Mini music genres: Famous exes

I like finding tiny musical genres: a few tracks that have something really specific in common. Not a broad theme like “Songs about London” but something more focused. So I thought I’d share them here, because you might have more suggestions for some of them. The first one is…

Famous exes

UPDATED with new songs, 2 July 2014 and 14 January 2018

I’ve come across a few songs from the point of view of someone whose once-girl/boyfriend is now a famous star. It’s a nice twist on longing for a past love.

Fountains of Wayne — Hackensack (2003)

I used to know you when we were young
You were in all my dreams
We sat together in period one
Fridays at 8:15
Now I see your face in the strangest places
Movies and magazines
I saw you talkin’ to Christopher Walken
On my TV screen

I find this one a little mawkish, and some of those rhymes (talkin’ / Walken !) are way too neat. But so long as I can get past that, this is like a straight-up exemplar of the mini genre.

Thomas Dolby — Europa and the Pirate Twins (1981)

Nine years after, who’d I see
On the cover of a magazine?
Buy her singles and see all her films
Paste her pictures on my windowsill
But that’s not quite the same — It isn’t, is it?
Europa my old friend…

The video’s endearingly daft, but I love this one so much. British internationalist synth-pop retro-future romanticism. Oh, the longing.

Eleven years later, Thomas Dolby recorded a sequel to Europa, with an update to her story after the fall of the Iron Curtain…

Thomas Dolby — Eastern Bloc (1992)

And last night I swear I saw her face
As they stormed the gates of satellite TV (“Europa”)
Too bad I don’t get News At Ten
‘Cause the CNN would tell a different story

I find post-80s Thomas Dolby a bit odd, and sometimes can’t even decide if I like it or not. (Mostly: yes.) But I adore the idea of a song’s narrative being picked up a decade later, Before Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight style. Extra doomed-romanticism points for Mr Dolby.

Emmy the Great — Two Steps Forward (2009)

…the time’s already gone
When people were just people not the jobs that they perform,
Our songs were just a thing we did with melodies and chords,
Now you’re available in all good record stores.
But I knew you best, back when love was just a feeling
That ran out between my legs onto the back of my dress
Onto the clothes that I was wearing.

This is vaguer, murkier, and it’s not entirely clear what relationship these two had back then. I don’t know what to say; sometimes Emmy the Great stops me in my tracks.

The Human League — Don’t You Want Me (1981)

You were working as a waitress in a cocktail bar
When I met you
I picked you out, I shook you up
And turned you around
Turned you into someone new
Now five years later on you’ve got the world at your feet
Success has been so easy for you
But don’t forget it’s me who put you where you are now
And I can put you back down too.

I hesitated about whether this quite fits the mini genre. The song’s not specific about exactly how much, or even what kind, of success Phil Oakey’s ex has achieved. Maybe she simply runs her own cocktail bar now. Who knows? For the purposes of this exercise we’ll assume she’s now an internationally famous superstar. Either way, it’s clear she’s moved on, has left Phil behind, and he’s not too happy about it.

That was all I came up with myself, but within a day I had a bunch of new examples…

Reel Big Fish — She’s Famous Now (2013)

You won’t believe it but don’t you want to know
I let her go but I can’t let her go
I don’t wanna hear it

I’m singin’ too high tonight, I’m gonna lose my voice
I heard her on the radio don’t want to sing along
But I’ve got no choice

She used to be my girl but now she’s famous

He’s obviously not entirely pleased to have let this salad-eating, mumps-suffering woman go. Thanks to Alice Bartlett for this one.

The Beatles — Honey Pie (1968)

You became a legend
Of the silver screen
And now the thought of meeting you
Makes me weak in the knee

Oh, Honey Pie
You are driving me frantic
Sail across the Atlantic
To be where you belong
Honey Pie, come back to me

The oldest track here and a fine example of the mini genre. All rather cheerfully music hall, rather than letting silly un-British emotions get in the way. Thanks to me ol’ pal Ted Mills for that.

Peter Sarstedt — Where Do You Go To (My Lovely)? (1969)

I remember the back streets of Naples
Two children begging in rags
Both touched with a burning ambition
To shake off their lowly-borne tags, they try

So look into my face Marie-Claire
And remember just who you are
Then go and forget me forever
But I know you still bear
the scar, deep inside, yes you do

For most of this song it sounds, to me, like a stalker who knows way too much about a woman and wants “to look inside your head”. It’s only when it gets to the final verses, above, that the background becomes clear. Oddly, the Right Said Fred cover version from 2006, which is otherwise surprisingly faithful, omits these final, revealing, verses. Hmm.

[Apparently]( the song’s not about anyone specific, or else Sarstedt either wrote it about a girl he fell in love with in Vienna who died in a hotel fire. Thanks to TV’s Dave Green for this sad number.

J. Geils Band — Centerfold (1981)

Years go by
I’m lookin’ through a girly magazine
And there’s my homeroom Angel
On the pages in between

My blood runs cold
My memory has just been sold
My Angel is the centerfold

“The real micro genre classic” as Dave Green (again) put it. This time, the singer, Peter Wolf, is both surprised, dismayed and turned on when he discovers the sweet girl he once dreamed of talking to at school is now famous.

There are a few other songs which, for various reasons, don’t quite fit into this mini genre.

The one that sprang to mind for me is The Model by Kraftwerk, although it’s only the final line of which (“Now she’s a big success, I want to meet her again”) that suggests maybe the singer once knew, or at least met, the woman.

Dave was dismissive about Sk8er Boi by Avril Lavigne, and rightly so… but mainly because it’s written from the wrong point of view — by the woman who ends up with the guy who becomes famous, singing about the girl who once dismissed him (“Sorry girl, but you missed out, well tough luck, that boy’s mine now.”)

And finally, another suggestion from Dave, You’re So Vain by Carly Simon, which would be a perfect fit except while the mystery man she’s singing about is successful (“You flew your Learjet up to Nova Scotia to see the total eclipse of the sun”) it’s not at all clear that he’s famous. And that’s what this mini genre is all about.

UPDATE 2, 14 January 2018: Dave came up with another good example

Charley Pride — Crystal Chandelier (1967):

I see your picture in the news most every day
You’re the chosen girl of the social world so the stories say
But a paper smile only lasts a while then it fades away
And the love we knew will come home to you some day

Original sung by Carl Belew in 1965, more at Wikipedia.

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1 Jul 2014 at Twitter

  • 9:23pm: @paulpod “2022 sees the launch of NNISAFUTOs, or New New ISAs Final Use This One…”
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  • 10:43am: Many thanks Colin Ford, Head of HMRC’s SME Education. Maybe you could try taking a hint. Jesus.
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