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From Euterpe to YouTube: Popular music and the classics

“At last my love has come along.” — At Last, written by Mack Gordon and Harry Warren
tandem uenit amor (at last my love has come along) — Sulpicia poem 1, line 1

Etta James’ most famous song quotes the first line of the love-elegist Sulpicia, one of the few surviving Graeco-Roman women poets.  One of the song’s composers, Harry Warren (born Salvatore Antonio Guaragna), was the son of Italian immigrants.  Perhaps he encountered the line through them, and it stuck with him over the years?  More likely a coincidence.  In “Rumour Has It,” a recent chart-topper by the pop star Adele—a self-described admirer of Etta James and lover of poetry—the plot is one of love unrequited and rumor at large, a scenario reminiscent of Dido, Aeneas, and Rumor in Vergil Aeneid book 4.  (I’m not the first to make this association: see @calpunzel on Twitter.)  Even closer correspondences with Vergil appear in the songs of the singer Dido, particularly “My Lover’s Gone,” as Alden Smith has pointed out.

Classical literature and culture has served as an enduring source of inspiration for poets for centuries, from Dante to Bob Dylan (see Richard Thomas) to Iggy Pop, who penned a short piece about the influence of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire on him for Classics Ireland in 1995, after the release of his album American Caesar.  And continued appearances of classical tropes in current pop music can be an avenue for getting more people engaged with Greek and Roman art, texts, and history.  That’s what Sharon James does at the University of North Carolina: her elegy students identify elegiac themes in their favorite pop ballads, from Blondie to gangsta rap (her personal picks come from the corpus of country legend Hank Williams).

Learning Julius Caesar’s ueni uidi uici is cool.  But how much cooler is it when you learn that it’s quoted by one of history’s best rappers, Jay Z—“I came, I saw, I conquered / from record sales to sold-out concerts” (song: “Encore,” from The Black Album)?  And can re-imagine what he claimed at the time was his “final” album as a Roman triumphal procession?  When promoting his next album, Kingdom Come, Jay Z freestyled on the New York radio station Hot 97 to Coldplay’s song “Lost?” and invoked Caesar again: “see Caesar, see Brutus / see success is like suicide.”  These lines take us from Caesar triumphant to Caesar betrayed and assassinated.  The rapper at the height of his popularity, like the dictator at the height of his power, must always be on guard against traitors or haters.

Jay Z’s interest in classical culture shows up again in “No Church in the Wild,” from Watch the Throne:

tears on the Mausoleum floor
blood stains on the Colosseum doors

Socrates asked whose bias do y’all seek?
all for play though, screech

He’s moved from the Roman Republic of Caesar to the Roman Empire of the Colosseum and its proverbially (if perhaps not actually very) violent gladiatorial games.  So across three songs and three albums, Jay Z’s Roman references show a chronological progression matched by a decline in optimism, from triumph to mob violence.

There’s an excellent play on words in there, too: “all for play though” suggests the name of Socrates’ student Plato, since the line comes right after mention of Socrates himself.  Jay Z has previously called himself the Plato to the Notorious B.I.G.’s Socrates, and a “screech”—an annoying, screeching critic/hater—may touch on Socrates’ status as Athens’ “gadfly.”  (More on this, and lots more on the song’s lyrics, here.)  In the music video for “No Church in the Wild,” directed by Romain Gavras, classicizing statues form part of the backdrop for the video’s scenes of police/mob violence.  One of these sculptures is Hercules grappling with the Cretan Bull, his club echoing the police officers’ nightsticks, while in other shots a statue of Athena seems to preside over the battlefield, championing the demonstrators as a bunch of modern-day Achilleses.  Jay Z, we should note, isn’t the first American pop culture icon to draw on Plato: as James Warren points out, the year 1964 saw the release of Poitier Meets Plato, where Sidney Poitier read excerpts from the philosopher over jazz composed by Fred Katz.

And in the past couple years, Greek myth has been the centerpiece of at least three albums in different genres, by Dessa, Dar Williams, and Anaïs Mitchell, as profiled by Maddie Oatman.  Dessa’s 2011 album, Castor, The Twin invokes Prometheus, while her most recent album, Parts of Speech, has a song (“Fighting Fish”) that deals with Zeno.  Dar William’s recent album In the Time of the Gods was inspired by the gods of Greek myth.  Anaïs Mitchell’s folk album about the Orpheus myth, Hadestown, is the subject of an excellent article by Dave Oosterhuis (abstract here), part of last year’s volume 23 of Syllecta Classica, a special issue on classical reception in music that also includes a piece by Osman Umurhan on heavy metal (abstract).

What’s your favorite classics-inspired song or lyric?  Share it in the comments!  For more connections, check out the discussion on the Facebook group Classics International—including thorough treatment of Kanye West’s allusion to the 300 Spartans, Romans, and Trojans in the space of a couple lines in his 2013 song “Black Skinhead.”

T. H. M. Gellar-Goad's picture

T. H. M. Gellar-Goad is Assistant Professor of Classical Languages at Wake Forest University. He specializes in Latin poetry, especially the funny stuff: Roman comedy, Roman erotic elegy, Roman satire, and — if you believe him — the allegedly philosophical poet Lucretius. He's also one of "those gaming people" in Classics pedagogy. He can be contacted at thmgg@wfu.edu.

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