1. Kanye West, “Monster”
The centerpiece track of Kanye West’s 2010 album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy finds West and friends embracing their metaphorical monstrousness and running with it. “Everybody know I’m a motherfucking monster,” West raps early on his verse. He’s being ironic, sort of, but he sounds liberated by the idea that if everyone hates him anyway, he may as well live up to their worst expectations. Contributions from Rick Ross and Jay-Z sound the same notes, but it’s Nicki Minaj’s verse that makes the track live up to its name as she transforms herself into one persona after another, each a little more monstrous than the last. Her shapeshifting’s gotten a little tiresome since then, but here it goes beyond arresting to become almost, well, scary.
2. Metallica, “Some Kind Of Monster”
Eventually lending its name to Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s documentary about the torturous process of putting together Metallica’s 2003 album, St. Anger, “Some Kind Of Monster” describes the anguish, anxiety, hate, and fear of many being synthesized into one voice—the perfect heavy-metal Frankenstein analogy. Or perhaps a metaphor for modern-day Metallica, a band that had to relearn to work together as a single unit (in front of Berlinger and Sinofsky’s cameras) in order to deliver St. Anger. As with any good riff on Mary Shelley’s definitive creation, a sense of a creation beyond its creator’s control pervades “Some Kind Of Monster”—each time James Hetfield barks the refrain “We the people / Are we the people?” it becomes increasingly unclear whether master made monster or monster made master.
3. Eels, “My Beloved Monster”
As a result of its inclusion on the soundtrack to the first Shrek film, millions of mainstream music listeners continue to labor under the delusion that Mark Oliver Everett, otherwise known as E, always meant for “My Beloved Monster” to be taken literally. But when the track made its debut on the first Eels album, 1996’s Beautiful Freak, the story of the world’s most famous green ogre was still half a decade away from hitting the big screen. Not unlike the title cut of the album on which it appears, “My Beloved Monster” seems to be less about an actual monster and more about a woman that’s a bit out of the ordinary and therefore isn’t necessarily embraced by the world at large. “My beloved monster is tough,” sings E, but although she may be perceived as monstrous to others, he sees her as his built-in buffer “between me and the awful sting / That comes from living in a world / That’s so damn mean.”
4. PJ Harvey, “Who Will Love Me Now?”
“In the forest is a monster / and it looks so very much like me,” PJ Harvey sings with uncharacteristic plaintive sweetness in “Who Will Love Me Now?”, the dreamy track that serves as the central theme of Philip Ridley’s 1995 film The Passion Of Darkly Noon. Brendan Fraser stars as a confused, repressed young man brought up in a religious cult, then further isolated by his parents’ death; what follows is a ponderous welter of sexual obsession, violence, and death, all set in the deep, dark North Carolina woods. Harvey’s mournful song—written by Ridley and Nick Bicât—describes Fraser’s feelings of emotional longing, sexual turmoil, and horror at his own actions. He’s the monster at the end of the book, but while he’s done more to earn fear and disapprobation than love, he can’t help wondering whether anyone left in the world is capable of seeing past his bloody history to the desperate need that spawned it: “Who will forgive and make me live again? / Who will bring me back to the world again?”
5. Fred Schneider, “Monster”
When Fred Schneider decided to step away briefly from The B-52s in 1984 and record an album with his so-called Shake Society—the 1991 CD reissue dismissed any reference to a backing band and treated it as the Schneider solo record it always was—he didn’t exactly go out of his way to avoid sonic comparisons to his full-time gig, bringing in fellow vocalist Kate Pierson to join him on several songs. Nor did he make any attempt to be subtle with his metaphors, a tendency most notably on display during “Monster,” in which Schneider gets giddily phallic, singing, “There’s a monster in my pants / And it does a nasty dance / When it moves in and out / Everybody starts to shout.” In a possible attempt to calm FCC concerns about the song’s naughtiness, Schneider does take the time to add an otherwise-unrelated line about the monster’s “giant claws and its razor-sharp beak” late in the proceedings, but by that point, anyone who thinks he’s singing about Rodan is kidding themselves.
6. Marilyn Manson, “Unkillable Monster”
In a rare moment of introspection, Marilyn Manson lingers candidly on his own image and legacy in his 2009 song “Unkillable Monster.” Either that or it’s just a bunch of random, self-obsessed bullshit. Either way, the track’s morbid lyrics dish up a dizzying serving of horrific metaphors, including his self-identification as an “exterminating angel”—and the object of his desire as “a coffin of a girl I knew / And I’m buried in you.”
7. Johnny Cash, “The Beast In Me”
Johnny Cash was a famously haunted man. So who better to sing of the monster that lies deep within the psyche of every man and woman than the Man In Black? In “The Beast In Me,” a Nick Lowe-written standout track from Cash’s 1994 comeback album American Recordings, the eternal battle between good and evil plays out in microcosm inside a narrator who has learned to live and even make peace with demons that perpetually threaten to escape their flimsy cage. It’s a wry and heartrending portrait of the duality of humanity and the internal monster each of us must keep at bay.
8. Lady Gaga, “Monster”
In Lady Gaga’s usual paradigm, monsters are just all the freaks and geeks like her, people who don’t fit into the mainstream and sometimes feel apart and unloved, but are beautiful in their own fantastical way. (She even refers to her fans as “little monsters” and herself as “Mother Monster.”) But her song “Monster” embraces a different use of the word entirely. The whispered lead-up to the song showcases an unusually coy version of her persona, one who flirts in increasingly shy, vulnerable ways before telling the story of how her crush object “ate my heart and then he ate my brain.” The woman telling the story sounds like she’s strong enough to be astonished when a “boy” overrules and controls her, first on the dance floor, and then in bed. She’s largely a willing victim, but she’s still overwhelmed at how thoroughly her monster lover possesses and consumes her, and at the terrifying possibility that she might actually love him. “He’s a wolf in disguise,” she sings, “But I can’t stop staring in those evil eyes.”
9. David Bowie, “Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)”
Three years before playing a vampire in The Hunger, David Bowie warmed up with the spooky, edgy, Halloween-friendly “Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps).” Reciting a psychological horror story in a gothic deadpan, he uses the song as a portrait of a woman’s descent into madness—with the “scary monsters” being the various gremlins, hobgoblins, and paranoid fantasies that haunt her damaged psyche.
10. Christine Pilzer, “Dracula”
French singer Christine Pilzer’s 1966 single “Dracula” leans on a monster-as-metaphor staple, using vampiric appetite as a stand-in for sexual pursuit. Dracula sees his prey, his eyes light up, and the chase begins. Of course, as is fitting with any real horror story, the prey’s not exactly into it, and since the prey here is a “little girl,” things take an efficient dive toward child-predator territory pretty quickly—especially given Pilzer’s pouty, punish-me-sir delivery on these words. Pilzer pleads for the girl’s fate throughout the chorus (which translates as “Have pity, Dracula, spare her!”), though it’s not clear whether she’s referring to the girl’s heart or something significantly seedier.
11. Concrete Blonde, “Bloodletting (The Vampire Song)”
Like all good monster-as-metaphor songs, Concrete Blonde’s “Bloodletting” can easily be read any way the listener likes. Is it a literal New Orleans vampire story in the Anne Rice tradition, about a woman waking up after an evening with a supernatural predator, finding she’s been converted, and taking some time to assess her new state? Or in a less fantasy/horror-skewed reading, is the singer just reacting to a lover who either took or gave far more than she was expecting, leaving her reeling, unsettled, and jarred out of her usual way of seeing the world? The lyrics support either reading just fine, as writer/singer Johnette Napolitano bellows, “You were a vampire, and baby, I’m the walking dead… You were a vampire and I may never see the light.”
12. Neil Young, “Vampire Blues”
The ’70s was a decade of economic despair, corporate excess, and high gas prices—in other words, entirely undistinguishable from today. Which is why the central metaphor of Neil Young’s “Vampire Blues” remains so eerily relevant. The 1974 song uses the hoary Dracula mythos as a stand-in for the geopolitical ills of petroleum dependency. “I’m a vampire, baby / Sucking blood from the earth,” Young cackles, playing the part of an oil baron drilling deep into the planet’s fertile flesh. And just to make sure that subtle point isn’t lost, he adds, “I’m a black bat, baby / I need my high octane.”
13. T. Rex, “Jeepster”
Trying to untangle Marc Bolan’s psychotropic knot of lyrical symbolism is a fool’s errand. On the 1971 song “Jeepster,” the T. Rex frontman babbles glamtastically about a woman he’d like to, well, ride around in. But he takes a break from the extended autoerotic metaphor to switch briefly into Nosferatu mode: “Girl, I’m just a vampire for your love,” he croons toothily, “I’m gonna suck you.” Granted, that last line is probably entirely literal.
14. Alice Cooper, “Feed My Frankenstein”
Some songs use monster metaphors in complex, clever, and even profound ways. And then there’s Alice Cooper’s “Feed My Frankenstein.” The 1992 track comes on with all the subtlety of a lumbering ogre. But unlike Cooper’s 1987 song “Teenage Frankenstein,” which deals with the famous monster in a more or less literal fashion, “Feed My Frankenstein” isn’t about Mary Shelley’s creation; instead the shock-rock singer makes it clear he’s talking about the creature that dwells in his pants: “Feed my Frankenstein / Meet my libido / He’s a psycho.”
15. Aimee Mann, “Frankenstein”
In “Frankenstein” Aimee Mann seizes upon Mary Shelley’s monster as a potent metaphor for the inherent futility of trying to create new romances and conceive dream partners out of the dismembered corpses of previous affairs and lovers long discarded. It’s a song about the long shadow the past casts over the present, and the impossibility of starting fresh when you’re the romantic equivalent of a mad scientist who tries to breathe new life into dead forms, creating a monster of your own devising.
16. New York Dolls, “Frankenstein”
Gazing on the three things in the world closest to his heart—his band, his fans, and his beloved New York City—David Johansen can only conclude, “Something must’ve happened over Manhattan.” Almost 40 years before Lady Gaga, Johansen accepted the mainstream culture’s verdict that he was a mutant freak performing for other mutant freaks—monsters—and, rather than apologizing for it or sentimentalizing it, waved it like a flag. Though there’s something conventional about his identification with a monster as a misunderstood creature deserving of love, he’s just greasing the chute before sending down a much blunter challenge: “Do you think you could make it with Frankenstein?”
17. Sylvester Stallone, “Drinkenstein”
As evidenced by the likes of “White Lightning” and “Don’t Come Home A Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ On Your Mind)” (not to mention, er, “Red Solo Cup”), alcohol is one of country music’s crucial creative lubricants. Drinking great quantities of the stuff is also the best way to get through the entirety of Rhinestone, the 1984 Dolly Parton-Sylvester Stallone flop that took home two Razzie Awards, including Worst Original Song for the sudsy, Parton-penned monstrosity “Drinkenstein.” Even when it’s not having the last syllable of its title slammed into the back of Stallone’s front teeth, the track is a low point in Parton’s repertoire, full of ham-fisted Famous Monsters Of Filmland imagery that breaks the No. 1 rule of all Frankenstein allusions: It’s Dr. Drinkenstein and Drinkenstein’s monster. Pinning the blame on Budweiser suits the meter of the song better, though—it’s at least a better fit than the pelt-covered Nudie suit Stallone wears while singing the song in Rhinestone.
18. The Cranberries, “Zombie”
Few sounds on earth, either natural or manmade, are as indelible as Dolores O’Riordan’s vocals on The Cranberries’ “Zombie”—if here “indelible” means “ouch.” Still, there’s a haunting quality to one of the most overplayed, histrionic songs of the ’90s, and much of that has to do with its central metaphor: the way the unrest in Northern Ireland empowers individuals to carry out brutal acts of violence with all the moral conscience of the undead.
19. Fela Kuti, “Zombie”
Most monster references in pop music are all in good fun, but Fela Kuti was playing with fire when he recorded this epic number, the title track to his 1977 album, which equates the thugs of the Nigerian army with the walking dead. These zombies, Fela says, can’t think for themselves, but will do anything their masters tell them to do: Go, stop, turn left, turn right, march, piss, kill. The record marked a significant moment in his relationship with the military: Eager to prove his point for him, Nigerian soldiers issued a music review in the form of an attack on Fela’s commune, where they beat the singer and his mother, destroyed his recording studio and master tapes, and burned the place to the ground.
20. The Kinks, “King Kong”
The King Kong of pop-culture myth was a victim of capitalist exploitation who regained his dignity by fighting his tormentors and dying for love. But for Ray Davies, a great pop songwriter whose relationship to pop culture has always been ambiguous at best, the name conjures up nothing but size and power. Rich, famous, and threatening, his 800-pound gorilla is packing “a big six-gun” and “ a hydrogen bomb,” as well as something that’s “10 feet long”—an adjective that he may have chosen instead of “tall” just because it rhymes with “Kong,” (or maybe not). From the sound of his bluster, and the repeated insistence that “Everybody wants to be King Kong,” one might think he was boasting—that is, if Davies hadn’t written so many songs devoted to expressing contempt for most things that he thinks “everybody wants.”
21. Donovan, “Season Of The Witch”
Donovan has a lingering reputation as a purveyor of rosy-tinted, hippie-dippie odes to flowers, sunshine, and mellow vibes, but his most enduring songs—such as “Hurdy Gurdy Man,” which made for an invaluable contribution to the soundtrack of David Fincher’s Zodiac—have an eerie undercurrents. That’s certainly the case with this song, which is another favorite of moviemakers—Martin Scorsese used it as the working title for what became Mean Streets. It’s especially popular among editors piecing together images of ’60s street violence and demonstrations, and since it was first released in 1966, it’s come to seem more and more like a prophetic vision of the souring of that utopian decade, the road to Woodstock that somehow veered off toward the Spahn Ranch. Discussing it in 2005, Donovan almost disavowed conscious responsibility for it, noting that “It was a chilling sound to come from me, and I didn’t know where it was coming from at first.”
22. Warren Zevon, “Werewolves Of London”
If famed session guitarist Waddy Wachtel can be taken at his word, the lyrics to “Werewolves Of London” are just a bunch of nonsense tossed out over the course of a single afternoon and one long night in the studio. The song’s painless genesis (in composition, at least—Wachtel and his co-producer on Warren Zevon’s Excitable Boy LP, Jackson Browne, tried out and dismissed multiple rhythm sections in the studio before settling on Fleetwood Mac’s John McVie and Mick Fleetwood) suggest that lines like, “I saw a werewolf with a Chinese menu in his hand / walking through Soho in the rain” are meant to be taken at face value. But there’s a creature that’s more man than wolf lurking beneath the surface of Zevon’s greatest gift to bar bands and Martin Scorsese, a sneaky subtext mocking the mating, grooming, and tropical-cocktail habits of a 1970s bachelor on the make. Subscribe to Wachtel’s “stupid on purpose” origin story if you like, but would a committed ironist like Zevon really play his dance with Lon Cheney and son so straight?
23. Fiona Apple, “Werewolf”
Fiona Apple makes no bones about the metaphorical conceit of this song, off of this year’s The Idler Wheel…, listing all the things she could liken to her former lover and the nature of their relationship: a hungry shark circling a bleeding, open wound; a bolt of electricity striking at a wishing well; or the titular werewolf drawn to a full moon, which the singer provided for him. Being that this is Fiona Apple, it’s a melancholy, introspective song about the nuances of a destructive relationship, and she acknowledges that her lupine subject, who “left her for dead,” was actually a super guy until he “got a whiff” of her. In the end, the only way to prevent either party from getting hurt and doing damage is to separate the cause from the effect.
24. The Police, “Spirits In The Material World”
Political disenfranchisement is exactly the kind of topic most people expect Sting to sing about, and he obliges in “Spirits In The Material World.” The song—which appears, aptly enough, on the 1981 album Ghost In The Machine—compares those whose voices can’t or won’t be heard to disembodied spirits cursed to haunt the real world without consequence. It’s a pretentious, melodramatic way of analogizing the basic issues of class, power, and privilege. Then again, we are talking about Sting here.
25. Psychedelic Furs, “The Ghost In You”
As the purveyors of “Pretty In Pink,” Psychedelic Furs have the market cornered on ’80s teen angst. But there’s something far more downbeat and understated about one of the band’s lesser-known (but equally good) songs, “The Ghost In You.” Granted, frontman Richard Butler’s lyrics are a bit on the abstruse side, but the overall atmosphere of the track is more or less clear: “Angels fall like rain / And love is all of heaven away,” he croons, “Inside you the time moves, and she don’t fade / The ghost in you, she don’t fade.” So, like, memories are ghosts. Or something. In any case, Butler’s gravelly voice sells it, even if the metaphor itself is as blurry as an apparition.
26. Tegan And Sara, “Walking With A Ghost”
“No matter which way you go, no matter which way you stay / You’re out of my mind,” Tegan And Sara sing on “Walking With A Ghost.” The sentiment sounds like false bravado, though. The ghost here is intangible but not insubstantial, and the refrain of “You’re out of my mind” sounds like someone protesting too much. That ghost isn’t going away any time soon.