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On Repeat: A playlist for the books

Literature and lyrics work together on these four tracks that speak to the soul

<p>Immerse yourself in this lyrical library with a playlist for the books.</p>

Immerse yourself in this lyrical library with a playlist for the books.

Some of the most beautiful songs incorporate references to literature in their lyrics, connecting artforms across time, genre and culture to express universally felt emotions, and to build on what authors have written in their books. When the most artful singers and songwriters put music to these allusions, they are crafting a sonic blend of pop culture, personal experience and historical events. Immerse yourself in this lyrical library with a playlist for the books.

“nothing else i could do” by ella jane

Based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel “The Great Gatsby,” ella jane’s smooth indie pop melody in “nothing else i could do” swiftly captures unrequited love bordering on self-sacrificial infatuation. According to jane, the song was originally written for a high school English project from Gatsby’s perspective as he pines over Daisy, his childhood lover. 

Jane flawlessly encapsulates Gatsby’s longing throughout the song, especially through lyrics inspired by direct quotes from the 1925 novel. Gatsby not only admired Daisy as an unattainable object of his desire, but as an embodiment of the American Dream, saying in the novel that Daisy’s “voice is full of money.” Thus from Gatby’s perspective, jane sings, “There was money in your laugh, so babe / there’s nothing else I could do,” connecting Gatsby’s disillusioned, materialistic love to joy in Daisy’s laughter. Jane suggests that to Gatsby, love, money and joy are inextricably linked, furthering the symbolism of a disillusioned infatuation. 

Jane depicts the increasing desperation of Gatsby’s love, singing, “You’re crashing my car / and now I’m taking the blame,” revealing how Gatsby’s idolization of Daisy costs him his own reputation. Starting and ending with the same unforgettable baseline, “nothing else i could do” perfectly illustrates the cyclical pain of unrequited love, a universal feeling expressed through art over time.

“Ptolemaea” by Ethel Cain

Named after the treacherous Ninth Circle of Hell in Dante Aligheri’s poem “Inferno,” Ethel Cain’s song “Ptolemaea” showcases Cain’s vocal range, featuring her singing in a deep distorted voice as well as soft whispers. “Ptolemaea” is the ninth track of Cain’s album “Preacher’s Daughter,” which depicts Cain’s journey as she leaves her Christian household and enters an abusive relationship. This track specifically explores her guilt for leaving her family, leading her to meet her abuser, who is the real traitor in “Ptolemaea.” 

In “Inferno,” each circle of hell punishes its inhabitants differently in accordance with the inhabitants’ sins, and the inhabitants of Ptolemaea are trapped in ice to posthumously pay for betraying their loved ones. As Cain considers herself a traitor to her family, she is drawn to her abuser, “crawling to thee / promising a big fire, any fire.” Cain hopes that a relationship will warm her, thawing the ice of Ptolemaea and absolving her of her guilt.

Towards the end of the song, Cain screams at her abuser to stop his abuse, but his demonic voice taunts her, singing, “I have simply come to take what is mine … run then, child / you can’t hide from me forever.” Cain’s reference to Dante’s “Inferno” reveals the eternal relevance of the 14th-century epic as she descends into her own eternal spiral of self-loathing. 

“Matilda” by Harry Styles

After listening to Cain’s gut-wrenching screams in “Ptolomaea,” Harry Styles gives us permission to heal. A soft yet powerfully raw ballad, “Matilda” consoles the inner child who lacks familial support. According to Styles, the woman addressed in his song is “disguised” as an adult version of Roald Dahl’s Matilda from the classic children’s novel of the same name, allowing Styles to convey his encouragement to leave a bad situation without feeling guilty through a beloved character and recognizable metaphor. 

Roald Dahl’s “Matilda,” published in 1988, follows a bright young girl with negligent parents and a cruel headmistress who stifle her cognitive development. However, Matilda’s teacher Miss Honey sees her potential and nurtures her as other caretakers have failed to do. 

Like Miss Honey, Styles affirms Matilda's emotions, singing, “You don’t have to be sorry for leavin’ [your family] and growin’ up.” His wistfully melancholy melody reassures Matilda that she does not need to maintain a relationship with her negligent family because of the pain they bring her. 

As the seventh track on Styles’ album “Harry’s House,” “Matilda” welcomes Matilda home, mirroring Miss Honey’s adoption of Matilda at the conclusion of the novel. “Matilda” grants every adult who grew up too fast the healing permission to enjoy the simple things in life without worry.

“King Kunta” by Kendrick Lamar

Whereas Styles guides listeners through a process of emotional healing, Kendrick Lamar’s “King Kunta” reclaims Black power — the song transcends the white literary canon and swiftly allegorizes the struggles of being a Black man through references to Alex Haley’s novel “Roots: The Saga of an American Family.” The 1976 novel follows Kunta Kinte, an enslaved laborer who, despite having his foot cut off after attempting to escape the plantation, stays true to himself and his name rather than accepting the one his masters give him. 

Lamar titles his rap “King Kunta” — juxtaposing a royal title with the enslaved protagonist of “Roots” — to present the duality of his identity. Lamar relates to Kunta on this track, singing that he “run[s] the game, got the whole world talkin’.” However, “everybody wanna cut the legs off him”, stifling Lamar’s artistic agency like how Kunta’s master impedes his freedom by cutting off his foot. With his signature lyrical genius, Lamar weaves literary references regarding an 18th-century slave into the fraught struggles of being a Black public figure today, emphasizing the urgent need for change. 

A groovy hip hop beat perfect for dancing supplements Lamar’s flow about metaphorically cutting his legs off, ironically moving listeners to get up on their feet and vibe to this smooth tune. Thus, Lamar not only stays true to himself in “King Kunta” but also inspires others to follow his lead, as if he is daring listeners to be unapologetically themselves. 

Art of all forms has the power to heal and empower, whether by providing an outlet to express pain like “nothing else i could do” and “Ptolomea,” by comforting like “Matilda” or by reclaiming power like “King Kunta.” Drawing on ideas from iconic books to vent through song, these tracks will send you on an emotional journey to a lyrical cure you never knew you needed. 


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