Marilyn Monroe has been the inspiration for so much art for so long that it’s easy sometimes to not even notice it. Lead singer Joe Elliot of Def Leppard was just three years old when Monroe passed away in 1962, but that didn’t stop her for being his muse for one of the band’s first big hits: “Photograph”, about a deep longing for someone who is unattainable. Clearly, Elliot could never have Monroe, but at least he could put her photograph on the single cover art and hire her doppelganger to star in the song’s music video. Joe Elliot would say in later years that the song had nothing to do with Marilyn Monroe, but that seems a little unlikely given the evidence to the contrary.
Def Leppard was among the most prominent bands in the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM) in the 1970s and 80s. They had a string of massive hits in the 80s that made them one of the most successful groups of the decade. Their style often fused fun, sex, and playfulness together with a truly powerful sonic attack. And 40 years later, they’re still going strong.
“Brown Sugar” by The Rolling Stones
Around 1970, Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger had a discreet but very intense affair with Marsha Hunt, a model, actress, and musician (she would later become an acclaimed writer). Jagger’s first child, daughter Karis, was born to Hunt in November of that year. No surprise then that she would inspire one of Jagger’s and the Stones’ most popular songs. The attribution to Hunt for inspiring the song has not been uncontroversial, however. Some have claimed that it was soul singer Claudia Lennear. She herself made that claim on a BBC radio interview many years later, saying that she and Jagger had been spending a lot of time together in those days.
But Marsha Hunt has stuck to her guns and insists she’s the one. And what a song! There’s the irresistible catchy groove. The chunky bluesy riff. The classic Jagger whiny wail. And then there are the lyrics. Very controversial at the time, to the point that Mick himself has said that he couldn’t have even written the song today. They cover every taboo subject from drugs to sex, including some rather explicit and kinky variations on that theme.
“Hey There Delilah” by Plain White T’s
“Hey There Delilah” is a bare-bones ballad detailing the pain and desire of a long-distance romance. When the relatively unknown Plain White T’s released it in 2005, it took over the world with its catchy melody and universal themes. So what and who is the song about? It so happens that the band’s lead singer Tom Higgenson had met champion long-distance runner, Delilah DiCrescenzo, and was immediately smitten with her beauty and charm. He told her that he had a song about her already. He was lying, but it was worth a try. Unfortunately, she turned him down, but he ended up writing the song anyway. And we’re happy he did.
So far, “Hey There Delilah” is the Plain White T’s only number one song. But what a song! In addition to selling gazillions of copies and making the band oodles of money, it was also nominated for a grammy, put on many critics’ lists of the best songs of the year, and even spoofed on Sesame Street.
“True Blue” by Madonna
By the time she wrote “True Blue” in 1986, Madonna was already dating her soon-to-be husband actor Sean Penn, and her feelings for him were too powerful to keep bottled up inside. She thought he was the most amazing guy she had ever met, and she needed to write a love song for him or else she would burst. Unfortunately, the marriage only lasted four years, ending amid rumors and allegations of abuse by Penn. Penn has denied the allegations and even sued people who made them, and Madonna for her part has always carried warm feelings for her ex-husband, remembering the letters he wrote her after her performances.
Talk about reinvention. It would have been hard to imagine at the dawn of the 1980s that this new bubblegum pop singer would continue to find new ways to stay one step ahead of the culture year after year, decade after decade. Madonna has truly been one of the driving forces of popular culture for over thirty years.
“Sweetest Thing” by U2
Bono, the lead singer of U2, wrote “Sweetest Thing” by way of apology to his wife Ali Hewson for leaving her alone for weeks at a time due to his hectic rock star schedule, and for skipping out on her birthday due to commitments involved with recording the Joshua Tree album. In his wife’s honor, Bono agreed to donate to Ali’s favorite charity, Chernobyl Children’s Project International, all the profits from the single. The original version of “Sweetest Thing” appeared as the B-side of “Where the Streets Have No Name”. In 1998, U2 re-recorded the song for inclusion on their Best of 1980-1990 compilation.
Ali Hewson, the inspiration for this lovely song, has been married to Bono for over 35 years. They have, by all accounts one of the most stable, loving, and long-lived marriages in the entertainment world. She has always shunned the spotlight but has been working tirelessly on various poverty-related projects.