10 Surprising Songs That Were Written About Real People


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When people still bought records, record companies sometimes expected musicians to produce as many as three albums a year. This caused many artists to scramble for sources of inspiration lest they violate the requirements of their recording contracts.

Luckily, there was always real life to draw upon. Musicians created some of their best work by writing about real people who had distinguished themselves in some way. Here’s our list of a few of them, demonstrating that a talented musician and wordsmith can turn any real-life situation into compelling art.

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1. ‘Sweet Caroline’ by Neil Diamond


According to an article in The Guardian in 2007, the Neil Diamond song “Sweet Caroline” is about Caroline Kennedy, daughter of former President John F. Kennedy. Seven years later, Diamond told CNN that the song was actually about his former wife Marsha, but the melody he had written required a three-syllable name to work.

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2. ‘Daniel’ by Elton John


The lyrics to “Daniel” were written by Elton John’s longtime songwriting partner Bernie Taupin. Taupin said he was inspired to write the lyrics after reading a magazine article about a Vietnam veteran. The veteran had come home after his tour of duty wanting only to be left alone, but instead found himself being treated like a celebrity. The song is sung from the point of view of “Daniel’s” little brother.

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3. ‘Stan’ by Eminem


“Stan” by Eminem does not tell the story of a real person. Rather, it tells the story of several real persons, all of whom sent the rapper fan letters that he found disturbing in how seriously they had taken the violent content of his lyrics. “Stan” was an attempt to address these fans and discourage them from expecting their needy fan letters to be answered. The song became such a phenomenon that the term “stan” was included in the Oxford English Dictionary in 2017 to describe an “excessively enthusiastic and devoted fan.”

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4. ‘Jeremy’ by Pearl Jam


“Jeremy” was one of several hit songs to appear on Pearl Jam’s debut album, “Ten”. It was based on the true story of high school student Jeremy Wade Delle, who committed suicide in front of his classmates in 1991. As opposed to glorifying the event, Pearl Jam singer Eddie Vedder said that he wrote the lyrics as a warning to kids contemplating taking their own lives. He said it was an act that would amount to no more than getting a paragraph in their local newspaper, as opposed to changing anything in a substantial way.

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5. ‘Piano Man’ by Billy Joel


Based on his experiences as a piano player in a Los Angeles bar, Billy Joel recorded “Piano Man” in 1973, the title track to his second album. Each character in the song, including the waitress “practicing politics” and the man “making love to his tonic and gin,” was based on a real person that Joel encountered while he tickled the ivories at the bar to make ends meet.

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6. ‘Dear Mama’ by Tupac Shakur


“Dear Mama” was Tupac Shakur’s tribute to his mother, Afeni Shakur, with whom he’d had a volatile and stormy relationship. He doesn’t pull any punches, but at the same time, the lyrics express as much admiration and love for her as they do disappointment.  This is most evident in the line, “…even as a crack fiend, mama, you always was a black queen.”

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7. ‘Jolene’ by Dolly Parton


If by some miracle you have not heard Dolly Parton’s masterpiece, “Jolene,” your quality of life is taking a hit, and you should listen immediately. Once you’ve familiarized yourself with the song, it may interest you to know that the titular hussy making a play for Dolly’s man was based on a bank teller who was a little too friendly with Parton’s husband for her liking. While the song is in a spooky minor key that suggests great despair, Parton insists that nothing untoward ever happened, and neither her husband nor the bank teller participated in any shenanigans.

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8. ‘Hurricane’ by Bob Dylan


Bob Dylan’s “Hurricane” was about the boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, who was wrongfully convicted of murder and imprisoned. Carter served almost 20 years before his conviction was voided in 1985 due to evidence being withheld from the boxer’s defense attorneys. Dylan wrote the song with Jacques Levy, who in addition to being a songwriter, was a clinical psychologist and the director of the scandalous off-Broadway play, “Oh! Calcutta!”

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9. ‘Miss Sarajevo’ by Passengers


“Miss Sarajevo” is a song credited to Passengers, but was the collaboration between the Irish band U2 and British musician Brian Eno. The song was written to celebrate the participants of a beauty pageant that was held right in the middle of the Siege of Sarajevo during the Bosnian War. The winner, 17-year-old Inela Nogic, was invited onstage during a 1997 U2 performance in Sarajevo, where lead singer Bono did his best Bert Parks impression and serenaded her.

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10. ‘How Do You Sleep?’ by John Lennon


The Beatles broke up in 1970, and over the next couple of years, fans had ample opportunity to see that certain band members had a bee in their bonnets about the others. One such member was John Lennon, and while his “Imagine” album is best known for its corny title track, it also features the highly barbed “How Do You Sleep?” This song contains multiple digs at Paul McCartney, perhaps none so cutting as “The sound you make is muzak to my ears.” Come on, John Lennon, let’s not say things we can’t take back!

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