It’s been a busy year for Bruce Springsteen. In March, he released Wrecking Ball, his seventeenth studio album and tenth release to top the Billboard 200, and after packing in arenas across America throughout the spring, he took the E Street Band to Europe. His name is also in a top-40 entry on the Hot 100 for the first time in over a decade—but the funny thing is, the song’s not his. Eric Church’s “Springsteen” sits on the chart this week at No. 19, which was coincidentally also the peak position for Bruce’s last pop hit, the Jerry Maguire-spawned ballad “Secret Garden,” in 1997.
“Springsteen,” a wistful midtempo number with lyrical nods to The Boss’s classics “I’m On Fire” and “Born To Run,” is North Carolina country star Eric Church’s biggest Hot 100 hit to date. It also peaked at No. 3 on the Country Songs chart and is the third single from his third album, Chief, which topped the Billboard 200 last summer. It’s a quiet, subtle song, and something of an unlikely crossover hit, aside from the fact that it pays tribute to such a famous singer. This isn’t the first time a top 40 hit has been named for Springsteen, though—Rick Springfield got to No. 27 with “Bruce,” a playful track about how irked he was when confused with a bigger star with a similar last name.
Over the past decade there’s been a resurgence of appreciation for Springsteen, with homages from countless indie bands as well as hitmakers like The Killers and Lady Gaga, whose “The Edge of Glory” reached No. 3 last year and had a sax solo from Bruce’s late sideman Clarence Clemons. The state of The Boss’s current career, as a chart-topping albums artist and touring act with no real place on radio playlists, isn’t unique. (In April, my colleague Chris Molanphy outlined how Madonna is now essentially a classic rock act by paralleling her career arc with Springsteen’s.)
Springsteen isn’t the only rock icon who’s making a bigger Hot 100 impact as a muse than as a performer lately. Maroon 5 and Christina Aguilera’s “Moves Like Jagger” is one of the biggest hits of the past year; the tribute to Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger topped the Hot 100 for four non-consecutive weeks and went five times platinum. The Stones have, like Springsteen, remained a huge concert draw with consistently respectable album sales but a steadily declining presence on singles charts over the last few decades. The last of Stones’ many U.S. chart-toppers was 1978’s “Miss You,” while they haven’t touched the top 40 since 1989. Their last Hot 100 entry was a 2003 remix of “Sympathy For The Devil”; before that, they charted in 1998 with “Saint Of Me.” Shortly after “Moves Like Jagger,” Mick made a couple attempts at staying current with unlikely younger collaborators, but neither really stuck. Both singles from SuperHeavy, his group with Joss Stone and Damian Marley, missed the Hot 100, while the laughably awkward “T.H.E. (The Hardest Ever),” by will.i.am featuring Jagger and Jennifer Lopez, peaked at No. 36.
Eric Church, “Springsteen”
Of course, musicians are also music fans, and popular music has a rich history of artists paying tribute to peers and predecessors in song. Only some can be considered hits, and even fewer end up equaling or overshadowing the success of their subjects. Sometimes, they become generational touchstones for people that might not otherwise give the original artist much thought; for millions of ’80s babies, the words “Buddy Holly” probably bring to mind Weezer lyrics. (’90s rock was also full of snarky namechecks like Nerf Herder’s “Van Halen” and Local H’s “Eddie Vedder.”) Church’s hit, though not about a fellow country artist, fits nicely in the genre’s tradition of homages to other singers. Jason Aldean notched a hit in 2007 called “Johnny Cash”; Taylor Swift’s 2006 debut single “Tim McGraw” climbed to No. 40 on the Hot 100; in 2008, McGraw scored the hit “Kristofferson,” named for songwriting legend Kris Kristofferson; and in 2009 a young singer named Tyler Dean released a single called “Taylor Swift.”
Sometimes, cult artists with no real pop culture presence end up being paid tribute by a higher profile artist. The ’70s power pop heroes Big Star, led by singer Alex Chilton, never lived up their name, but when their ’80s disciples The Replacements started getting some attention from major labels and MTV, they named one of their best known singles “Alex Chilton.” But a bigger, more unlikely tribute was still to come: shortly after Chilton’s death in 2010, Katy Perry topped the charts with “California Gurls,” its spelling a nod to Big Star’s “September Gurls,” as suggested by Perry’s manager, a fan of Chilton. A few months ago, Perry namechecked a more famous alt-rock touchstone, Radiohead, in her single “The One That Got Away,” which reached No. 3 on the Hot 100 (Radiohead’s biggest hit, “Creep,” only peaked at No. 34).
Of course, no genre is more referential than hip-hop. But MCs mentioning each other in song usually come in two forms: a passing shoutout or punchline in a song not dedicated specifically to that artist, or diss tracks that put the subject in an unflattering light. You may occasionally get song-length homages, like Kanye West’s Jay-Z ode “Big Brother” or the Nas track “U.B.R. (Unauthorized Biography of Rakim),” but they’re rarely singles.
Lately, however, there’s been a wave of rappers with the habit of titling songs after other hip-hop artists, sometimes in earnest tribute, sometimes in a more ambiguously tongue-in-cheek way. Some of Rick Ross’s most popular recent songs include “MC Hammer” and “Tupac Back.” Walking memes Lil B and Riff Raff have countless songs titled after a seemingly random litany of rappers and other celebrities; Riff Raff even has a song called “Lil B.”
Some celebrities attempt to forge a musical career while ending up with a larger legacy as a subject of songs. Of the top 10 most popular results for the phrase “Paris Hilton” on Spotify, only half are from the hotel heiress’s 2006 album Paris. The other five are songs that namecheck Hilton—Maybeshewill’s “The Paris Hilton Sex Tape,” Vincent Gallo’s “I Wrote This Song For The Girl Paris Hilton,” Lil B’s “I’m Paris Hilton.” Another extremely famous young women who briefly flirted with pop stardom in the mid-’00s, Lindsay Lohan, seems less comfortable with her status as a lyrical reference. When Pitbull joked “I got it locked up like Lindsay Lohan” on his 2011 chart-topper “Give Me Everything,” Lohan filed a lawsuit alleging damages to her sterling reputation. It seems highly unlikely that she’d ever win such a case, but just imagine what kind of legal precedent would be set for future pop namechecks if she did.