In November of 2010, Katy Perry’s dance-pop anthem to confidence, “Firework,” debuted on the American charts. It peaked at number one on the Billboard Top 100, topped charts around the world, and was nominated for a Grammy. At the time, few would have guessed that the club song and its music video, which featured Perry spraying fireworks from her chest into the inky black sky, had its beginning in a well-known work of American literature.
“I got [the idea] from a really great book, On the Road,” Perry told reporters at the nominations ceremony for the 54th Grammy Awards. She went on to specifically cite a passage of On the Road, perhaps one of Kerouac’s most famous lines: “…the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes, ‘Awww!’”
The culture which surrounds us, the films we watch, the art we see, the books we read, and the music we enjoy, seeps into our everyday lives and, in turn, informs the things we create. Devo’s biggest hit, “Whip It,” was inspired by Thomas Pynchon’s book Gravity’s Rainbow. British indie-rock band Alt+J’s hit “Breezeblocks” includes several references to Maurice Sendak’s most famous work, Where The Wild Things Are, and in fact, ends with a repeated refrain of a modified version of Sendak’s words, as the singers croon “Please don’t go, I’ll eat you whole / I love you so.” Metallica made no attempt to disguise the inspiration, or the message, behind their 1985 hit “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” which was inspired by the Hemingway novel of the same name, and includes specific allusions to scenes in the book. The writer of the Elton John song “Rocket Man,” Bernie Taupin, drew from Ray Bradbury’s short story “The Rocket Man” to write his hit song, each about the loneliness of an astronaut as he prepares to leave his family to orbit the earth alone. Both Woody Guthrie and Bruce Springsteen borrowed a Steinbeck character, Tom Joad, as the muse for their folk rock songs, each recapturing the spirit of The Grapes of Wrath in the hits “The Ballad of Tom Joad” and “The Ghost of Tom Joad.”
There is some worth in considering the impetus behind the creation of a work before judging the value of its overall message. Perry’s inspiration for “Firework” came as a shock to those who discounted the song and its writer as just another flash on the disposable, bubblegum-pop club music scene. The inspiration seemed to lend a new depth to the song, which was more about becoming a person who takes risks and inspires others, something more akin to Kerouac’s intention in writing the famous passage. The list of songs inspired by American literature is vast and fascinating, and not at all surprising to anyone who believes in the ability of writing to move us, and the things we create, in new directions. Strong writing has the power to inspire us for generations, inspirations which elongate the life and enforce the meaning of the written word.