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
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:

We’d try to do it again and I just said, ‘You know, this ain’t going to happen.’

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
Author: 4 years ago

Music is one of the most crucial components of any movie.  The soundtrack to a film helps set the tone of each scene, heightening the emotion portrayed on screen, or subtly contrasting the film’s content to bring new meanings to an ostensibly straight-forward event.  Even “silent” films usually had a musical soundtrack, since the score can communicate just as much, if not more, than the dialogue of a movie.

The 4 Most Effective Uses Of Music In Movies:

Warning: Spoilers Ahead

1. “The Times They Are A-Changing'” – Watchmen, Opening Credits 

Arguably the richest and most informative opening credits sequence in all of cinema, I could write an entire book on the first 5 minutes of Watchmen. The film opens with a quick overview of the 20+ years leading up to main time-period of the movie.  We touch on the major historical events of the 40s-60s, as altered in this parallel universe populated by superheroes.  Each frame not only details characters and historical events, but is replete with symbolism from other sources as diverse as Batman comic books, the iconic Kissing Sailor photograph, and Leonardo DaVinci’s Last Supper.

Bob Dylan’s song “The Times They Are A-Changing” is a perfect choice to play throughout, highlighting not only the vast political and cultural shifts of that era, but also the impact of superheroes in a normal world, and the corruption of the superhero culture from the heyday of WWll triumph to the divorce, abuse, retirement, incarceration, and death that plagues many of the seemingly untouchable men and women of steel.  Because Bob Dylan’s song was politically charged to begin with, it is a strong accompaniment to scenes like the slaughter of peaceful protesters, and it humanizes the superheroes as the lyrics allow us to identify with the universal mortal discomfort with inevitable change.

2. “In The House, In A Heartbeat” – 28 Days Later, Jim’s Rampage

This song is one of the best examples of an audio-induced emotional build that climaxes with the action.  It starts out very slow and soft, and gradually grows louder and more intense with its inexorable beat that peaks with the most furious parts of Jim’s rampage.  For those who haven’t seen this movie in a while, mild-mannered delivery boy Jim (Cillian Murphy) wakes up in the middle of a zombie apocalypse.  His companions, romantic interest Selena and underage Hannah, are captured by soldiers intent on gang rape.  Jim escapes execution, and for a moment we think he might leave the girls to their fate, because what can one person do against a cavalcade of highly armed soldiers?  Instead, Jim releases a zombie inside their compound and all hell breaks loose.

The music slow burns as the zombie begins attacking soldiers, and  begins to peak as the formerly timid Jim stabs the cook right in the guts.  We realize that Jim is not planning a subtle rescue, but rather a full berserker smash and grab.  The beat pauses momentarily as a heavily drugged Hannah hides behind a mirror, inches away from a slavering zombie, then reaches its full crescendo as Jim brutally slaughters Selena’s would-be attacker.  Selena, believing Jim’s rage to be zombie-induced, grabs a machete, and the final pounding beat climaxes as swings the blade at Jim’s throat.  She said she would kill him in a heartbeat if he ever became infected.  She stops and the music stops.  She can’t kill him because she loves him. Jim says, “That was longer than a heartbeat.”  Perfect emotional fulfillment of the viewer’s desire for revenge and the resolution of their relationship, all in one 5-minute music-driven masterstroke.

 3. “Stuck In The Middle With You” – Reservoir Dogs, Ear-Cutting Scene

This scene is an example of what I was talking about above, where the music in a scene contrasts so painfully with the content that we’re forced to experience the action in a whole new way.  In this particular part of the movie, Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen), a criminal in the midst of a jewel heist, has captured a police officer.  Seeking information on a potential set-up, he ties up the officer and prepares to torture him.  Mr. Blonde begins his interrogation by saying, “I don’t give a $&%* what you know or don’t know, I’m going to torture you anyway.  It’s amusing to me to torture a cop.  You can say anything you want, because I’ve heard it all before.  All you can do is pray for a quick death, which you ain’t going to get.”  Some of the most chilling words imaginable, but Mr. Blonde follows this up with the query, “You ever listen to K-Billy’s Super Sounds Of The 70s?  It’s my personal favorite.” He flips through the radio stations, until he finds what he’s looking for: “Stuck in The Middle With You”, by Stealer’s Wheel.

The mellow, retro strains of the song fill the abandoned warehouse, and the torturer starts doing this grandpa-esque shuffle dance as he sings along to the song.  He capers around, the music and the dancing in complete opposition to his sociopathic menace, then he grabs the police officer by the face, slashes his cheek, and cuts off his ear.  The distinctive and jarring impact of the song made this the most iconic scene in Tarantino’s cult classic, and sparked renewed and lasting interest in the song that peaked at #6 on the billboards in 1973.

4. “Ain’t No Sunshine When She’s Gone” – Notting Hill, Montage Of Seasonal Sorrow

In case you thought the only movies I enjoy are blood soaked and adrenaline-inducing, I submit my final entry, late 90’s rom-com Notting Hill.  Romantic movies are famous for their falling in love montages, and only slightly less so for their montages of heartbroken sorrow.  I believe that “Ain’t No Sunshine When She’s Gone” is the accompaniment to the absolutely finest example of the latter.  After being dumped by mega-superstar Anna Scott (Julia Roberts), Will Thacker (Hugh Grant) takes a stroll down iconic London street Portabello Road.  Will walks through time and seasons, beginning in summer.  He passes a pregnant lady and his sister’s new boyfriend, then strolls through autumn and winter, the depths of his despair simultaneous with the breaking point in his sister’s relationship.  He passes the lovers final break-up as spring dawns.  The pregnant lady is now a new mother with a child, and Will takes off his jacket and throws it over his shoulder.  The sun is out and he is finally starting coming out of his tri-season depression.

The single continual shot is a nifty visual trick.  The lyrics of Bill Wither’s “Ain’t No Sunshine When She’s Gone” express both romantic sorrow and a nod to weather patterns that mirror Will’s moods.  It’s a unique and creative take on the classic shots of the moping, unwashed dumpee, and the succinct stroll down the street shows Will’s return to his staid routine after the whirlwind of his celebrity courtship.  The quality of the song and the cleanness of the scene make this the perfect rom-com montage.

Author: 4 years ago

It’s no big surprise that a lot of hits weren’t written by the people who sing them.  For every Britney Spears or Kelly Clarkson, there’s an army of song-writers mixing up their best magic to make somebody else insanely famous.  But what you may not know is that even famous musicians sometimes give their songs away.  And then sometimes they totally regret that decision.

5 Musicians Who Gave Away Their Songs And Wanted Them Back:

1.Prince: “Nothing Compares 2 U”

Prince originally wrote “Nothing Compares 2 U” for his funk band The Family. It was released in 1985 on The Family’s one and only album, but it wasn’t promoted as a single and nobody really noticed it.  When Sinead O’Connor recorded her infinitely more haunting version in 1990, it became a massive worldwide hit, spurred in part by the iconic music video directed by John Maybury.  The video focuses heavily on Sinead O’Connor’s highly distinctive face, and the real-life tears spurred by the lyrics “All the flowers that you planted, Mother, in the back yard, all died when you went away” (Sinead’s beloved yet abusive mother had recently passed away).

Prince didn’t take kindly to an unknown Irish singer catapulting to stardom on the back of the song he wrote.  He subsequently recorded and released several versions of “Nothing Compares 2 U”, but none came close to approaching the popularity of Sinead’s.  Most people never even knew Prince wrote the song.

2. Jessie J “Party In The USA”

Jessie J repeatedly struggled to break out in America, long after she became famous in the UK.  She might have had more luck if she’d held onto the extremely ‘Murica-centric “Party In The USA” instead of selling it to Miley Cyrus.  It became Miley’s first smash hit, helping her bust out of her Hannah Montana image (along with a healthy side-dish of scandalous pole-dancing).  Jessie regretted caving to the wishes of her label, who didn’t consider the song “edgy” enough for her, but it’s not certain she could have made the song a hit anyway.  After all, Miley Cyrus had the cowboy boots and down-home background to make a stars and stripes anthem, while Jessie J has covered the song live multiple times to no great effect.

3. Lupe Fiasco, “Nothin’ On You” and “Airplanes”

Poor Lupe Fiasco gets to be on this list not once but twice, with two songs stolen by the exact same artist!  First Lupe wrote “Nothin’ On You”, which was rejected by his record label but picked up by then-unknown artist B.o.B. (aka Bobby Ray Simmons, Jr.).  B.o.B. made “Nothin’ On You” his debut single, and shot to the top of the charts in both the US and UK.  Lupe was so distraught at his missed opportunity that he became, in his words:

Lightly suicidal, at moments medium suicidal.

I’d hate to hear what his state of mind became when he recorded “Airplanes” for his own album, only to have it stolen again by that bastard B.o.B.  “Airplanes” became B.o.B.’s third single, and another massive hit.  I presume Lupe Fiasco’s record label hid the scissors, tape dispensers, and anything else with a sharp edge for the remainder of the year.

4. Usher “Somebody To Love”

Usher was one of the strongest and earliest promoters of the youthful Justin Bieber, but I’m not sure he meant to hand Bieber one of his biggest hits.  “Somebody to Love” was originally recorded for Usher’s 6th album, but as the release date was repeatedly delayed, Usher passed the song along to his protege.  Bieber titled his entire album after “Somebody To Love” and made the song his lead single.  It became a bigger hit in the US, UK, Canada, Australia, and Japan than anything Usher has released in the last 5 years.  Usher apparently decided to capitalize on that popularity: while the original song only included Usher on background vocals, he featured heavily in the music video, then re-recorded the song for his 7th album, this time with Usher as the lead singer and Bieber on backup.

5. Ne-Yo’s “Irreplaceable”

The song “Irreplaceable” went through many alterations before Beyonce picked it up.  Ne-Yo’s song was originally written from the male perspective, tweaked for R&B singer Chrisette Michelle, then re-written to suit a female country singer like Shania Twain.  Finally Beyonce picked it up, worked her magic, and took it to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Ne-Yo regretted giving up the song, not because it became such a successful hit, but because the lyrics were originally so personal and specific to himself.  He said:

One song that I gave away and didn’t want to is Beyonce’s ‘Irreplaceable’.  I honestly wrote that song for myself.

Author: 4 years ago

Since Pandora’s inception in 2000, it’s been the go-to choice for both those new to internet radio and those who have the sampled the whole range of offerings.  Pandora piggybacked on the Music Genome Project, using the same algorithms to deliver playlists catering to the listener’s tastes, preferences, and responses via “like” and “dislike” votes.  Apple is challenging the juggernaut with their new iTunes radio service, which uses similar algorithms, plus your iTunes history, to create custom playlists.  Apple also has the benefit of a massive licensing catalogue, the only challenger to Pandora’s extensive access.

So which service is better?  Which deserves your hard-earned shekels for a premium subscription?

Pandora Vs. iTunes Radio:

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Author: 4 years ago

When musicologist Dr. Alison Pawley and psychologist Dr. Daniel Mullensiefen teamed up, they formed an ambitious goal: to prove which 10 songs were the most catchy.  OF ALL TIME!  OUT OF ALL SONGS EVER CREATED!!!  (I added the caps and exclamation points – Pawley and Mullensiefen aren’t the most excitable pair).

But, they did come up with a very specific list of songs.  After analyzing thousands of volunteers and suffering through innumerable hours of volunteer karaoke, Pawley and Mullensiefen determined that the following songs take the cake:

The 10 Catchiest Songs Of All Time:

1. “We are the Champions” by Queen (1977)

2. ‘”Y.M.C.A” by The Village People (1978)

3. “Fat Lip” by Sum 41 (2001)

4. “The Final Countdown” by Europe (1986)

5. “Monster” by The Automatic (2006)

6. “Ruby” by The Kaiser Chiefs (2007)

7. “I’m Always Here” by Jimi Jamison (1996)

8. “Brown Eyed Girl” by Van Morrison (1967)

9. “Teenage Dirtbag” by Wheatus (2000)

10. “Livin’ on a Prayer” by Bon Jovi (1986)

How Did They Come Up With These Songs?

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Author: 4 years ago

Sometimes it seems like the only music choices for Halloween are “The Monster Mash” or those CDs that play an endless loop of slow footsteps, creaky doors, and wind blowing.  Well, never fear (or fear a lot – that’s kind of the point of the season) – I have a list of 10 songs to play at your next Halloween party.  While some are Halloween-themed, others are just spooky, creepy, or perfect for a Walking Dead-themed make-out session.

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Author: 4 years ago

The street cred of hip-hop artists like Jay Z, Dr. Dre, and and 50 Cent relies heavily on their thug history, with the intimation that the pimpin’, dealin’, and shootin’ they rap about has some actual basis in reality.  However, it seems like rappers are outed as middle-class frauds so often (P Diddy played football at Saint Michael Academy then attended Howard University, Rick Ross worked as a prison guard), that we’ve begun to believe it’s all a load of baloney, that even the most hard-core musicians probably watch Mad Men and surf Pinterest between recording sessions.  But as our list this week will show, there are plenty of musicians of all genres who are indeed violent, vicious, and downright nuts enough to kill somebody.

5 Musicians Who Actually Killed People:

1. Vince Neil

For those who claim celebrities can get away with murder, Vince Neil provides a handy case study.  On December 8th, 1984, the Motley Crue lead singer loaded his blood-stream with more than twice the legal limit of alcohol and crashed into an oncoming car.  His passenger, Finnish drummer Nicholas Dingley, was killed, and the occupants of the other car were sent to intensive care.  Though convicted of vehicular manslaughter, Neil served only 15 days in jail.  His real punishment was a hefty $2.6 million settlement to the surviving victims.

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Author: 4 years ago

The entire line of Baby Mozart products is predicated on the studies of Dr. Alfred Tomatis in 1957, and a later study in the 1990s, indicating that classical music from composers like Mozart might positively influence the brain development of infants.  Those studies resulted in thousands of pregnant moms pressing headphones to their bellies, and thousands more switching the playlists in their cars from Taylor Swift to Tchaikovsky.  But is it actually true?  Does music have a measurable effect on fetal and infant development?


A recent study by McMaster University suggested that very early musical training can benefit children.  Researchers found that 1 year-olds who participated in interactive music classes with their parents smiled more, communicated better, and showed stronger brain responses to music.  However, it’s not entirely clear how much of that benefit is the result of the music, and how much comes from participating in an interactive class with special attention from their parents.

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Author: 4 years ago

Everyone knows that the primary purpose of pop music is to rock out when you’ve been dumped by some jerkbag (or multiple jerkbags, or the same jerkbag multiple times – music is flexible like that).  As therapeutic as it is to sing “We are never never never getting back together!” as you cruise down the highway in your ’94 Civic, we can only assume it’s even more cathartic for the songwriters who spun lyrical gold from the dross of their failed relationships.

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Author: 4 years ago

There may be people out there who listen to and comprehend every lyric of every song, no matter how obscure (even Beck, who I’m fairly certain is playing mad libs with lines from a handbook on clinic depression).  But for most of us, we hear the most obvious parts of the hook and the melody, and get a vague idea of the meaning that is sometimes completely misleading.

4 More Songs That Don’t Mean What You Think They Do:

1. “White Christmas” by Irving Berlin

Bing Crosby first sang the song “White Christmas” in the 1942 movie Holiday Inn, then reprised it as the climactic finale of the 1954 film White Christmas (alongside Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, and the delightfully anorexic Vera-Ellen).  In both films, the song is sung in the midst of snow, pine trees, and the most Swiss Miss hot-cocoa Christmas you can imagine.  But the actual first verse of the song is as follows:

The sun is shining, the grass is green
The orange and palm tree sway
There’s never been such a day
In Beverly Hills, L.A
But it’s December, the twenty fourth
And I am longing to be up north

What now?  It actually makes sense if you think about – Irving Berlin was “dreaming of a white Christmas” because he was in the middle of hot, sunny L.A., not in a cabin in the mountains watching the reindeer frolic.  But still, the original lyrics don’t seem to fit with the old-timey tone of the song.  It’s hard to imagine L.A. boulevards alongside lyrics like “tree tops glisten / and children listen / to hear sleigh bells in the snow” that could refer to the pioneer era.

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Author: 4 years ago

Most of us can barely imagine the life of a rockstar, zipping across the planet on a private jet, drinking champagne out of a flight attendant’s stiletto. Even less can we imagine what life a celebrity might make for themselves when they’re not famous anymore, when they have to settle down and scrape by (something) like a regular joe.

So let’s check in on 7 of the former hit-makers from days of yore.  What are they doing now?

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Author: 4 years ago

It’s pretty much guaranteed that at one time or another, you’ve had a crush on a celebrity.  You might have hung their poster on your wall, bought all their CDs, maybe even written some creepy fan fic in your diary about the house you’d have together and your three adorable green-eyed kids.  But can you imagine if it actually came true?  What if you met the rockstar of your dreams, they asked you out on a date, and you actually got married?  For 3 superfans, that dream became a reality.  Unfortunately, the conclusion of their fairytale wasn’t always happily ever after.

3 Singers Who Married Their Fans:

1. Reuben Studdard Married Surata Zuri McCants

Reuben Studdard, gospel singer and winner of Season 2 of American Idol, clapped eyes on Zuri McCants while signing her CD at Wal-Mart. Apparently the two had actually met twice before, but this time McCants made an impression.  Studdard asked her out, and they quickly started dating.  Two years later, they were married in Mountain Brook, Alabama.

The union was rocky.  McCants already had a daughter from a previous relationship, and Studdard was heavily focused on his career.  In November of 2011, after only 3 years of marriage, they filed for divorce.

For McCants, the roughest part of the experience was the divorce settlement.  Though Studdard is well-heeled, she got virtually nothing.  McCants contested the prenup, asserting that Studdard pressured her into signing days before the wedding.  But the judge took no pity, denying all requests for spousal support or alimony.  Studdard kept the house, all his belongings, and even the engagement ring.  McCant got to keep her wedding dress, a 2006 BMW, and a measly $10,000.  That’s about 3 grand per year of marriage.  Ouch.

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Author: 4 years ago