Muses have always played a powerful role in art. From Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa to Kate Moss inspiring entire fashion lines in her heyday, artists have always been able to create memorable works when they come into contact with people who make them feel something.
And it’s no different when it comes to music. We’ve sang so many of these songs out loud, not knowing the folks who inspired them. Here are the real life people who inspired nine of the most popular songs in modern music history.
1. Uptown Girl by Billy Joel
The lyrics to Billy Joel’s catchy 1983 hit describes a poor man who is in love with an upper class girl. Chances are you at least know the part of the song which goes, “Uptown girl, she’s been living in her uptown world. I bet she’s never had a backstreet guy. I bet her momma never told her why.”
An interesting fact is that the song was inspired by the real-life Uptown girls in Joel’s life. When he started writing the song, he was dating famous model, Elle Macpherson. When the relationship ended, Joel began dating Christine Brinkley, another famous model.
The song talks about him, Joel, dating a hot, upper-class girl, Macpherson, and later, Brinkley. Uptown Girl must have done its magic because Brinkley starred in the music video and married him two years later.
2. Maybe I’m Amazed by Paul McCartney
Paul McCartney was a founding member of The Beatles who remains wildly popular. When the band broke up in 1969, he was hit particularly hard by what he referred to as the band’s “divorce.” Paul sunk into a deep depression and later credited his wife, Linda, with helping him get through this particularly tough time.
The song Maybe I’m Amazed talks about the bond the two have and his awe at her love for him. It is just one of several songs he wrote for her during the course of their 30 year relationship before she passed away.
3. Sweet Child o’ Mine by Guns N Roses
In the 1980s, lead singer Axl Rose was smitten by his model girlfriend, Erin Everly. Like most lovesick young men, he decided to write a poem for her but was struggling with the right words.
One day, he heard Slash, the band’s guitarist pay a riff in the upstairs room of the house they were staying in. It immediately inspired him to finish Erin’s poem which he later turned into the band’s biggest hits and one of the greatest rock love songs in history.
4. Take a Look at Me Now by Phil Collins
Phil Collins wrote this iconic hit after his marriage to his first wife, Andrea Bertorelli ended. He wrote the song in a moment of desperation, hoping the song could reconcile them. He said he hoped, “When she hears this, it’s all going to be OK.”
Although the song did not have the intended effect he hoped for, Collins is still grateful for this period of heartbreak which he says helped transform him from a musician into a lyricist. We’re also grateful because without his breakup, we’d never have this karaoke song whose lyrics everyone feels guilty about knowing in its entirety.
5. Chelsea Hotel No. 2 by Leonard Cohen
In 1968, Leonard Cohen was living, poor and alone, in a cheap hotel room in New York City. The Chelsea Hotel was famous for the icons who had stayed there at one point in time so he was not particularly surprised when he bumped into Janis Joplin in the elevator one night.
Although she was looking for someone else, Cohen decided to try his luck and the two went to his hotel room and had an affair which lasted only a few hours. Afterwards, he penned a song about the encounter, specifically about Joplin giving him a blowjob on that night. About the song, Cohen later said, “She would not have minded. My mother would have minded.”
6. Candle in the Wind by Elton John
Contrary to what most people think, Candle in the Wind was not originally composed for Princess Diana. The song was first recorded in 1973 and was a tribute to Marilyn Monroe. In it, Elton sang about his sadness at never meeting Monroe because he was so young when she died.
When Princess Diana was killed in a car crash, Elton’s lyricist rewrote the lyrics as a tribute to her. This modern version became one of the best singles of all time, causing most to forget the original version.
7. Jump by Van Halen
Not all songs have been inspired by people whom the singers knew intimately. Despite its upbeat tune, Van Halen’s timeless hit, Jump, is actually about a suicidal man standing on top of a high building whom one of the band members remembered seeing on TV the day before.
The band member mused that onlookers were probably yelling at the man to “go ahead and jump.” Perhaps, wisely, other band members suggested they present the song as an invitation to love instead of an encouragement to commit suicide.
8. Layla by Eric Clapton
In the 1960s and 70s, Eric Clapton was hopelessly obsessed with his close friend’s wife, Pattie Boyd. How obsessed you ask? When he realized he couldn’t get her, Clapton entered a relationship and moved in with her sister just so he could be close to her. The song talks about how desperately he wants her to pay attention to him and how he longs to have her. Eric and Pattie eventually got together and got married but split up after a decade.
9. Don’t Speak by No Doubt
No Doubt was one of the most iconic bands of the 90s and are remembered for many of their songs, including Don’t Speak which sounds best when you’re howling it in the shower. The hit song was actually inspired by Gwen Stefani’s real-life heartbreak which tore the band apart.
After seven years together, Gwen’s boyfriend and fellow bandmate, Tony Kanal, suddenly broke up with her. Gwen was devastated, saying later that she’d hoped she’d “get married and have babies with him.”
She later penned the song to describe the heartbreak she and the rest of the band were feeling about the relationship’s end. Gwen recently said she still can’t sing the song without getting emotional.
Neither can we, Gwen, neither can we.