Creators of all stripes know that the most cliché question an interviewer can ask–and often the most difficult one to answer–is "Where do you get your ideas?" Inspiration is a nebulous thing, difficult to describe and more difficult to precisely quantify. Unless, of course, it comes from a single event, object or individual. Tribute songs to real-life people abound in pop music, though most–from Sufjan Stevens' "John Wayne Gacy, Jr.," off his new Illinois, to Barenaked Ladies' "Brian Wilson" to Weezer's "Buddy Holly"–simply use a famous or infamous figure as a tool for self-reflection. But some tribute songs are less complicated; sometimes, musicians get as starstruck as anyone else, and unsurprisingly, they choose to express their fascination or fandom in song. Here, The A.V. Club breaks down some of the many tribute songs aimed at film stars and film personalities.
Representative lyric: "Turn your back on Austin Powers / Happiness will soon be ours / Rollergirl, I need you near me / The TV's on, why can't you hear me? / Heather Graham… she's so pretty."
Does it portray the subject accurately? Probably not. This is a comic song written from the point of view of an obsessed and deeply deluded fan, not a real-world portrait. Also, a relatively small subsection of the populace is likely to know whether Graham, as the lyrics suggest, actually "tastes like cotton candy."
Flattering or creepy? Creepy, but in an entirely self-aware and humorous way. That is, presuming the lyricist is just joking around about graciously accepting a life of stalking the actress in lieu of hot sex with her.
Representative lyric: "He makes the best fucking films / If I ever meet him, I'm gonna grab his fuckin' neck and just shake him / And say 'Thank you, thank you for makin' such excellent fuckin' movies!'"
Does it portray the subject accurately? Yes. Scorsese does indeed make the best fucking films.
Flattering or creepy? Extremely creepy. More a rant than a song, "Martin Scorsese" mostly revolves around the enthusiastic violence that singer John S. Hall would like to perpetrate on Scorsese to show his appreciation for the director's work. From such fandom comes restraining orders.
Representative lyric: "The only living movie star I've ever adored… Takes all my concentration not to fall on the floor / At the feet of that fabulous mega-movie star / Harrison Ford."
Does it portray the subject accurately? Sort of. Lavin's cheery folk song documents an actual accidental meeting with Ford, who apparently smiled at her and sent her a detailed telepathic order to keep moving and not spoil his quiet evening. While her fannish description of Ford as "just a regular guy / Okay, with better brawn and brains and bones" seems perfectly accurate, few other singers have commented on his psychic powers.
Flattering or creepy? Flattering and kind, respecting Ford's humanity and right to privacy while simultaneously ecstatically drooling over him. This is a much sweeter tribute than Lavin's "Prince Charles," an even more tongue-in-cheek 1981 tribute declaring her heartbreak over Charles leaving the singles market. ("Oh, maybe you got panicky, thinking you were losing your looks / Well confidentially, Chuck, you got no looks to lose…")
Representative lyric: "In the alien light of the spaceship of love, I need / David Duchovny hovering above me / American Heathcliff, brooding and comely / David Duchovny, why won't you love me?"
Does it portray the subject accurately? Not really. Heathcliff was a violent jerk, whereas Duchovny is clearly more lover than fighter. Unless Sharp is referring to Heathcliff the cartoon cat, who does somewhat resemble Duchovny.
Flattering or creepy? Flattering to Duchovny, though Sharp's portrayal of herself as a "mindless clone" isn't exactly flattering to her, and her proclamation that she's "gonna kill Scully" might be considered a bit harsh. (Still, who didn't sometimes want to kill Scully?)
Representative lyric: "I really loved The Getaway back when I was eight / That pussy Alec Baldwin sucked in the remake / And speaking of pussy, I guess Steve got it all / He fucked Faye Dunaway and he fucked Ali McGraw."
Does it portray the subject accurately? The nationwide poll to determine whether McQueen is indeed "the coolest doggone motherscratcher on the silver screen" is still being conducted, but exit polls imply this song does accurately sum up the actor's manly chic. Besides, the Getaway remake definitely sucked.
Flattering or creepy? Drive-By Truckers' take on McQueen is raunchier than the many other tribute songs named after him, but unlike Sheryl Crow's self-absorbed folk-rock song or Lambchop's opaque neo-soul crooner, this song is actually mostly about the actor. Given his legendary ego, he probably would have found that flattering.
Representative lyric: "You are my favorite movie star / You are my big buddy / You are a low-down rotten man / You are crazy like a road lizard / Arnold Schwarzenegger / Arnold Schwarzenegger / Arnold Schwarzenegger / Arnold Schwarzenegger."
Does it portray the subject accurately? Depends. Exactly how crazy is a road lizard?
Flattering or creepy? Willis' many, many tribute songs ("Bill Clinton," "Courtney Love," "Oprah Winfrey," "Wesley Willis," etc.) are simultaneously creepy and naïvely charming, given their pattern of appreciative or odd declarative statements and chanting of the subject's name. But given his frequent fascination with what kind of animal his subjects could beat up (Dave Grohl could "really whip a polar bear's ass," while Alanis Morissette could take on a horse's ass), "Arnold Schwarzenegger" can't be considered one of his more flattering songs: Schwarzenegger's ass-whipping capability isn't even considered. Surely he could at least take on a crocodile's ass?
Representative lyric: "Here's a guy doing what he should / Relapse… recovery! / Relapse… recovery!"
Does it portray the subject accurately? Absolutely. The endless catchy alternating chant of "Relapse… recovery!" not only sums up Downey's life, it sums up how mesmerizing his penduluming career can be, especially to the tabloids.
Flattering or creepy? While it's more unsettling than creepy, "Robert Downey, Jr." gets more personal than most of the songs on Her Love Is Real, a dance-punk concept album on which each track bears the name of a star, though the songs are more often about movies and movie characters than the actors behind them. "Sedgwick" (a.k.a. Supersystem's Justin Moyer) pays Downey more direct attention, but the results still aren't very flattering.
Representative lyric: "This is my only escape from it all / Watching a film or a face on the wall / Robert De Niro's waiting, talking Italian… I don't want a boy, I've got a man of steel."
Does it portray the subject accurately? Not in any particularly intimate way. He's certainly more man of steel than boy, though the song entirely underrates his ability to speak in other languages, such as, say, English.
Flattering or creepy? Entirely flattering; the song portrays De Niro as the ultimate escape from a bad life and from the boring, duplicitous "boys living next door." Also, nothing this upbeat and hooky could possibly be creepy.
Representative lyric: "You poor city of shame / Ask me what you're needing, I'll sell you his name / 'Cos he was the one to send it with truth… Complete control for Cassavetes / If it's not for sale, you can't buy it."
Does it portray the subject accurately? Definitely. Fugazi's portrayal of John Cassavetes pinpoints his independence and his quality as a filmmaker. It also repeatedly name-checks his wife and frequent collaborator Gena Rowlands.
Flattering or creepy? Flattering, though a little rawer and screamier even than Cassavetes' most emotional and confrontational dramas.
Elton John, "Candle In The Wind" (available on Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and countless greatest-hits compilations)
Representative lyric: "Goodbye Norma Jean / From the young man in the 22nd row / Who sees you as something as more than sexual / More than just our Marilyn Monroe."
Does it portray the subject accurately? Through a weepy, sentimental lens, perhaps, but nothing about the song is particularly controversial.
Flattering or creepy? Possibly the most famous superstar-tribute song ever written, Elton John's Marilyn Monroe ballad portrays her as a lovely, larger-than-life tragic figure; it's flattering in every way. By contrast, his decision to tweak just a few words and make it into a Princess Diana elegy years later was pretty creepy. Something to keep in mind when writing tribute songs: Keep them nice and general, and they'll keep raking in the dough decades after their once-famous subjects are old news.