[INTRODUCTION TO BETWEEN THE LINES: OK, books, right? Music, right? Musicians writing songs about books, right? Those songs are the best kind because they pander to those of us who like both. This may be the hands-down nerdiest thing I will ever have to say, but: I’m always so, so satisfied with myself when I pick up on a literary allusion in a song. I’ll always remember finally getting the Nathaniel Hawthorne Scarlet Letter reference in the Music Man soundtrack’s “The Sadder But Wiser Girl” on yet another never-ending family roadtrip. I excitedly announced my epiphany to the entire car, especially exalted because I had finally beaten my English professor father to understanding some reference of literary merit for the first (and, for all I knew, last) time in my long 15 years of life. I have since managed to make a few more such song-to-book connections, and have come to see literary allusions by musicians as secret high-fives between artist and listener—it’s like we have our own inside joke, isn’t it? And just like everybody loves puppies and winning, everybody loves inside jokes—there’s an eternal satisfaction, even a vindication in being able to pick apart a song and trace it back to the pages of your favorite books. So I thought I’d write a column about these songs. And no, not about this song, though it does fit the category, even a little too well.]
1. “White Rabbit” – Jefferson Airplane
Inspired by: Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
Musicians LOVE Alice in Wonderland. Seriously, they can’t get enough of this book: from Gwen Stefani to Conor Oberst, everybody is still talking about this crazy 19th century guy’s drug dreams. Maybe it’s the only book everybody read and connected to in school before we stopped doing class reading and relied exclusively on Sparknotes? In any case, the best Alice-inspired song is hands-down the languid, fuzzy, pulsing, equally druggy Jefferson Airplane jam “White Rabbit.”
Grace Slick, lead singer of the band (and resident coolest person ca. 1967) said in a later interview that the song was intended to send the message of incredulousness to parents who were surprised that their children grew up to take drugs (honestly, why was ANYBODY surprised by drugs at all in the 1960’s) when they had instilled in them a novel like Alice in Wonderland throughout childhood. Slick’s main point of contention is of course that the novel features as its protagonist a child who partakes in several psychadelic drug trips. While this may be the case, and little Gracie was merely indirectly pouting at Momma Slick via song (“GOD MOM you started it”), much of “White Rabbit’s” lyrics actually parallel the significantly more intellectual and even politically relevant metamessage of Alice in Wonderland itself. Even if some references are factually incorrect (it was, in fact, the Queen of Hearts who said “off with her head!”), the story of Alice’s journey of self-determination and struggles with authority and logic come through clearly in the song. In the end, be it by accident or the band’s design, “White Rabbit’s” multi-layered messages did serve at least one solid purpose: getting a song about drugs a whole lot of uncensored radio play. Well done, Gracie & Co. “Feed your head,” indeed.
(preview for next week: Leonard Cohen’s masterpiece in thought-crime and the Bible, “Suzanne.”)
– Fiona Hanly, host of SWEET’n’FLO, Thursdays 8-9am