The greatest songwriters are able to craft timeless pop songs that feature more than just hummable melodies and catchy hooks; they also tell a story. In fact, when done well, these songs create iconic characters that become as enduring as those from popular sitcoms or movies. The following tell the tales of the mostly-fictitious people we’ll never forget, partly because their names are right there in the song title.
10. Cecilia – Simon & Garfunkel, “Cecilia”
Less cryptic than the duo’s “Mrs. Robinson,” this is a pretty straightforward tale of a couple being off-and-on. Think of it as a more exuberant, and less crappy, version of Katy Perry’s “Hot and Cold.” Cecilia starts off as a love interest, then becomes an unrequited ex-lover. Finally, in one of the happiest endings Simon or Garfunkel would ever sing, transforms into a legitimate companion once again.
Although this story seems like a simple one, there is some mystery lurking around the edges. For example, why did Cecilia leave the narrator in the first place? Was he unfaithful? Was she unfaithful? When Paul Simon sings the line “When I come back to bed, someone’s taken my place,” should that be taken literally? Did he catch her in the act of cheating? Or is it merely a metaphorical reference to being replaced as her suitor? And finally, why did they get back together? Did one of them apologize? Did they just kind of trip and fall into each other on the sidewalk, and decide to get back to creating some afternoon delight?
If any character deserves an explanatory sequel, it’s Cecilia.
9. Rosealia – Better Than Ezra, “Rosealia”
In one of the most bluntly honest and accurate depictions of domestic violence ever put into a pop song, “Rosealia” tries to understand a woman who refuses to leave her abusive partner. Why would someone commit to such a destructive relationship? There’s no clear answer to be found (as is true in real life,) but the chorus expertly depicts Rosealia’s strange dedication to her despicable man:
“You say no, no, no, the fighting has left you tired / You say no, no, no but the fighting goes on / Put on your mask, wearing your cape / Put on your mask, my Rosealia”
She doesn’t want this. But she wouldn’t know what to do without it. So, for now, she acts like everything’s okay, though the story behind closed doors is a much sadder one.
8. Johnny B. Goode – Chuck Berry, “Johnny B. Goode”
It’s no coincidence that one of the first songs to popularize fast-paced, technical guitar playing, was written about a guitar player. Johnny B. Goode is basically a stand-in for Chuck Berry, probably to subvert the idea that Berry was a raving narcissist, though the song was originally conceived as a tribute to his former pianist. In any case, Johnny B. Goode is now synonymous with guitar virtuosos, his name helping launch an entirely new style of rock n’ roll.
He’s appeared as the main character in several other Chuck Berry tunes, developing his life story along the way. “Go Go Go,” which makes more obvious allusions to Berry, sees Johnny becoming a worldwide phenomenon, making all the girls crazy with his “duck walkin'” ways. And in “Bye Bye Johnny” he ditches music for a stab at acting, a move which naturally turns him into an even greater success. Johnny B. Goode is undoubtedly the most Mary Sue character ever sung about, but how can you argue with his greatness?
7. Mr. Jones – Counting Crows, “Mr. Jones”
By writing a heartfelt song about the intersection of dreams, realities, passion, and loneliness, Adam Durwitz created an ode for listeners who were facing crippling timidity, and felt like losers. He told them that he knew what they were feeling. Which is nice, sure. But by having this second guy, Mr. Jones (in reality, his friend Marty Jones), jointly commiserating these feelings, Durwitz is telling people there is probably someone very close to them — like, physically very close in proximity — who also feels those things. So go out, find that person, drink with them at a dive bar, and work on winning over your very own black-haired Flamenco dancer!
Unlike most of the Counting Crows songs that would follow, this actually seems to have a pretty significant silver lining. All thanks to Mr. Jones.
6. Jenny – Tommy Tutone, “Jenny (867-5309)”
She’s the lady who forever made 867-5309 an undesirable phone number. Retrieved from the bathroom wall of a presumably sketchy establishment, that phone number is literally the only piece of information we know about Jenny. Maybe the narrator knows something we don’t; perhaps the scratching in the wall went on to note how much she enjoys French cuisine or that she owns several cats. But if he does, he never reveals any of that information to us. Which makes this the most baffling expression of affection ever.
5. Caroline – Neil Diamond, “Sweet Caroline”
No fictional character has ever been serenaded by so many drunken people inside of a karaoke bar. Ever. There’s nothing unusual about the love story being told here and, in fact, we know very little about Neil’s love interest. She’s sweet, of course, but what makes her so sweet? If you’ve ever stopped to follow what all those drunken people are screeching about, it seems like Caroline might be Neil Diamond’s first real love. Talking about the good times that came from being with his new girl, he sings, “I’ve been inclined to believe they never would.” He didn’t think love could feel so good so good, until Caroline came along and proved him wrong.
Good for you, Caroline. And good for you, Neil, for finding such a special gal.
4. St. Jimmy – Green Day, “St. Jimmy”
In their grandiose rock opera / concept album American Idiot, Green Day tells the story of Jesus of Suburbia, a character created very much in lead singer Billie Joe Armstrong’s own image. This makes him incredibly uninteresting. So, after tolerating several songs about our main character’s agonizing and misunderstood youth, it’s refreshing to move past all that angst with a shot of life from St. Jimmy, a punk rock freedom fighter who’s just as wild and crazy as anyone from the movie Trainspotting.
“The product of war and fear,” the “son of a gun and Edgar Allen Poe,” Jimmy is the embodiment of everything the main character wants to be. This man’s life is no bore; it’s chalk full of anarchy. Outside of his title song — which is more or less a character study delivered in bursts of excited aphorisms — St. Jimmy operates as the main character’s guide to self-destruction. Various songs cast Jimmy as a drug pusher (“Give Me Novocaine”), the personification of his father’s anger issues (“Letterbomb,”) and, perhaps most profoundly, the unencumbered, ultimately suicidal, side of our main character’s own personality (“Homecoming”.) Who exactly St. Jimmy is remains open to interpretation by the end of the album, which helps him live on as a mythical figure.
3. Leroy Brown – Jim Croce, “Bad, Bad, Leroy Brown”
You might know him as a more frightening successor to King Kong. You might know him as the man who puts junkyard dogs in their place. But everyone knows that he’s a bad, bad man. Here’s a guy who walks around with a gun in his pocket, and a razor in his shoe, and still manages to attract all the ladies. Talk about a man’s man.
The biggest lesson Leroy Brown teaches us though, is that no matter how bad you think you are, there’s always someone out there just a little but tougher. What most people tend to forget about Leroy, is that he gets a solid whoopin’ at the end of the song when he tries to hit on a married woman. As it turns out, jealous rage trumps general “badness” every time.
2. Eleanor Rigby – The Beatles, “Eleanor Rigby”
In the entire Beatles catalog, there are more than a dozen characters who’ve received their own odes. None of their stories are as depressing as Eleanor’s. She’s a lonely, presumably older lady, who hangs around wedding ceremonies after everyone has left. She gets dressed up every day, but doesn’t leave her home. She has no children, and no siblings. And when she dies, no one attends her funeral. No one. Not a single person. Is there a more depressing end to someone’s life story? If so, I’m not sure I want to hear it.
1. Bobby McGee – Kris Kristofferson, “Me and Bobby McGee”
Oh Bobby. You probably don’t even know it, but you went ahead and started a cultural revolution. We all know the famous line from the chorus to “Me and Bobby McGee”: “freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose.” But how many of us pay attention to the tragic love story at its center?
Kris and Bobby had a special kind of affection for each other, built on the search for their individual places in life. It just so happened that the two of them were able to do most of their searching together. As Kris tells us, their souls were intertwined as long as they were walking down the same path, but once that fork in the road came and they had to go their separate ways, Kris left a little bit of his soul with Bobby. And Bobby didn’t reciprocate. So poor Kris was left shouting her name into the wind.
Nothin’ left to lose, indeed.
Jacob Trowbridge often writes very snarky things on his blog, Letters to My Coworkers, Whom I Hate.