While many songs are pointed at someone or something in the songwriter’s personal life that the audience will likely never know the full scope of, sometimes they take inspiration from other, more public, sources.
Videos by American Songwriter
Videos by American Songwriter
Like all of us, musicians can be moved by what they hear on the radio, but instead of giving it their stamp of approval on social media or passing it along to their friends, they use it as inspiration in their own work.
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Whether a song resonates with them in a positive way, inspires a hefty amount of anger, or calls them out on a mass scale, there are a select few musicians that have written response songs to other artists’ work.
Here are 6 songs written in response to other songs.
6. “California Gurls” (Katy Perry) / “Empire State of Mind” (Jay-Z & Alicia Keys)
In 2009, Jay-Z and Alicia Keys released “Empire State of Mind,” the latest in a long line of odes to New York City. The R&B anthem was just as gritty and sweeping as the city itself, littered with references to the pair’s old stomping grounds. The following year, Katy Perry set out to release the antithesis to that song, “California Gurls.”
Tapping Snoop Dogg for a feature, Perry wanted to remedy a lack of love for the West Coast in music that she felt had “Tupac rolling in his grave” and left Brian Wilson “feeling totally upset.”
“I love New York girls,” she told MTV at the time. “I think they’re hot, and I think they have a lot of attitude, but I’m telling you: When it comes wintertime, they’re all gonna be singing ‘California Gurls.'”
The glittering pop hit was sun-soaked and blithe, bottling up just the right energy for Perry’s home state.
5. “Killing Me Softly” (Roberta Flack/Lori Lieberman) / “Empty Chairs” (Don McLean)
Many of the songs on this list were born out of a negative reaction to one of their peer’s songs. Distaste can be a strong driving force in the creative process, it seems. “Killing Me Softly” however, stems from a place of pure admiration.
Singer-songwriter Lori Lieberman penned the song after seeing Don McLean perform “Empty Chairs” at The Troubadour. While the emotion he imbued to the performance may have left many in the crowd speechless, Lieberman had much to say. She scrawled what would become this classic on a bar napkin straight after the performance.
The song went on to become a hit for both Roberta Flack and the Fugees. It’s a timeless track inspired by another timeless track. That’s the power of music at its core.
4. “American Idiot” (Green Day) / “That’s How I Like It” (Lynyrd Skynyrd)
Enough of the good sportsmanship among musicians, let’s get back to the messier side of things. Green Day’s 2004 single “American Idiot” is generally considered to be a slight to the Bush administration and the Iraq war. And while it is certainly a mouthpiece for the counterculture of the era, it was Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “That’s How I Like It” that originally forced frontman Billie Joe Armstrong to put pen to paper.
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“[The song] was like, ‘I’m proud to be a redneck’ and I was like, ‘Oh my God, why would you be proud of something like that?'” Armstrong said at the time. “This is exactly what I’m against.”
Green Day’s song came decades after the southern rockers wrote “Sweet Home Alabama” in response to Neil Young’s “Southern Man.” As the old adage goes, “If you’re gonna dish it out, you’re gonna have to take it.”
3. “Love Will Tear Us Apart” (Joy Division) / “Love Will Keep Us Together” (Captain & Tennille)
Captain & Tennille’s “Love Will Keep Us Together” is one of the most sugary, schmaltzy songs in history. A staple in romantic comedies, weddings, and other similar mushy gushy things, it’s hard not to fall into the rose-colored tinge of romance when listening to that tune. But Joy Division’s Ian Curtis seems to have escaped that trap.
“Love Will Tear Us Apart” is one of Joy Division’s signature songs. Curtis penned the downtrodden lyrics after falling in love with a woman who wasn’t his wife. The guilt of those feelings paired with the condemning of cheaters in the Captain & Tennille song ended up being the perfect creative cocktail for Curtis to carve out this post-punk staple.
2. “This Land Is Your Land” (Woodie Guthrie) / “God Bless America” (Irving Berlin)
Despite being a song that elementary school kids sing at their recitals as a patriotic nod nowadays, “This Land Is Your Land” started its life as a scathing response to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America.”
A true folky, Guthrie felt “God Bless America” operated under a limited view of life in the U.S., not accounting for the economic disparity caused by The Great Depression. The original version of Guthrie’s song was titled “God Blessed America For Me” and turned each line of Berlin’s song on its head.
There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me. The sign was painted, said ‘Private Property.’ But on the backside, it didn’t say nothing. This land was made for you and me, Guthrie wrote as slight to Berlin’s notion of being “free.”
As time went on, and more musicians covered Guthrie’s song, the lyrics were watered down for the general public. The version we know today is almost as flag-waving as “God Bless America.” Oh, the irony.
1. “Paper Doll” (John Mayer) / “Dear John” (Taylor Swift)
Despite their relationship being a brief endeavor, John Mayer and Taylor Swift left quite a bit of discourse in their wake.
It’s a widely held belief amongst the Swifties that “Dear John” was written about Mayer, and with references to their age gap and the title being relatively on the nose, it’s hard to not hop on that bandwagon. That theory makes all the more sense if you consider Mayer’s 2013 track, “Paper Doll.”
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Both songs have lyrics that mirror one another—Make yourself some angel wings / And if those angel wings don’t fly / Someone’s going to paint you another sky (Mayer) and you paint me a blue sky /
And go back and turn it to rain (Swift), for example.
Though it’s unconfirmed that Mayer was pointing to Swift in “Paper Dolls” he did express his frustration at the release of “Dear John” to Rolling Stone (quote per Us Weekly) in 2012. “[‘Dear John’ is] cheap songwriting. It’s abusing your talent to rub your hands together and go, ‘Wait til he gets a load of this!’ That’s bulls–t . . . It really humiliated me at a time when I’d already been dressed down,” he said.
Photo by John Shearer/Getty Images for Katy Perry