The White Male Canon in 90s Pop Songs


This fall, I spent two months trying to cram the entire white male literary canon into my militant women’s studies-trained brain. I was studying for the GRE Subject Test in English Literature, a deeply dreaded admission requirement for most English Literature PhD programs which is I guess supposed to measure your knowledge of what is widely accepted as the English literary canon. To have to learn the entire canon in a matter of months to prepare for a multiple-choice test felt like utter madness, and was made far worse by the fact that so few women writers and writers of color are included on the test. It felt like a cruel joke—having to find time between my full-time job and trying to launch this cool feminist website to make flash cards of basically all the writers that feel least relevant to my actual scholarly interests and life.

Last week, I got my test score back. And let me tell you, it is very terrible. Maybe you got your test scores last week too, or maybe you took the test years ago and are still scarred by the experience. I decided to put my freshly sharpened knowledge of the canon to good use—by making a list of canonized works by white men and their pop song equivalents. I offer this list in consolation for all of us who’ve spent hours uselessly cramming the white male canon into our brains, and in celebration of all the other very cool stuff we all have in there. If there was a GRE test on 90s pop music, or feminist theory, or Saved by the Bell trivia, or contemporary women’s poetry, I think I’d do really well on that one, and I have a feeling that you dear reader would too. Unlike ETS, I think that counts for something.


From the Canon: William Butler Yeats’s “The Second Coming
Pop Song Equivalent: Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”

My GRE study book calls “The Second Coming” “probably the most quoted poem of the twentieth century.” Which I think means that its song equivalent held the #1 spot on every MTV video countdown throughout the 1990s. Also, you guys, remember how the liner notes for Nevermind included the lyrics “The second coming came in last and out of the closet,” but those lyrics never appeared on the album? Other things “The Second Coming” and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” have in common: they both confuse me, like, I don’t really get either of them, but I take comfort in knowing that they both confuse a lot of people. I also know that they both impart a kind of nihilistic cynicism about modern society. And they both make me wanna head-bang in my bedroom until my brain falls out.


From the Canon: Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself
Pop Song Equivalent: Jay Z’s “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)”

A fellow Brooklyn legend, Jay Z seems like the obvious choice as Walt Whitman’s pop star equivalent. But I also feel kind of like I could have chosen nearly any song containing braggadocious swagger to represent Whitman (he’s so large & containing of multitudes and stuff). Whitman’s celebration of himself in “Song of Myself” also translates into a celebration of all people being connected as one, and “H.O.V.A.” similarly presents itself as a kind of “song for the people.” Both “Song of Myself” and “H.O.V.A.” attempt, with great success, to hype up the human race. They’re like, “that’s the anthem, getchya damn hands up.”


From the Canon: Christopher Marlowe’s “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love
Pop Song Equivalent: “I’ll Make Love to You” by Boyz II Men

Just like Boyz II Men, the “Passionate Shepherd” wants to romance and woo his love object, but not in a creepy way—more in a chivalry-drenched proclamation of sweetness and devotion. These dudes are seriously invested in pleasing their ladies. Boyz II Men’s speaker wants to make his female partner’s every sexual wish come true (“Girl your wish is my command/ I submit to your demands/ I’ll do anything, girl you need only ask”), and Marlowe’s speaker spends the whole poem promising to handcraft for his love all the sweetest of objects (“And I will make thee beds of roses [shout-out to Bon Jovi]/ And a thousand fragrant posies,/ A cap of flowers, and a kirtle/ Embroidered all with leaves of myrtle”). Yes the woman is the love object in both of these works—a trope that’s tired at best—and it would be nice if the poem and song made a leap to seeing their “love” as an equal, a person with her own ideas. But at least these male speakers are in adoration of the women in their lives, ones that sound on paper like they could make pretty good boyfriends. Maybe even Whatta Man-worthy.


From the Canon: Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Church Yard”
Pop Song Equivalent: Guns N Roses’ “November Rain”

Shout out to Dan Magers, poet and fellow GRE Subject Test in English Literature test-taker whose birthday party I attended recently where we had the following exchange:
Dan: What are you working on?
Me: A piece that shows dead white dudes’ poems as pop songs.
Dan: What do you think “Elegy Written in a Country Church Yard” is?
Me: Omg I’m not sure!
Dan: … is it November Rain? It’s November Rain, isn’t it?

Indeed it is. And in particular it is the span of minutes in the “November Rain” video (beginning around 8:36) during which Stephanie Seymour throws her bouquet on her wedding day in one scene, and it LANDS ON HER COFFIN IN THE NEXT SCENE. From what I gathered via my GRE prep book, this poem is sort of considered the elegy to end all elegies. It’s on the longer side, and deals in particular with the idea of death without recognition, worldly fame, or a full expression of one’s talents in life, an idea which comes across quite succinctly in the throwing the bouquet/bouquet landing on coffin moment. I am a little torn in calling “November Rain” “Elegy”‘s pop song equivalent, because the song itself doesn’t speak to death for me as much as the music video does, and the music video is about Axl’s Love Object/Wife dying, and shows her death very much through her male lover’s experience of it, night sweats and all. This reading of the “November Rain” video aligns it more with Poe’s “Annabel Lee” or “Lenore” (and with Poe’s whole dead-woman-as-beautiful-object thing in general). But since we’re dealing with the elegy of all elegies here, its song equivialent has to be the finest epic elegy that pop music has to offer—8-minute long, Slash guitar solo-laden, sweeping orchestra-backed “November Rain.”


From the Canon: John Keats’ “La Belle Dame Sans Merci”
Pop Song Equivalent: Bell Biv Devoe’s “Poison”

Two classic ballads of the dreaded femme fatale. Wikipedia says, “With a few skillful touches, [Keats] creates a woman who is at once beautiful, erotically attractive, fascinating, and deadly.” Bell Biv Devoe says, “Never trust a big butt and a smile.”


From the Canon: John Donne’s “Holy Sonnet 14
Pop Song Equivalent: Madonna’s “Like a Prayer”

To be clear, you guys, this poem is fucking HOT. “Like a Prayer” is less hot, though much more danceable, but still touches on the erotic in relation to religion (a theme that’s present in much of Madge’s earlier work). My Princeton Review study book calls Donne’s Holy Sonnets “marked by passionate, original and searching thought regarding the Divinity and Christian faith.” Addressing God directly, Sonnet 14 is the one that starts, “Batter my heart, three-person’d God” and ends with these lines:

“Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.”

Donne’s evangelical S&M-style relationship with a fire and brimstone God takes the form of sexual innuendo and double entendre in “Like a Prayer,” with the added subversion of a female speaker (i.e., “I’m down on my knees, I wanna take you there”).


From the Canon: Robert Herrick’s “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time
Pop Song Equivalent: Billy Joel’s “Only the Good Die Young”

This poem is one of several Very Important, Literature GRE-worthy poems in the voice of dudes pressuring women to have sex with them. These poems reminded me a lot of being shamed for not being “spontaneous” enough by a guy in college who was pressuring me to have sex with him. Herrick’s poem doesn’t urge the “virgins” to engage in sexual relations with his speaker as much as he urges them to “marry” because “this same flower that smiles today/ Tomorrow will be dying.” I think this poem is “Only the Good Die Young” because of the “Virginia/Virgin” connection, as well as the song’s overall message—let’s have sex ASAP because waiting is for suckers (Catholic suckers, specifically), and you’re not getting any younger. Of course bad-boy Billy Joel mocks Christianity and the importance of women saving themselves for marriage (making “Only the Good Die Young” more subversive and interesting and a favorite of suburban 15-year-old Marisa) while 17th-century Herrick conflates sex with marriage. But the “live life to it’s fullest via doin’ it with me” message is still the same. Note: When I posted on Instagram about this poem being a 17th-century “Only the Good Die Young,” poet Gale Thompson smartly pointed out that its even more modern-day equivalent is this 2011 club favorite.


From the Canon: WIlliam Blake’s “The Lamb” and “The Tyger
Pop Song Equivalent: Whitney Houston’s “Greatest Love of All”

Whitney and Blake both believed the children are our future. “The Lamb” from Blake’s Songs of Innocence, and “The Tyger” from his Songs of Experience create a weird diptych that addresses childhood and God and creation and good and evil, all within a style that Princeton Review calls “childlike simplicity.” “The Greatest Love of All” is also a song of both innocence and experience (an idea that the music video really goes for with its simultaneous portrayals of Little and Grown Whitneys). To this day I have a hard time accepting that the “I believe the children are our future” bridge is really part of this song about finding love within yourself—it feels like two songs within one to me. “Did he smile his work to see?/ Did he who made the Lamb make thee?” Blake’s poems asks a lot of big questions, ones that I think only Whitney can answer.


From the Canon: William Wordworth & Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads
Pop Song Equivalent: Blind Melon’s “No Rain”

Considered the book that launched the British Romantic movement, Lyrical Ballads was written by Wordsworth and Coleridge together as buds, which is bee girl finding her people in the “No Rain” video-style cute. The Princeton Review English Literature GRE study book advises to “note Wordsworth’s values of rustic people and rural settings, as well as his nonacademic language.” He’s all, “All I can say is that my life is pretty plain/ I like watching the puddles gather rain.” I also learned from my study book that Wordsworth and Coleridge were called “The Lake Poets” because they hung out in the Lake District of England, and were characterized by a “muddy-boots-and-daffodils joy.” I rest my case.


From the Canon: T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”
Pop Song Equivalent: Counting Crows’s “Mr. Jones”

Both this song and this poem have an epic feeling to them of stumbling through the world aimlessly and filled with passionate desire to be more than you are, a self-important feeling of grandiosity that we can all relate to. Both seem to be making huge, important statements about the human condition, and in Eliot’s case, about modernity, but both are also very much about being grumpy over wanting girls to pay attention to you. I’m putting it out there—I LOVE “Mr. Jones,” and I feel the need to clarify that, ‘cause I don’t really love “Prufrock.” Maybe it’s just cause I encountered “Mr. Jones” when I was only 11 years old and it burned itself onto my young, impressionable soul, while I read “Prufrock” for the first time in a grad school class about Modernist women writers, where we talked specifically about the role women play in the poem (call me, or comment below, if you wanna talk more about that for hours). In early drafts, the Eliot poem even included the subtitle “Prufrock Among the Women.” Actually, I considered the classic bitter-dude anthem “Cumbersome” by Seven Mary Three as a stand-in for “Prufrock,” since it’s so much about feeling emasculated by a disinterested female love object (and because the lyrics “She calls me Goliath and I wear the David mask” are so epically hilarious & kinda Eliotesque in their dark, biblical allusion). But comparing Eliot to a 90s one-hit-wonder seemed slightly too cruel.


There are plenty more poems from the canon just waiting to be translated into their pop song equivalents—let me know which ones I missed in the comments <3


Filed under Books + Literature, Music + Playlists

5 Responses to The White Male Canon in 90s Pop Songs

  1. Laura

    THESE ARE ALL SO CORRECT. It’s not even the surface similarities, either, but the essence (as far as I can tell from the ones where I feel I understand the essence of both the poem and the song. For the ones where I only knew one or the other: thank you, you have taught me something today.)

  2. sylvia plath’s “daddy” please (this was on the version i took)

    • The Princeton Review GRE Prep book’s teeny study blurb about Plath said something like, “Her poems were often about her stormy relationship with her father.” #WTF. I probably should have included that in this post actually.

  3. ESPECIALLY love the Prufrock/Mr. Jones pairing. So good!

    (And chin up about the GRE Lit scores – my sense is that many programs know that test is ridiculous and can in no way assess your ability to think creatively about literature…the way you do here!)

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