Shakespearean Pop, Part 1

Shakespeare provides a lot of inspiration to artists, especially musicians.

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Image from Erik Didriksen’s Pop Sonnets

In this first installment of a series of posts on “Shakespearean Pop” I’m going to share and discuss some of the best Shakespearean Fiction songs. I call them “Shakespearean Fiction” because these songs do not just “replay” the plot of Shakespeare’s plays, but rather use the characters from those plays for their own ends, often revising the plot.

Shakespearean Fictions—whether in novels or songs—provide us an alternative perspective to consider the motivations of characters in Shakespeare’s plays and imagine alternative realities for them. No play is re-written more in pop music than Romeo and Juliet.

Romeo and Juliet

Naturally, Romeo and Juliet is a popular choice among musicians—the play’s plot centers around a young couple who are forbidden to love one another and yet do. Sadly, the play ends in tragedy as the young lovers die in each others arms, yet they live forever in the memories of others and in the message that love is stronger than hate. It’s just too good not to steal for love-song material (in fact, Shakespeare stole it himself from a popular poem at the time—what goes around, comes around Willie Shakes!).

“Just Like Romeo and Juliet”—Reflections (1964)

This is first on my list for a number of reasons: first and foremost, when I was a child, my dad sang this song repeatedly… well, just the chorus, really… and I knew it before I even heard of Shakespeare. Secondly, the band is from Detroit and the song features Motown session musicians and has that stellar Motown sound.

The song re-imagines the love affair of Romeo and Juliet as a modern romance, only without the tragic dual-homicide.

No longer distressed with the generational vengeance and hate between the families, this Romeo character’s main concern is to find a job so that he buy a car to take his girlfriend to the drive-in. He wants to buy her “pretty presents just like ones in the catalog” and show her how much he loves her so that their love “will be written down in history, just like Romeo and Juliet.” The only threat to this realization is his unemployment: “If I don’t find work tomorrow it’s going to be heartache and sorrow/ Our love’s gonna be destroyed like a tragedy, just like Romeo and Juliet.”

Most songs that play with Shakespeare’s plots and characters try to re-imagine them with more positive outcomes—a world where Romeo and Juliet don’t die, but get to live happily ever after.

“Romeo and Juliet 1968”—Toby Twirl (1968)

In 1968 Franco Zefferili released his iconic film Romeo and Juliet and British pop-psych band Toby Twirl recorded this song. Toby Twirl—named after the 1950’s children’s book character, a walking, talking, pig—embodies the late 60’s “Manchester sound.” The song opens by quoting directly from Shakespeare’s play— yet puts a modern spin on it for the modern lover with the chorus:

Hang about, hey, hey
Would we be so different today?
Oh no, you’ll hear me say,
I love you and love finds a way”

Again, a testament to how, as modern lovers, the fate of Romeo and Juliet would be different—they would run away, they would survive, they would “find a way.”

 “Exit Music (for a film)”—Radiohead (1996, written for R+J)

Featured in Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 film Romeo + Juliet. This song also imagines an alternative reality for the lovers, one where they are able to “wake” and “escape.”

Thom Yorke told Humo magazine (July 22, 1997): “When we saw the scene in which Claire Danes holds the Colt 45 against her head, we started working on the song immediately. I had something with ‘Romeo & Juliet’ a long time already. I had a crush on Olivia Hussey, who played Juliet in the ’60s, for a long time. I first saw the movie when I was 13. I just couldn’t believe why Romeo and Juliet, after they had made love, didn’t run away together. Romeo should have packed his bags, jump out of the window and eloped with her.”

“Romeo and Juliet” —The Indigo Girls (1992, Rites of Passage)

The danger (and, hence, intensity) of Romeo and Juliet’s love in Shakespeare comes from the fact that they are forbidden to each other because of the feud between their families. However, with the Indigo Girl’s cover there is another danger present in their love.

Originally, the song was written by Mark Knopfler and performed by the Dire Straits on their 1980 album, Making Movies). Listen here.

The song is a lament from the perspective of Romeo. He had lost Juliet, who has found fame, abandoned him, and moved on from the rough neighborhood where they are from.

When Knopfler sings the song, it’s rather lackadaisical, and we get a sense of Romeo’s rejection and dejection only because it is carefully hidden. The emotional components of the song are made by the backing instrumentation, which swells and wanes.

However, when Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls sings the song, it’s a very different experience:

In Ray’s version the song consists only of vocals and a lone guitar. Moreover, the guitar is an afterthought; the emotion is conveyed solely by the voice of Ray, which is raw in its energy and passion. She yells, she screams, she loses the guitar and gets breathless making the song a break-up anthem.

Beyond the basic instrumentation, we also now have a female vocalist singing the role of Romeo. The Indigo Girls (Amy Ray and Emily Saliers) have long identified themselves as lesbians and are active in LGBTQ rights movement. So, when Ray sings this song she essentially queers the song, Romeo and Juliet, and Shakespeare. For example, given the same-sex nature of this romance, these lyrics have a very different meaning:

I can’t do the talk like they talk on TV
And I can’t do a love song like the way it’s meant to be

or

We both come up on different streets
And they were both streets of shame
They’re both dirty both mean
And yes even our dreams were the same

Ray’s queer cover normalizes lesbian love by contextualizing it within the realm of one of the “greatest love stories ever told.”

There are a lot of songs inspired by Romeo and Juliet, and all of them re-imagine the realities of the relationship and its outcome. We want to live in a world where Romeo and Juliet live, where their love is safe. But, as Amy Ray’s cover tells us– that revision doesn’t exist for everyone.

Next week I’m going to pick up with another Romeo and Juliet song—from Lou Reed—as I feature the Shakespearean pop recorded by Velvet Underground solo projects. Stay tuned!

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