It’s been a while since I’ve been immersed in pop music. Part of it is just an age thing, part of it from living abroad, and part of it because pop music is terrible. Sometimes it’s terrible in a good way, but generally I find it to be the regular kind of terrible. But even if I’m not actively listening to it, living in America means I get exposed to it anyway.
I just recently heard Bastille’s “Pompeii,” which is apparently tearing up the charts, and my first thought was that it was just sort of innocuous top-40 blandness. My second thought was that Siouxsie and the Banshees already have the whole Vesuvius thing locked down and Bastille should find a new disaster to allude to in song. Maybe something French, as befitting their name.
Seeing as I’m quite partial to the creation of lists, I searched my brain to see if I could come up with more historical song allusions. For the purpose of this exercise I decided to exclude tracks that just retell historical events, of which there are plenty. I was looking for songs that use history as a metaphor for something else. As it turns out, it seems my train of thought was actually going somewhere for once. And that place is France.
Phoenix – “1901”
Apparently this is a love song to Paris. The city, not the heiress. Arguably I suppose it’s also about being young and full of dreams or whatever. And also the Eiffel Tower (“Past and present 1855-1901: Watch them build up a material tower”). Apparently the lead singer has said this about the tune:
It’s a song about Paris. Paris in 1901 was better than what it is now. It’s still nice, but 1901 was better. This is a fantasy about Paris.
It probably comes as no surprise that the band is French.
Arcade Fire – “Joan of Arc”
Nothing like using the tale of a plucky schizophrenic to talk about the love-hate relationship between a band and its fans. Or at least that’s what the internet says the song is about. I thought it was about wanting to date the weird girl, even though everyone else tries to tell you the fact that she hears voices is a red flag. But fans claim the lyrics, “First they love you/ Then they kill you/ Then they love you again,” are obviously about the fickle temperament of the music industry.
The Stone Roses – “Bye Bye Badman”
This song was inspired by documentary footage of French student riots in 1968. Depending on who you ask, it’s also maybe about Jesus. Before I knew the history behind it, I thought the song was about a really really bad relationship. I guess interpretation is in the ear of the listener.
Pet Shop Boys – “King of Rome”
This song definitely wins the award for most obscure French history reference used as love metaphor. I couldn’t possibly explain it any better than Neil Tennant already has, so take it away Neil:
I think this is the most beautiful and sad song on the album. It’s one of my historical lyrics. The King of Rome was the son of Napoleon, he was actually Napoleon II briefly, and when Napoleon got defeated and sent into exile, Napoleon’s son, whose mother was an Austrian princess, was taken to Vienna. He never saw his father again and he rarely saw his mother. He became the focus of a lot of Napoleonic thinking and a rallying point for opposition to the government in France after Napoleon. He died quite young from tuberculosis and he never really achieved much and yet when he was born he was the King of Rome. I just thought he was a very, very sad and tragic figure and so the inspiration was there for a lyric about someone roaming the world to get away from some tragic love affair, like Noel Coward used to do. It’s also the stateless idea that you’ve got no roots in anything because the thing that gave the roots to your life has been taken away.
It’s also, in my humble opinion, the best song of the bunch.
ABBA – “Waterloo”
Nice segue, right? There was no way I was making this list without including ABBA’s misguided classic. It honestly sounds more like Stockholm syndrome than true love to me, but maybe I’m just misinterpreting the romantic undertones of lyrics like, “My my, I tried to hold you back but you were stronger/ Oh yeah, and now it seems my only chance is giving up the fight.” I’m not sure that love is something you’re supposed to “finally face” like a historic defeat.
Then again, Napoleon seems like he was one suave dude.