The 25 Best Self-Referential Songs

Music Lists Self-Referential Songs
The 25 Best Self-Referential Songs

Artists have been referencing themselves in their art since the ancient Greek civilization—or possibly even earlier. The art of referring to oneself through literature, music, film, philosophy, architecture and cultural criticism has also been associated with a more recent movement—postmodernism. In fact, earlier this year, we heard New York indie rockers Vampire Weekend refer to themselves by recycling an old lyric on their new song “Harmony Hall.” In celebration of this wondrous ancient and postmodern device, Paste decided to list 25 of our favorite songs with self-referential lyrics. We listed the songs in alphabetical order and decided to limit this list to songs with direct self-references—meaning songs that explicitly referenced the artist’s given name, stage name or another one of their recordings.

25. Minutemen: “History Lesson – Part II”

California punk rockers Minutemen weren’t your run-of-the-mill punk band. Their songs had short, unusual structures, and they experimented with many other genres. Despite their cult status, they were still a bunch of guitar-wielding dorks from San Pedro, Calif., and they decided to take themselves down a peg and reaffirm their DIY ideals on their 1984 song “History Lesson – Part II.” On the simple, self-effacing track, D. Boon sang, “Me and Mike Watt, we played for years / Punk rock changed our lives / We learned punk rock in Hollywood / Drove up from Pedro / We were fucking corndogs / We’d go drink and pogo.” The song’s first lyric (“Our band could be your life”) was also used as the title of Michael Azerrad’s celebrated 2001 book on the history of American underground rock in the ’80s.

24. Prince: “My Name Is Prince”

The second single from Prince’s 1992 LP, The Love Symbol Album, with his band The New Power Generation is probably longer than it needs to be, but it’s the lavish pop indulgence and celebration of a musical iconoclast that makes it gleam. Its hypnotic dance beats, funky grooves and a rap verse from Tony M. make it as hard to pin down as Prince himself, and Prince delivers a fitting lyrical tribute to well, Prince: “My name is Prince and I am funky / My name is Prince the one and only / I did not come to funk around / ‘Till I get your daughter I won’t leave this town.”

23. Kool and the Gang: “Hollywood Swinging”

One of America’s seminal funk bands Kool and the Gang know a thing or two about a slick groove. You can certainly get down to their 1974 brass-filled single “Hollywood Swinging,” but it’s also perfect for strutting down the street with a popped collar, an extra spring in your step and your head held high. Robert “Kool” Bell sings with a polished swagger, “I remember / Not too long ago / I went to a theater / And I saw the Kool and The Gang Show / I always wanted / To fit into a band / To sing my songs / And become a bad piano playing man.”

22. Hot Chip: “The Warning”

Hot Chip’s minimalist pop number “The Warning” is one of the most threatening bits of electro-pop you’ll ever hear—and not because of the skeletal, dainty instrumentals. After declaring himself “a mechanical music man” who’s “starting a fire,” frontman Alexis Taylor sings, “Hot Chip will break your legs, snap off your head / Hot Chip will put you down, under the ground.” When repeated for the final time, the Hot Chip lyric is even more amusing when coupled with a teeny tiny xylophone. It also begs the question—is this the only time anyone has ever threatened to snap someone’s head off with a cute, dinky xylophone accompaniment?

21. The Hold Steady: “Positive Jam”

On “Positive Jam,” the lead track from the debut Hold Steady album, Almost Killed Me, Craig Finn synthesizes the distinct aura of previous decades into bitesized laugh lines (“Woke up in the twenties / There were flappers and fruits in white suits…Some Kennedy’s got shot while you were screwing San Francisco”). After dramatizing the misery of decades past, Finn offers whippersnappers solace via good ‘ol fashioned rock ‘n’ roll: “All the sniffling indie kids / Hold steady / All the clustered up clever kids / Hold steady / I got bored when I didn’t have a band / So I started a band / We’re gonna start it with a positive jam / Hold steady.”

20. Devo: “Jocko Homo”

Energy dome-donning New Wave punks Devo wrote perhaps the wonkiest call and response anthem in the history of pop music, “Jocko Homo.” Sandwiched between lyrics about snails and “teachers and critics” who “all dance the poot,” were the lines “Are we not men? / We are Devo,” which formed the basis for their debut album title Q. Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! “Jocko Homo” has become something of a theme song for the band, and it’s one of few pop culture musings on devolution (“God made man / But a monkey supplied the glue”).

19. Queen Latifah: “Latifah’s Law”

While Queen Latifah’s debut album is best known for “Ladies First,” her female empowerment anthem with Monie Love, “Latifah’s Law” felt like a more concise representation of Latifah and her arrival as a solo artist. With a backing of reggae beats and a strutting horn loop, “Latifah’s Law” is a celebration of individuality, independence, Afrocentrism and self-confidence. She closes the track by laying down some ground rules: “Your showtimes, you behind, the Queen Latifah divine / Rule number one: don’t step across the line that I drew / Number two: don’t take credit for something that you didn’t do / Number three: check your heart, every man has a call / It’s time for me to go, but I’ll be back, y’all.”

18. Arctic Monkeys: “Who the Fuck Are Arctic Monkeys”

Upon release, Arctic Monkeys’ 2006 debut album, Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, became the fastest selling British debut album of all-time, despite band members who were hardly 20-years-old. A bunch of scrappy lads from South Yorkshire were quickly thrust into the spotlight and not long after their debut LP, they released “Who The Fuck Are Arctic Monkeys,” a song detailing their cynicism towards fame and the music industry. Rather than go straight for the jugular of music execs, Alex Turner pointed a finger at bands who let the industry change them (“It’s not you, it’s them that are wrong / Tell ‘em to take out their tongues”), and he namechecked his own group to question whether they’d soon be discarded by the industry (“In five years time will it be / Who the fuck’s Arctic Monkeys?”).

17. Eminem: “The Real Slim Shady”

Eminem’s Slim Shady persona is one of the most prominent music alter egos, next to Ziggy Stardust, Sasha Fierce, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and uh, Hannah Montana. His single “The Real Slim Shady” from his 2000 album, The Marshall Mathers LP, remains a fan favorite, in part because of its humorous lyrical mouthfuls about Britney Spears, Burger King, Carson Daly, Viagra and Fred Durst. Eminem sings alongside an electro-meets-medieval keyboard riff, “Feminist women love Eminem / Chicka, chicka, chicka, Slim Shady, I’m sick of him.”

16. The Monks: “Monk Time”

The jolting rhythms and creepy organs of 1966’s Black Monk Time were striking on their own, but the album’s radical proclamations and jittery, maniacal vocal delivery also cemented its importance in the burgeoning proto-punk movement. The debut album from The Monks (five German-based American GIs) starts with a bang. On the thumping lead track “Monk Time,” they make a storming entrance (“You’re a monk, I’m a monk, we’re all monks! / Dave, Larry, Eddie, Roger, everybody, let’s go! / It’s beat time, it’s hop time, it’s monk time now!”) and don’t pull any punches (“You know we don’t like the army / What army? / Who cares what army? / Why do you kill all those kids over there in Vietnam?”).

15. Leonard Cohen: “Field Commander Cohen”

Leonard Cohen is one of music’s most-celebrated wordsmiths—and for good reason. His 1974 track “Field Commander Cohen” begins as a wartime commentary, but turns into a dramatic, affecting metaphor for the long-fought pursuit of love. Referring to himself as “Field Commander Cohen” in the opening line, he playfully switches between third and first person perspectives. In Cohen’s melancholy style and slightly grizzled voice, he paints rich vignettes of heartbreak, honor, destiny and intimacy (“Field Commander Cohen, he was our most important spy / Wounded in the line of duty”).

14. Belle and Sebastian: “This is Just a Modern Rock Song”

Belle and Sebastian’s 1998 non-album track “This is Just a Modern Rock Song” opens as an unremarkable—albeit beautiful—love song. After Stuart Murdoch sings about two love interests “Emma” and “Laura,” he passes lead vocal duties over to Stevie Jackson who turns the song into a self-deprecating commentary on the band (“We’re four boys in our corduroys / We’re not terrific but we’re competent / Stevie’s full of good intentions / Richard’s into rock ‘n’ roll / Stuart’s staying in, and he thinks it’s a sin”).

13. Big Daddy Kane: “Ain’t No Half Steppin’”

Former Juice Crew MC’s 1988 debut solo album, Long Live the Kane, contained one of hip-hop’s greatest tracks, “Ain’t No Half Steppin.’” Like most rappers, Big Daddy Kane is no stranger to the self-namedrop, and he dishes out some feisty putdowns and clever internal rhymes (“The B-I-G D-A-double D-why K-A-N-E / Dramatic, Asiatic, not like many / I’m different, so don’t compare me to another / ‘Cause they can’t hang, word to the mother”). The final passage is practically Shakespearean prose masquerading as hip-hop lyrics—that is if Shakespeare was the dopest MC in Stratford-upon-Avon (“Just give yourself a break, or someone else will take / Your title, namely me, cause I’m homicidal / That means murder, cause I’m about to hurt a- / Nother MC, that try to get with me / I’ll just break him and bake him and rake him / And take him and mold him and make him / Hold up the peace sign / Assalam Walaikum!”).

12. Wilco: “Wilco (The Song)”

It’s only fitting that Wilco (The Album) has a song titled “Wilco (The Song).” Taken from their 2009 seventh studio album, “Wilco (The Song)” opens the LP with a nice melodic stroll, and Jeff Tweedy lays out the emotional symptoms that his band’s music can potentially cure. Some of the rhetorical questions that Tweedy poses include: “Are times getting tough? / Are the roads you travel rough? / Have you had enough of the old? / Tired of being exposed to the cold?” Then the cheery, jigging piano and guitar lines briefly subside for Tweedy to benevolently reassure his listeners, “Wilco, Wilco, Wilco will love you, baby.”

11. Slowdive: “Slowdive”

Slowdive hadn’t yet come into their own on their debut album, Just For a Day, but there were glimmers of promise on tracks like “Slowdive.” Despite the lyrical simplicity of “Slowdive,” there’s a poignant beauty and numinous quality to it that pairs effortlessly with their wispy vocals and flurries of distorted guitar. Rachel Goswell and Neil Halstead’s gentle vocals blend as they describe a heavenly, solemn escape (“Slow dive, you can’t touch me now”). It’s not so much a chest-puffing manifesto or theme song as it is a bittersweet, disorienting shoegaze tune that happens to self-namecheck one of the genre’s undisputed best groups.

10. N.W.A.: “Straight Outta Compton”

The title track from N.W.A.’s 1988 Straight Outta Compton embodies the bold, provocative nature of West Coast hip-hop, and it’s the kind of song that makes parents and the FCC clutch their pearls—and apparently it worked since N.W.A. were banned by many radio stations in the ’80s. Ice Cube’s opening verse needs no introduction (“Crazy motherfucker named Ice Cube / From the gang called N***** With Attitudes”), and it foreshadowed the album’s fiery next track “Fuck Tha Police” (“See, I don’t give a fuck, that’s the problem / I see a motherfuckin’ cop I don’t dodge him”).

9. The Supremes: “Back In My Arms Again”

“Back In My Arms Again” marked the fifth consecutive number one single for The Supremes, and it’s no wonder given their penchant for elegant, lovesick pop songs that make the world feel a bit more pure. Though “Back In My Arms Again” was written by the songwriting and production team Holland-Dozier-Holland (as were their previous four number ones), the song sees Diana Ross take a subtle dig at the romantic advice of backing vocalists Florence Ballard and Mary Wilson (“How can Mary tell me what to do / When she lost her love so true? / And Flo, she don’t know / ‘Cause the boy she loves is a Romeo”).

8. Chic: “Le Freak”

When you think of disco-funk, it’s hard not to think of Chic and one track in particular, “Le Freak.” Capturing the glitz of Manhattan’s disco hot-spot Studio 54, “Le Freak” boasts one of the most irresistible singalong choruses (“Le freak, c’est chic / Freak out”). Though according to Nile Rogers, the original lyric was “Fuck off,” which turned into “Freak off” due to radio sensors, which then turned into “Freak out” because they thought “Freak off” sounded terrible. Thankfully they settled on the word “freak,” the name of a dance Rogers had been hearing about and the perfect rhyme with Chic.

7. The Beatles: “Glass Onion”

By 1968, The Beatles were well-aware of the mythologies and conspiracies surrounding their group, and on their White Album cut “Glass Onion,” they decided to let their fans’ minds run wild. In the opening line, John Lennon sings about “Strawberry Fields, ” a nod to their 1967 single “Strawberry Fields Forever,” though the subsequent song references are much more subtle. Lennon sings, “Here’s another place you can go / Where everything flows,” while on their 1963 song “There’s a Place,” the group sings, “There’s a place where I can go / When I feel low.” There are also lyrics about walruses (“I Am The Walrus”), and they mention entire Beatles’ song titles—“Lady Madonna,” “The Fool on the Hill” and “Fixing a Hole.” The “Glass Onion” title is perfect—the band built layers of lyrical mystique despite crystal clear intentions.

6. Talk Talk: “Talk Talk”

“Talk Talk,” the second single from Talk Talk’s 1982 debut album, The Party’s Over, is technically not a self-reference given that Mark Hollis had written it long before the existence of the band (he recorded it as “Talk Talk Talk Talk” with his previous band The Reaction), but the song is far too infectious to prevent its inclusion on this list. Its spacey New Wave synths, throbbing beats and danceable grooves coalesce around Mark Hollis’ theatrical chorus vocals, which address someone who cheated him with a biting charm (“All you do to me is talk, talk / Talk, talk, talk, talk”).

5. Nas: “Nas Is Like”

“Nas Is Like” from the New York MC’s third album, I Am… (which turned 20 last week), is the perfect encapsulation of his conversational rapping style, gripping lyrical ability and intriguing production. Backed by spliced strings and scratched vocal samples, Nas delivers slick brags (“Heaven and hell, rap legend, presence is felt / And of course N-A-S are the letters that spell / NAS, NAS”) and vivid tales from the streets (“Ask me now, I’m the artist, but hardcore, my science for pain / I spent time in the game, kept my mind on fame / Saw fiends shoot up, and do lines of cocaine / Saw my close friends shot, flat-line am I sane?”).

4. Public Image Ltd: “Public Image”

After The Sex Pistols self-destructed in 1978, John Lydon wasted no time putting out a record of his own with Public Image Ltd later that year. “Public Image,” the lone single from Public Image Ltd’s debut LP, First Issue, addressed one of the reasons the Pistols imploded. Lydon felt like the band didn’t care about his lyrics or opinion—they only viewed him as a punk prop. With a hint of his trademark brattyness, Lydon injected some humor into the story (“You never listened to a word that I said / You only seen me from the clothes that I wear / Or did the interest go so much deeper / It must have been to the color of my hair”) and reintroduced himself to the world (“Public image you got what you wanted / The public image belongs to me / It’s my entrance my own creation / My grand finale, my goodbye”).

3. The Monkees: “(Theme From) The Monkees”

For better or worse, The Monkees helped clear the path for the modern-day boy band. They went from a kooky, manufactured, made-for-TV band to a critically-respected group that took back the reins of their musical career, and in both cases, they inspired a generation of kids. The theme song for their hit ’60s situational comedy is a timeless, sunny pop/rock tune, and even the snootiest music listeners can’t prevent it from invading their pleasure centers (“Hey, hey, we’re the Monkees / And people say we monkey around / But we’re too busy singing / To put anybody down”).

2. The Notorious B.I.G.: “Hypnotize”

“Hypnotize” was the final song released by seminal rapper The Notorious B.I.G. before he was killed in a drive-by shooting, just days after the release of his 1997 album Life After Death. Biggie’s commanding presence despite his calm and cool flow was staggering, and though the song’s famed chorus (“Biggie Biggie Biggie can’t you see / Sometimes your words just hypnotize me”) isn’t sung by the man himself, he does refer to himself in the first verse (“Dead right, if the head right, Biggie there ery’night”). This booming gangster rap cornerstone has stood the test of time—its 2014 remastered version boasts an astounding 300 million Spotify streams.

1. Art Brut: “Formed A Band”

“Formed A Band,” the debut single from German-English rockers Art Brut (coincidentally released the same month as The Hold Steady’s “Positive Jam”) is postmodernism at its finest. Lead vocalist Eddie Argos speaks plainly with dry humor, “Stop buying your albums from the supermarket / They only sell records that have charted, and Art Brut, we’ve only just started / And yes, this is my singing voice, it’s not irony, it’s not rock ‘n’ roll.” Beyond that obvious self-referential quip, they display an immense self awareness—a key tenet of postmodernism. Calls to change the world with rock ‘n’ roll are met with eye rolls—often rightly so—but Art Brut are in on the joke when they sing, “We’re gonna be the band that writes the song that makes Israel and Palestine get along / We’re gonna write a song as universal as happy birthday.”

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