1. In Your Eyes by Peter Gabriel
About: Rosanna Arquette
This is one of two songs often said to have been inspired by Rosanna Arquette, the other being Toto’s Rosanna. Considering Gabriel and Arquette were living together at the time, there’s a good chance the speculation is correct. Toto, on the other hand, have said that their tune wasn’t about the actress, and that the fact she was dating keyboardist Steve Porcaro around the time it was written was just a coincidence.
2. Dear John by Taylor Swift
About: John Mayer
“The song “Dear John” is sort of like the last email you would ever send to someone that you used to be in a relationship with. Usually people write this venting last email to someone and they say everything that they want to say to that person, and then they usually don’t send it. I guess by putting this song on the album I am pushing send.”- Taylor Swift
3. Paper Doll by John Mayer
About: allegedly Taylor Swift
It is rumoured to be a rebuttal to Taylor Swift’s song “Dear John”. When asked if this was true Mayer said, “Yeah, songwriters write songs because of people, about people.” He went onto say, “Anything someone else wrote is their reception of a song. I don’t get involved with [it]. It’s none of my business.” Mayer told the Today Show.
However, Mayer sings, “You’re like 22 girls in one/ And none of them know what they’re running from/ Was it just too far to fall for a little paper doll?” This does seem a bit suspicious.
4. Hey Jude by Paul McCartney
About: Julian Lennon
A song McCartney wrote to comfort John Lennon’s son, Julian, during his parents’ divorce. It was originally titled “Hey Jules” but was later changed to “Hey Jude”. Cynthia Lennon recalls, “I was truly surprised when, one afternoon, Paul arrived on his own. I was touched by his obvious concern for our welfare… On the journey down he composed “Hey Jude” in the car. I will never forget Paul’s gesture of care and concern in coming to see us.”
5. Hearts and Bones by Paul Simon
About: Carrie Fisher
Written for his girlfriend at the time, Fisher influenced his music quite a bit during their short relationship. They got married in August of 1983 and divorced in 1984. Another song, “Graceland” is thought to be about seeking solace from the end of this relationship by taking a road trip.
6. Midnight in Montgomery by Alan Jackson
About: Hank Williams
This song was written about Hank Williams, who was from Montgomery, Alabama. It is a mid-tempo, largely acoustic ballad in the key of D minor.
The singer describes, while heading to Mobile for a New Year’s Eve show, makes a visit to a Montgomery grave (Williams died on New Year’s Day 1953), and encounters the ghost of Williams who thanks him for paying tribute before disappearing. The song also references several Williams hits, including “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” The song ends with the words “Hank’s always singing there”.
7. You’re So Vain by Carly Simon
About: Maybe Warren Beatty, Mick Jagger, James Taylor or Cat Stevens
In a 1989 interview, Simon acknowledged that the song is a little bit about Warren Beatty but said the subject of the song is a composite of three men from her L.A. days. In a 2007 interview, Beatty said, “Let’s be honest. That song was about me.” Simon has said that Beatty had called and thanked her for the song.
Over the years, Simon has divulged “letter clues”, and has claimed that the subject’s name contains the letters A, E, and R.
Shortly before the writing of the song, Simon was married to James Taylor; she has said that he was “definitely not” the subject of the song. David Bowie, David Cassidy and Cat Stevens have all been cited by the press as speculative candidates. In 2005, Simon’s ex-husband Jim Hart said he was sure that the song was not about anyone famous.
8. Sweet Caroline by Neil Diamond
About: Caroline Kennedy
Neil Diamond didn’t reveal the inspiration for the song until some 42 years after the its release. He said that he’d seen a picture of Caroline riding a horse on the cover of Life magazine some years earlier. In fact, it was the September 7, 1962 issue, which meant that this PG-13 tune (“hands… touchin’ hands… reachin’ out… touching me… touchin’ you”) was inspired by a four-year-old girl. Umm, that’s creepy.
9. Wonderful Tonight by Eric Clapton
About: Pattie Boyd
On 7 September 1976, Clapton wrote “Wonderful Tonight” for Boyd while waiting for her to get ready to attend Paul and Linda McCartney’s annual Buddy Holly party.
Of “Wonderful Tonight”, Boyd would say: “For years it tore at me. To have inspired Eric, and George before him, to write such music was so flattering. “Wonderful Tonight” was the most poignant reminder of all that was good in our relationship, and when things went wrong it was torture to hear it.”
10. Something by George Harrison
About: Pattie Boyd and Ray Charles
Many believe that Harrison’s inspiration for “Something” was his wife at the time, Pattie Boyd. Boyd also claimed that inspiration in her 2007 autobiography, Wonderful Tonight, where she wrote: “He told me, in a matter-of-fact way, that he had written it for me.”
However, Harrison has cited other sources of inspiration to the contrary. In a 1996 interview he responded and said “Well no, I didn’t [write it about Pattie]. I just wrote it, and then somebody put together a video. And what they did was they went out and got some footage of me and Pattie, Paul and Linda, Ringo and Maureen, it was at that time, and John and Yoko and they just made up a little video to go with it. So then, everybody presumed I wrote it about Pattie, but actually, when I wrote it, I was thinking of Ray Charles”.
11. Live Forever by Oasis
About: Kurt Cobain
Noel Gallagher had no understanding of what depression is and how it works and so he decided that Kurt was taking his incredible success and life in general for granted. The song was released on 8th August 1994, a couple months after the April 5th death of Cobain.
12. You Oughta Know by Alanis Morissette
About: Dave Coulier, Mike Peluso, Matt LeBlanc or Leslie Howe
In an August 2008 interview to the Calgary Sun, Coulier admitted to being the ex-boyfriend portrayed in the song. In 1997 the Boston Herald reported that Coulier “admitted the lines are very close to home. Especially the one about ‘an older version of me’ and bugging him [Coulier] ‘in the middle of dinner.’”
Other celebrities have been rumoured to be the lover in the song including: Mike Peluso (hockey player for the New Jersey Devils), Matt LeBlanc (actor) and Leslie Howe (musician and producer).
13. Cry Me A River by Justin Timberlake
About: Britney Spears
In 2002, Justin Timberlake began his solo (post-N*SYNC) career with a bang: His album, Justified, would go multi-platinum, and its lead single, “Cry Me a River,” would win the Grammy for Best Male Vocal Performance. But about that song and video—didn’t it all seem a bit too get-back-at-Britney-ish for a mature artist? Timberlake might have sensed as much, and claimed in interviews that the song wasn’t about her, and that the blonde in the video wasn’t meant to look like her. He kept up this story for years, and approximately zero people believed him.
In 2011, producer Timbaland confirmed that the song had come about after Timberlake got off a brutal phone call with Spears.
14. American Pie by Don McLean
About: Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, The Big Bopper
McLean has generally avoided responding to direct questions about the song lyrics, such as saying, “They’re beyond analysis. They’re poetry”, except to acknowledge that he did first learn about Buddy Holly’s death while fold newspapers for his paper route on the morning of February 3rd, 1959. The line “February made me shiver/with every paper I’d deliver.”
15. I’ll Stick Around by Foo Fighters
About: Courtney Love
The surviving members of Nirvana were constantly battling over royalties and song rights with Courtney Love; an indication of this is the exhaustive repetition of the phrase “I don’t owe you anything” in the song’s chorus.
16. Chelsea Hotel #2 by Leonard Cohen
About: Janis Joplin
Leonard Cohen has admitted that he wrote this song about an affair he had with Janis Joplin, although since her death, he has come to regret actually linking her name with the song. In a 1994 BBC radio interview, Cohen referred to it as “the sole indiscretion in my professional life.” He added regarding his kiss and tell: “Looking back I’m sorry I did because there are some lines in it that are extremely intimate.”
17. How Do You Sleep? by John Lennon
About: Paul McCartney
Following the release of McCartney’s album Ram earlier that year. Lennon felt attacked by McCartney, who later admitted that lines in the song “Too Many People” were intended as digs at Lennon. The lyrics, “The only thing you done was yesterday/And since you’ve gone you’re just another day” are directed at McCartney, the first lyric being a reference to The Beatles’ 1965 song “Yesterday”.
18. Me and Mr. Jones by Amy Winehouse
There have been rumours he was the subject floating around since 2006, when the song was released on Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black. The reason for the rumours: Nas’s real name is Nasir Jones; like Amy he was born on September 14; he has a daughter named Destiny; and these are some of the song’s lyrics — “Side from Sammy you’re my best black Jew … / Mr. Destiny 9 and 14 / Nobody stands in between me and my man / ‘Cause it’s Me and Mr. Jones.”
Speaking to XXL, Nas acknowledged the lyrics referenced his birthday and his daughter’s name and said, “I don’t really remember if Salaam, who was really close to her, introduced us, if he told me about it or not. I don’t remember right now. But, I heard a lot about it before I even heard the song.”
19. Uptown Girl by Billy Joel
About: Elle Macpherson and sometimes Christie Brinkley
If you’ve seen the video for the song, you may have the impression that Billy Joel, who cannot be accused of being a handsome man, wrote “Uptown Girl” for his supermodel girlfriend (soon to be wife) Christie Brinkley. That’s only half true. It turns out, the story is even more jealousy-inducing.
Joel started writing the song while he was dating a 19-year-old Australian model named Elle MacPherson. After that relationship ended, Joel took up with Christie Brinkley. The song as finished was about Christie. So it’s not the story of a shlubby rock star scoring a supermodel, it’s the story of a shlubby rock star scoring two supermodels. Damn you, Joel.
20. Killing Me Softly by Lori Lieberman
About: Don McLean
According to Lori Lieberman, the artists who performed the original recording in 1972, the song was born of a poem she wrote after experiencing a strong reaction to the song “Empty Chairs,” written, composed, and recorded by Don McLean.
Don McLean said he didn’t know the song described him, and when asked about it, he said “I’m absolutely amazed. I’ve heard both Lori’s and Roberta’s version and I must say I’m very humbled about the whole thing. You can’t help but feel that way about a song written and performed as well as this one is.”
21. Maybe I’m Amazed by Paul McCartney
About: Wife Linda
McCartney wrote the song in 1969, just before The Beatles’ break-up. He credited his wife Linda with helping him get through the difficult time.
22. Philadelphia Freedom by Elton John
About: Billie Jean King
The song was written by Elton John and Bernie Taupin as a favour to John’s friend, tennis star Billie Jean King. King was part of the Philadelphia Freedoms professional tennis team.
23. You Haven’t Done Nothin’ by Stevie Wonder
About: Richard Nixon
The politically aware song became Wonder’s fourth Number 1 pop hit and his tenth Number 1 soul hit. It was one of his angriest political statements and was aimed squarely at former President Richard Nixon. The Jackson Five sing the words “Doo da wop!” repeatedly in the chorus.
24. Hurricane by Bob Dylan
About: Boxer Rubin “The Hurricane” Carter
This is a protest song by Bob Dylan, co-written with Jacques Levy, about the imprisonment of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter. It compiles alleged acts of racism and profiling against Carter, which Dylan describes as leading to a false trial and conviction.
25. Candle In The Wind by Elton John
About: Marilyn Monroe and then, Princess Diana
Elton John’s first version of “Candle in the Wind,” from 1973, was a tribute to Marilyn Monroe. Following Diana’s death, lyricist Bernie Taupin rewrote the words to describe Diana’s circumstances, and Sir Elton played it at the princess’ funeral on September 6, 1997. As the world mourned, copies of the single flew off the shelves, and “Candle in the Wind 1997” remains one of the two best-selling singles of all time (there is some debate as to whether it surpassed Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas”).
26. Dude Looks Like A Lady by Steven Tyler
About: Vince Neil (Motley Crue)
The story goes that Steven Tyler and Joe Perry were hitting the bars in their pre-sobriety days. During their night out, Tyler spotted a beautiful woman and, even though she was facing away from him, fell instantly in love. He was getting all set to lay his charm on her when she turned around and… she wasn’t a she at all, but famously pretty Motley Crue lead singer Vince Neil.
27. Give It To Me by Timbaland
About: rumoured Fergie, Janet Jackson and Scott Storch
Timbaland has confirmed in an interview with MTV that fellow producer Scott Storch, with whom he co-wrote Timberlake’s 2002 single “Cry Me A River,” is the target of his verse. Though the production of “Cry Me A River” is credited solely to Timbaland, Storch has claimed that he was responsible for producing it.
There are contradictory reports that Justin Timberlake’s target is either Janet Jackson or Prince, while Nelly Furtado has denied in interviews that her verse is about Fergie despite many reports to the contrary.
28. Like A Rolling Stone by Bob Dylan
About: Edie Sedgwick and Andy Warhol
The title is not a reference to The Rolling Stones. It is taken from the phrase “A rolling stone gathers no moss.” Dylan got the idea from the Hank Williams song “Lost Highway,” which contains the line, “I’m a rolling stone, I’m alone and lost.”
It is rumored that this was written about one time debutante Edie Sedgwick, who was part of Andy Warhol’s crowd. She was the subject of an emotional tug of war between the Dylan camp and the Warhol camp.
29. Hollaback Girl by Gwen Stefani
About: Courtney Love
To search for inspiration, Stefani and Williams had a lengthy discussion in which Stefani said that she had yet to write a song about her intentions for pursuing a solo career. She remarked how the album was missing an “attitude song”, and she recalled a derogatory comment that grunge musician Courtney Love had made about her in an interview with teen magazine Seventeen.
Love said, “Being famous is just like being in high school. But I’m not interested in being the cheerleader. I’m not interested in being Gwen Stefani. She’s the cheerleader, and I’m out in the smoker shed.”
30. Girl On TV by LFO
About: Jennifer Love Hewitt
Every girl wants her boy to write a song about her, doesn’t she? And when the girl is a TV star, and the boy is in a pop group, well, it’s just gonna happen. Jennifer asked her then-boyfriend Rich Cronin (who died in 2010) to pen her a ditty; the result was this cheesy yet catchy song about a hot girl who is, you guessed it, on TV. It was a tended gesture, but didn’t prevent Hewitt from dumping Cronin in 2000. Years later, he revealed she had cheated on him.
31. It Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over by Lenny Kravitz
About: Lisa Bonet (of The Cosby Show fame)
Kravitz wrote this about actress Lisa Bonet. They had broken up and he was trying to reconcile their relationship. They were married from 1989-1991 and had a daughter, Zoe.
32. What Goes Around…/…Comes Around by Justin Timberlake
About: rumoured Elisha Cuthbert
Timberlake wrote this song with his producers Timbaland and Nate Hills. This is a song about a relationship that collapses because of cheating, and speculation was that Timberlake was singing about his ex-girlfriend, Britney Spears.
Justin explained that the song was written for his best mate Trace Ayala, who was dating the actress Elisha Cuthbert. Trace let a friend crash at his place, but this friend took up with Cuthbert - something Ayala found out about from a tabloid. “Don’t want to think about it, don’t want to talk about it” was something Justin told Trace that made it directly into the song.
33. Underneath It All by Gwen Stefani
About: Gavin Rossdale
The song was originally written by Stefani and Stewart during Stefani’s visit to boyfriend Gavin Rossdale in London. The two used backward string samples to write the song in only ten minutes. The song describes Stefani’s relationship with Rossdale, and the line “You’re really lovely underneath it all” comes from a journal entry that Stefani made after spending a day in the park with Rossdale.
34. Everytime by Britney Spears
About: allegedly Justin Timberlake
During an interview with Hip Online, Spears commented about the recording sessions, saying, “… Like with “Everytime” I wrote the whole thing from scratch on the piano. Musically there was no track or anything. I was just at my house and I did the whole thing by myself. And then I went and I played it for [Guy Sigsworth] and I just basically told him exactly how I wanted the song to sound. And he was so amazing because there’s a lot of producers you tell them things and they don’t get it. And you’re like oh, that’s not the right way. He got it just right. He was amazing. And so that song specifically, you know, I did everything.”
After Spears ended her relationship with pop singer Justin Timberlake in 2002, she made friends with her backing vocalist Annet Artani. They started writing songs together at Spears’s house in Los Angeles, and then traveled to Lombardy, Italy, where “Everytime” was written. Spears composed the music on her piano, and she developed the lyrics with Artani. According to Artani, the song was written as a response to Timberlake’s 2002 single “Cry Me a River” and various of his radio interviews. Spears has neither confirmed nor denied these allegations.
35. 7 Things by Miley Cyrus
About: Nick Jonas
In the video for ‘7 Things’ she wears Nick’s diabetes dog tags while singing about how his vanity and insecurity undermined their relationship.” Jessica Herndon of People similarly points out the necklace and the fact that Jonas, “who split with Cyrus in late 2007 after two years of dating – has Type 1 diabetes and is a spokesperson for awareness of the disease.”
While Jonas responded the allegations with, “I think it’s funny. Honestly, I’m not insecure, my friends are cool—so it can’t be about me!” According to Tiger Beat magazine, when Cyrus’ best friend Mandy Jiroux was asked if “7 Things” was about Jonas; she responded, “yes”
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