folk song in which he broadcasted Rufus’ breastfeeding habits… as a child of course.

The title of that song turned out to be quite ironic for Loudon as Rufus grew up to be a gay man. When Loudon’s daughter Martha was born, she got ‘Pretty Little Martha’, a heart-warming little ditty on how pretty little Martha was. Somewhere in that timeframe there were some domestic issues that resulted in Loudon walking out on his family. It was pretty much fair game after that. All grown up, Martha wrote ‘Bloody Motherfucking Asshole’ for her debut album, a track that in spite of what the title implies, actually conveys more sadness than it does anger. Rufus Wainwright wrote ‘Dinner at Eight’ for his third album ‘Want One’, a poignant, well-written and ‘tinged-with-sadness’ song that could be the anthem for many rebellious teens’ relationship with their father, if only they knew who the hell Rufus Wainwright was.

The song was inspired by an argument Rufus and Loudon got into over dinner one night and explains how Rufus feels about his father, his emotions rocking back and forth between anger (‘no matter how strong, I'm gonna take you down with one little stone’) and sadness (‘in fact you were the one long ago, actually, in the drifting white snow, who left me’). It is certainly the most beautiful song in the expansive and ever-expanding ‘Wainwright VS Wainwright’ song-catalogue and definitely worthy of its own spot on this list.

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Outkast – Aquemini



Subject: Each other
What they had to say: "It's him and I: Aquemini."

Outkast is the probably the most successful hip-hop duo ever. Two great artists that were born to be friends or two great friends born to be artists, either way, they’re extraordinarily talented and have left a big fat footprint on 90’s hip-hop with some seriously classic albums. The eponymous album this track came off of was their third one, and was released in 1998. On a modest, mellow, self-produced beat, Andre 3000 and Big Boi take turns in telling the world and each other how they’ve been through it all together.

From Big Boi’s verse: ‘Me & my nigga, we roll together like Batman & Robin/ we prayed together through hard times and swung hard when it was fitting’. The title of the track itself is a portmanteau of the rappers’ zodiac signs: Big Boi is an Aquarius and Andre is a Gemini. When it comes to its spot on our list, picking this song isn’t cheating, both of these guys are artists in their own right and when they take the time to reflect on themselves as a duo we’re forced to look at them individually as well.

When the Speakerboxxx/The Love Below double album came out in 2003, on which Big Boi and Andre released music separately on two discs, fans were concerned that it would gradually lead to an Outkast split. Big Boi quickly put an end to that reasoning on one of the tracks of his disc: ‘we just split it down the middle so you can see both the visions/ been spittin’ it damn near ten years, why the fuck would we be quittin’?’ Seriously, why would they? Aquemini means that these two men are supposed to be together in Outkast forever, after all; they’re attached at the zodiac sign.

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Latoya Jackson – He’s My Brother



Subject: Michael Jackson
What she had to say: "When I'm alone and I need him, he's with me like lightning"

Disclaimer: this list is in no way claimed to be a list of good songs
about other artists. It is merely a collection of good examples. That being said, dear God… this song will make you cringe harder than Lady Gaga covering a Beatles song (don’t even think it, Gaga!). Somewhere in the late 80’s, when Michael was busy making pop classics, his sister Latoya was writing this thing. Let’s focus on the horrible lyrics first, observe: ‘You may say he's eccentric/ I will admit that he's quite different/ Bad and Thriller, he's still the man in the mirror!’.

Dropping popular MJ references to bag Michael Jackson fans eh? Clever girl, that Latoya... At one point she even samples the bassline from Michael’s ‘Bad’ and whispers “he’s not bad” over it, which besides being quite shameless makes absolutely no sense! Let’s cut Latoya some slack though, people always say it’s the thought that counts. And even though the process between thought and action seems as though it may have been propelled by several hallucinogens, the song really is full of heart. The lyrics ‘Cause he is my brother/ yes I love him so’, are pretty sweet indeed.

One request though Latoya, next time you decide to declare your love for a sibling, bake them a nice batch of cookies and leave music-making in the hands of Michael and Janet (you may know them as ‘the talented ones’). Even though this song has faded into obscurity by now (and more elated about that, we could not be), we can’t help but imagine the late Michael spinning in his grave every time a poor unsuspecting soul stumbles upon it on YouTube. We hope that despite that, MJ is resting in peace.

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Aimee Mann – Just Like Anyone



Subject: Jeff Buckley
What she had to say: "So maybe I wasn't that good a friend, but you were one of us."

Jeff Buckley managed to leave quite an impression on the world in the short time he was on it. He left us with a classic album and made a ton of friends either covering his music or writing songs in his honour. PJ Harvey, Rufus Wainwright, Duncan Sheik, Steve Adey, Juliana Hatfield and Willie Nile are just some of the artists that paid tribute to Buckley through song. Because of the remarkable nature of their relationship and the poignant rueful lyrics she wrote, we chose Aimee Mann’s ‘Just Like Anyone’. “I hadn't known Jeff extremely well, but we kept bumping into each other here and there.

One night we met for a drink at a pub in NYC, and started writing messages to each other on a paper placemat that was there, instead of talking, because the music in the bar was really loud. An interesting effect of that was that we found ourselves writing things that we would never dare to say to each other out loud.”, Aimee Mann’s lyrics capture the worst possible feeling one could experience after a friend’s death, which is regret. ‘And I will wonder just like anyone, if there was something else I could've done’, she sings. All signs point to Buckley’s demise being no more than a tragic accident, and there’s not much Aimee Mann could’ve done about his death. But in life, she will probably forever regret not keeping in touch with him.

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Carly Simon - You’re So Vain



Subject: Unknown
What she had to say: "You're so vain, I'll bet you think this song is about you, don't you?"

Okay, so this entry IS cheating. Carly Simon’s mystery man phenomenon is one of those instances where you’re dying to know the secret, and then when you realize you probably never will… you lose interest. The target in Carly Simon’s ‘You’re So Vain’ has been a topic of discussion since the song’s creation in 1972. Simon tried to put an end to the ruckus by stating that the song was about “many vain men I've known in my life.” The fans said “fuck that” and proceeded to collectively cogitate and toss around possibilities…

Contenders for the role of ‘poor son of a bitch’ in the song have been numerous in amount; Warren Beatty and Mick Jagger have been
mentioned most often. The latter would be quite strange though as he actually provides back up vocals for the song. Some other aspirants are Bob Dylan, James Taylor, Jack Nicholson, Cat Stevens, Kris Kristofferson, David Bowie and… you. Obviously the ironic part is that whoever thinks this song is about him, fell right into Simon’s lyrical bear trap, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it isn’t about someone in particular.

Maybe some day in a state of boredom Carly will decide to put us gossiping losers out of our misery and reveal the identity of ‘vain man’, we hope that when that day comes there’ll be someone around who actually gives a shit.

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Words by Hemza Lasri

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