Beyond love, heartbreak, politics, and general boasting, there’s no subject so prevalent in popular music as the form itself. Bands and artists have been writing songs about how great music is since the dawn of the radio. It simultaneously taps into their greatest passions and keeps folk coming back for more - if this so-called “music” is so great, we’d better stay tuned!
Sometimes, though, songwriters sharpen their focus and pen tunes about specific bands, artists, or genres. This might be a touching tribute to a contemporary who’s recently passed, an ode to a legend who’s influenced them, or a celebration of the wild life and times of an important part of the musical landscape.
This can take the form of a lazy namedrop which attempts to give the song some relevance - Maroon 5 pulled this off particularly effectively - but we’re here to talk about the referential and reverential music that does the job far better, highlighting and even turning listeners onto the work of fellow artists.
Most importantly, they’re just a collection of great tunes, regardless of the subject matter.
10. Phoenix - Lisztomania
The opening track on French indie rockers Phoenix’s breakthrough fourth album makes reference to the 19th century Hungarian composer Franz Liszt. And while lyrically it doesn’t dwell on the works of the bombastic pianist, its giddy, gleeful sound does evoke the spirit of the musician as well as the frenzied responses his performances could whip up, thereby coining the sensation.
Phoenix’s song is built not out of wild piano runs but a skippy guitar riff and a vocal performance from Thomas Mars that may not be as wild as Liszt's keyboard but certainly jumps all over the scale. It’s as blissful a song as Phoenix had recorded to date and ushered in their ascension to the (indie) big time.
Franz Liszt is sometimes portrayed as the first rock star, turning his concerts from something to be admired quietly to a communal spectacle, with his fans losing their 19th century minds as he took the stage. And it’s this sense of joy in performance and music that Phoenix bring to their own music. It’s simultaneously carefree and momentus, a tune ushering in the new era of the band through sheer force of fun.