What’s It Like to Inspire a Song?


There are some songs whose lyrics so satiate our psyche that they seem almost innate. The crowds raise their drinks and roar to the choir in a pub at 2 a.m. Well, maybe not that, at least not now.

But what if that song that seems to be playing all over the place has an eerie response? What if this song is actually about you?

Songs named after people have long been part of the pop culture landscape: Dolly Parton’s Jolene, the elusive Lola who was dropped by the Kinks, the mysterious Roxanne (Sting, Arizona Zervas). Taylor Swift’s new album “Evermore” contains two tracks named after women. “Marjorie” appears to be inspired by Mrs. Swift’s grandmother. The other, “Dorothea”, brought the internet to life with debates about its inspiration.

All of this is very familiar to Valerie Star, a makeup artist. In 2006, Dave McCabe, with whom she had a brief date, wrote an indie rock song about their relationship. Their intoxicating romance was cut short when Ms. Star was arrested for driving under the influence, and Mr. McCabe’s musical homage served as a kind of wistful love letter.

Played by Mr. McCabe’s band The Zutons, the song reached number 9 in the UK charts. Without the interest of Amy Winehouse, who recorded a version of “Valerie” with Mark Ronson, it might have been forgotten. The rest is a story written in endless covers and karaoke renditions at one time.

“That’s when I really started hearing the song happen to be in films and commercials. It’s everywhere, ”said Ms. Star in an interview. “It was a brilliant song and I loved everything about it. It described that moment in my life and the trials and difficulties I had gone through in the most typical way. I would never change the reasons why this song happened, the things that got me into this situation, or anything about Dave and me. “

Like the Zutons, whose other almost successful track was “Oh Stacey (Look What You Did),” Ms. Swift has mentioned names many times in her lyrics. It was speculated that “Betty” was Karlie Kloss (whose middle name is Elizabeth) and Rebekah Harkness (who is alleged to have used Betty as a nickname) before Ms. Swift finally confirmed that the song was named after Blake Lively and Ryan Reynolds’ youngest daughter .

And who could forget the hit single “Style” supposedly based on Ms. Swift’s romance with Harry Styles? Or her back catalog classic “Hey Stephen,” a song inspired by Ms. Swift’s teenage crush?

The identity of the woman Ms. Swift sings about in her latest recording may never be revealed, if she exists at all, but if she does then Sharona Alperin, the subject of the 1979 hit “My Sharona,” may have convey some wisdom.

Ms. Alperin was introduced to The Knack singer Doug Fieger by his then-girlfriend while she was working in a clothing store, and invited to hear the band play in a rehearsal room. “Shortly after he met me, he took me to lunch and told me he was in love with me,” she said. “I thought it was cute, but he was 11 years older and I had a boyfriend at the time who I was totally in love with.”

Eventually, Mr. Fieger won Mrs. Alperin after writing the catchy bass track about her. She spent her late teens traveling the world with him, with the song she asks to “give me some time” the highlight of every show.

“It played everywhere I went,” recalled Ms. Alperin. “It was in the elevator, it was in the dentist, it was on the plane, in the market, played by every top 40 band. It was everywhere. It was exciting and it was everything. “

And then when she was 21 it was enough.

“When we parted, it was time to be my Sharona,” said Ms. Alperin. “The word ‘mine’ in this song says a lot. There is no more possessive or obsessive word in the English vocabulary. He thought I was his soulmate, his other half, but it was a lot. “

While many were enthusiastic about the love song “Hey There Delilah” by Plain White T from 2006, the real Delilah DiCrescenzo was a little less. Ms. DiCrescenzo was living in New York City at the time – as plaintively tortured in the opening lines – and she reported being stunned when a brief encounter resulted in her being checked by name. In a 2013 interview, she recalled fears that she had carried on with songwriter Tom Higgenson, felt the pressure to live up to fan expectations, and worried about the impact on her young athletic career.

And these women were written about before social media really took off. The online excitement of uncovering the identity of Beyoncé’s “Becky with the good hair” framed as the singer’s rival in “Sorry” on “Lemonade” reflects how an era of diminished privacy means that a song’s subject is now can be much more invasive.

“‘My Sharona’ was written before social media,” said Ms. Alperin. “Things are very different now, and I feel like I would not have had the privacy I have now if it had been written today.”

In fact, Ms. Star managed to keep her identity a secret until 2019 when she was tracked down by Vice. But even though she said that she has now removed “Valerie” from her playlists and avoids connecting to the song on the first date, especially with other musicians, she doesn’t regret what she called “a part of my life”. In a moment that has happened and will live forever, ‘Valerie’ set a mark that has now taken on a life of its own. I wouldn’t change that. “

Ms. Alperin, a Los Angeles real estate agent, said that if she introduces herself, without realizing she is the inspiration, people will sing the song for her and ask for pictures while she does house tours.

“There are good days and bad days,” she said. “I’ve never gone a week without people singing ‘My Sharona’ to me. It was with me all these years and it would never do me good to feel anything other than gratitude and humility about it. It’s nice to bring excitement to people and it’s a special thing in my life. I appreciate the wonderful experience it had. “

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