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A Brief History Of Musicians Name-Checking Celebrities

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    Once upon a time, troubadours and court musicians wrote the names of royals and enemy soldiers into their songs to entertain their listeners. The mention of a famous person is easy shorthand for "rich," "beautiful," "mean," "trouble," or any other concept the songwriter wants to express with a good rhyme. And, name-dropping hasn't changed much since.

    Overt references to pop culture in a song can go one of two ways. They're either clever allusions that make the song's meaning crystal clear, or they're ticking time bombs, set to make the track seem dated and corny in a few short years. The difference isn't always clear. Somehow, a Kanye West rhyme about Mary-Kate and Ashley seems like it's going to be hilarious for decades to come. Say what you will about Ye's other traits; the guy knows how to make a good pastiche. But, the insults in an old Eminem song seem, well, kinda old and lame. So, what differentiates a lasting name-drop from one destined to burn out? The answer seems to be a combination of rhyming well, choosing the right timeless personalities to reference, and tossing in a little extra magic.

    Ahead, we analyzed 15 prime examples for your careful examination.


    Opener photo: Han Myung-Gu/WireImage.

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    "You're the Top," Cole Porter

    The lyrics:

    "You're the top!
    ...You're Garbo's salary

    ...You're the moon
    Over Mae West's shoulder"

    The meaning: Among the many "top" things listed (see also: the Coliseum, the Louvre Museum, Mahatma Gandhi), Porter mentions actress Greta Garbo's salary. According to Slate, the Grand Hotel star negotiated with MGM for a raise from $600 to $5,000 a week by sailing to Sweden. Actress Mae West just really looked good by moonlight.

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    1 of 16

    "Bette Davis Eyes," Kim Carnes

    The lyrics:

    "Her hair is Harlow gold
    Her lips sweet surprise
    Her hands are never cold
    She's got Bette Davis eyes

    ...She got Greta Garbo stand off sighs
    She's got Bette Davis eyes"

    The meaning:

    The All About Eve star's eyes were gigantic things of seductive, dreamy, fearsome beauty, weren't they? Jean Harlow was the go-to blonde bombshell before Marilyn Monroe came on the scene, and then we've got another reference to elegant screen legend Garbo. The girl in this 1981 Grammy-winning hit sounds truly dangerous and irresistible.

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    "Kill the Poor," Dead Kennedys

    The lyrics:

    "Jane Fonda on the screen today
    Convinced the liberals it's okay
    So let's get dressed and dance away the night"

    The meaning:

    Jello Biafra takes aim at a lot in this short song from 1980: the Neutron bomb, which was designed to kill people while minimizing property damage; the rich and powerful who would celebrate such an invention; and the liberals who sit around objecting to things — and watching outspoken Vietnam War opponent Jane Fonda — without doing much else to protest.

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    3 of 16

    "Posse in Effect," The Beastie Boys

    The lyrics:

    "I got a girl in the castle and one in the pagoda
    You know I got rhymes like Abe Vigoda"

    The meaning:

    As far as we know, The Godfather and Barney Miller actor Vigoda does not have a secret rap career, so it seems Mike D is being sarcastically self-deprecating while rhyming pagoda and Vigoda in this track from 1986's License to Ill.

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    4 of 16

    "Vogue," Madonna

    The lyrics:

    "Greta Garbo
    And Monroe
    Deitrich
    And DiMaggio
    Marlon Brando
    Jimmy Dean
    On the cover
    Of a magazine
    Grace Kelly
    Harlow, Jean
    Picture
    Of a beauty queen
    Gene Kelly
    Fred Astaire
    Ginger Rodgers
    Dance on air
    They had style
    They had grace
    Rita Hayworth
    Gave good face
    Lauren
    Katherine
    Lana too
    Bette Davis
    We love you"

    The meaning:

    Madonna's 1990 hit was inspired by the underground gay dance scene where vogue-ing originated. But, on another level, the song was also an homage to these legendary stars and their ability to own their beauty in photos and on film. (And, maybe Joe DiMaggio just snuck in there 'cause his name sounds good.)