Most songs come from pretty obvious places – a bad breakup, an infatuation, the desire the jump someone’s bones. Then of course there’s the girl-power anthem, the patriotic country song, the gospel ballad, and the many other tropes we know so well. But occasionally, a truly original song is written, a song borne from an inspiration hitherto unheard of. In honor of those songs, here is this week’s list:
4 Songs With Bizarre Inspirations And Origins
1. “Maniac” by Michael Sembello
If you were born before 1980, you’ve undoubtedly seen Flashdance and are familiar with the song that allows ridiculously attractive welder Alex to gyrate her way into the Pittsburgh Conservatory of Dance. However, Michael Sembello was thinking of anything but girls in baggy sweaters and tights when he wrote the lyrics. He was enamored with a 1980 slasher film titled Maniac, and the original lyrics to the song are much more macabre, including the chorus:
He’s a maniac, maniac that’s for sure
He will kill your cat and nail it to the door
Yikes! The Flashdance filmmakers liked the beat, but they requested that Sembello tone down the words for the movie so they fit a girl who is a maniac for dancing vs. murdering household pets.
Other fun facts:
- This was Michael Sembello’s only hit song
- The music video for “Maniac” became wildly popular on MTV, in part because it was one of the first soundtrack-song videos to use footage from the film
- “Maniac” remains one of the highest-grossing soundtrack-songs of all time
- “Maniac” was nominated for an Academy Award in 1984, but a different song from the same soundtrack (“Flashdance…What A Feeling”) won instead
2.”Le Freak” by Chic
This may shock the youngsters, but there was a time where you could not liberally pepper your songs with f-bombs if you wanted anybody to listen to them. When Chic band-members Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards were denied entrance to Studio 54 by a snooty bouncer, they spent the night drinking champagne and writing the lyrics to “Le Freak”, which originally featured the refrain “Awwwww, $%*& off!” After sobering up slightly and realizing there was no way that particular expletive was making it on the radio, they changed the words to “Awwwww, freak out!”. “Le Freak” became a #1 hit, and Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards presumably strolled right in the front doors of Studio 54 and dropped an upper-decker in every one of its toilets. 30 years later, Cee-lo Green struck a blow for profanity-lovers everywhere by making the f-word not only the chorus but the title of his biggest hit.
3. “Ben” by Don Black
While “Ben” was never one of Michael Jackson’s biggest hits, it did reach #1 on the American Billboard for one week and appeared on numerous Jackson anthologies. When the song was re-recorded by Marti Webb in 1985, it became a UK top-ten hit all over again. Just listening to the lyrics, you would think the song was written for Ben, a lonely shy boy in need of a friend. It’s all about the power of two kids finding companionship together, right?
Ben, the two of us need look no more
We both found what we were looking for
With a friend to call my own
I’ll never be alone
And you my friend will see
You’ve got a friend in me
No. Actually, the song is about a telepathic rat. It appeared on the soundtrack to the 1972 horror film Ben where crazy smart killer rats scurry around murdering people, except the titular rodent who befriends a young boy. So this universal ballad to friendship is much less universal in its inspiration than in its application. Knowing this, I still prefer to picture the lyrics as describing something out of Where The Red Fern Grows, vs The Rats of NIMH.
Other fun facts:
- Michael Jackson was already the youngest singer to score a #1 hit thanks to “I Want You Back”, but “Ben” gave him the 3rd place finish as well
- “Ben” was originally meant to be sung by Donny Osmond, but when his tour schedule got in the way, the song was punted over to Jackson
- “Ben” was nominated for an Academy Award and won a Golden Globe for Best Song in 1973
4. “I Can’t Make You Love Me” by Mike Reid and Allen Shamblin
Bonnie Rait recorded “I Can’t Make You Love Me” for her Luck of the Draw album in 1991. The song had been written that same year by Mike Reid and Allen Shamblin after they read a story in the newspaper about a man who got drunk and shot his ex-girlfriend’s car. Now, I could write an entire article on songs that took their inspiration from news headlines, but I’m going to focus on this one because “I Can’t Make You Love Me” is one of the greatest country ballads of all time, and the real-life subjects weren’t as tragic as most other “ripped from the headlines” songs like “I Hate Mondays” or “Sunday Bloody Sunday”.
Reid and Shamblin were captivated by one particular quote from the story: when the judge asked the shooter if he had learned anything from his arrest, he said:
I learned, Your Honor, that you can’t make a woman love you if she don’t.
The lyrics as finally written were thus:
Turn down the lights
Turn down the bed
Turn down these voices
Inside my head
Lay down with me
Tell me no lies
Just hold me close
Don’t patronize me
‘Cause I can’t make you love me
If you don’t
You can’t make your heart feel
Something it won’t
Here in the dark
In this final hour
I will lay down my heart
And feel the power if you want
No you won’t
The song was, and remains, wildly popular because of the emotional depth in the lyrics and in Raitt’s vocal performance, which was captured in a single incredibly raw take. She said:
Though the vocal range required is extensive, Raitt continues to perform the song on every concert tour. She says:
I mean, ‘I Can’t Make You Love Me’ is no picnic. I love that song, so does the audience. So it’s almost a sacred moment when you share that, that depth of pain with your audience. Because they get really quiet and I have to summon some other place in order to honor that space.
Other fun facts:
- “I Can’t Make You Love Me” has been covered by more than 30 artists, including Bon Iver, Prince, Kenny Rogers, Boyz ll Men, and Kelly Clarkson
- It’s one of the most oft-sung songs on TV talent competitions like American Idol, The Voice, and The X Factor